Celebs You Didn't Know Were College Athletes

College athletes often master the balancing act of achieving academic success while excelling in their sports. This requires a great amount of discipline, so it's no surprise that many of these studious and sporty folks go on to pursue impressive careers in other fields after graduating, oftentimes using what they learned as college athletes to further their professional endeavors. According to NBC News' recap of a 2016 study conducted by the NCAA and Gallup, "Former college athletes are thriving" in certain areas in comparison with non-athletes, such as "social and physical well-being, as well as community engagement and goal achievement."

The late U.S. President George H.W. Bush, for example, played baseball and soccer while attending Yale. He was quite the competitor, too. After shifting his focus to baseball entirely, the future POTUS helped his team earn a spot in the College World Series twice. Speaking about his love for athletics in an interview with Forbes, Bush said, "Sports are good for the soul, good for life." Of course, he wasn't the only former college athlete who left a mark on the world. According to "Stephen Hawking: Physicist and Educator" by Bernard Ryan, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking also played sports while he attended school, joining Oxford's rowing team as a coxswain (via Hear The Boat Sing).

While some college athletes go on to become presidents or groundbreaking scientists, others go into entertainment. Yup, many of the celebrities we all know and love played sports in school. Did their history as athletes make them destined for showbiz greatness?

Jon Stewart

In the early '80s, comedian Jon Stewart attended college at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. While the chemistry-turned-psychology major decided to join the varsity soccer team during his freshman year, "The Problem with Jon Stewart" host's former soccer coach, Al Albert, explained to ESPN that he felt the junior varsity club team would be a better fit at first. 

"Actually, not many guys came out of that and ended up being good," Albert admitted, noting that Stewart was playing winger for the varsity team by his sophomore year. "I think the thing that people don't realize is Jon was a walk-on who ended up being a starter on a team as a senior that went to the NCAA tournament and lost to Bruce Arena's UVA team. He was a really good player." Stewart — better known at the time as Jon Leibowitz (or "Leibo" among his teammates) — would later lead "The Daily Show" staff in celebrity soccer tournaments, and is clearly much better on the field than demonstrated in a hilarious 2011 segment, in which he, uh, didn't exactly fare too well against members of the U.S. Women's World Cup team. 

His alma mater is clearly proud to name Stewart among its more notable alumni. In 2015, William & Mary Tribe Athletics tweeted out a throwback pic of the star in action. Prior to his rise to fame, the school even established The Leibo Award in Stewart's honor. "We decided to have an award for the guy that keeps everyone loose in the locker room, and that was Jon," Albert said.

Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson

Okay, the fact that Dwayne Johnson played sports in college admittedly isn't very surprising, but the former wrestler-turned-actor's sport of choice might be. The man also known as "The Rock" played for the University of Miami's football team in the early '90s. However, the multi-talented star's passion for football developed in high school, with Coach Jody Cwik mentoring him during his troubled teen years. "I fell in love with the game," Johnson told Sports Illustrated. "It was more than that, actually. It gave my life a purpose. Coach Cwik sat me down and said, 'Listen, your family doesn't have any money. Your grades are average. If you're going to get out of this town and make a different life for yourself, football is the vehicle.' ... That was a whole shift in my psychology."

The defensive tackle received numerous offers from "top programs," but chose to play for the Miami Hurricanes on a "full ride" scholarship, with the hopes of being drafted into the NFL. "He had tremendous get-off, he was strong, he could use his hands, he was tough as nails, and he worked his a** off," former defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said of Johnson's promising start as a freshman. "... I thought he had a chance to be an All-America." 

Unfortunately, shoulder and knee injuries would derail Johnson's college career, relegating him to playing backup. He wouldn't become the stuff of football legend, but with a shifted focus toward the WWE, Johnson's NFL "failure" ultimately resulted in success, as he is now one of Hollywood's highest-paid actors.

Uzo Aduba

Before Uzo Aduba of "Orange Is the New Black" landed her role as Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren in the hit Netflix series, she was breaking records as a track star at Boston University. The actor spoke about her time as a college athlete during an appearance on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," explaining, "I got to go to Boston University, fortunately enough, on a track scholarship." Aduba added, "I did [do theater there], I was in the program. ... I was actually doing opera there."

Like many athletes, Aduba found that the skills she acquired helped her in other aspects of life. "[Pursuing acting] was a tough road, but I think playing sports and the preparation of sometimes you win, sometimes you lose ... really prepared me for being out here to pursue this," she told the titular host.

According to Bostonia, Aduba excelled on the track team. She won Boston University's Aldo "Buff" Donelli Leadership Award for "outstanding leadership on and off the field." The star also broke a long-standing record when she ran 55 meters in 7.07 seconds. Outside of Aduba's impressive performance on the track, her former coach, Lesley Lehane, saw the talented athlete's potential in the arts. "I remember the very first team dinner before a big meet, when I asked her to sing because I knew she was a voice major," Lehane told Bostonia. The coach believed Aduba "really should've been singing in a concert hall."

Joel McHale

Joel McHale is most well-known for his role as Jeff Winger in "Community" and for hosting E!'s "The Soup." However, some fans may not know that the comedic actor played football at the University of Washington for a short time back in the early '90s. Speaking to Palm Beach Illustrated about the transition from football to acting in 2018, he jokingly said, "They are one in the same. Except, one requires more makeup and more head injuries — I'm referring to acting when it comes to the head injuries." 

McHale and a few of his former teammates had previously discussed with ESPN the star's days as a Washington Husky, with Ernie Conwell, who played tight end alongside McHale in college, saying, "He wasn't great, but he had everything he needed: desire and want-to. He was tough, he could catch the ball and he wasn't afraid to put his body on the line." For his part, McHale opened up about his less-than-ideal experience joining the team. "As a walk-on, you're friends with the other guys — but you don't have a scholarship so you kind of felt like you were members of the Dirty Dozen or the Bad News Bears," the actor told ESPN. 

Although he may not have been the Huskies' star player, McHale proved that he was passionate about his interests. According to Palm Beach Illustrated, the star also joined the university's Professional Actor Training Program while playing football, so it seems he was dedicated enough to find time for both commitments.

Channing Tatum

Although Channing Tatum found massive success as an actor, he struggled to find his footing during his younger years, per Vanity Fair. According to ESPN, the "Magic Mike" star was born in Alabama but lived in numerous southern states throughout his childhood, including Mississippi and Florida. He played multiple sports like track and football throughout high school and was even "voted most athletic" by classmates. Tatum's undeniable talent on the field eventually earned him a football scholarship at West Virginia's Glenville State College. The smalltown teen now had the opportunity to become a local football star while having his education paid for — a dream come true, right? Well, not for the future Hollywood star. 

It turns out football just wasn't right for him. "I just got tired of playing. I was only playing to keep that scholarship," Tatum told ESPN. "I was interested in other things and missing home." He eventually dropped out of college.

Everything worked out in the end, of course, because Tatum now has a highly successful acting career under his belt and an estimated $80 million net worth to his name. "It just seems that I have won the lottery now," he said during his ESPN interview. And it appears that Tatum is extremely grateful for where he is these days, as he added, "You can't get luckier than me."

Robin Roberts

Before TV broadcaster Robin Roberts made a name for herself in the world of journalism, she had dreams of becoming a sports star. "I wanted to be a professional athlete, but there's that little thing called ability," she quipped to the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2016. "I had the heart and the desire, but, after college, that was pretty much going to be it for me. But, I had already realized in high school my senior year that, you know what, I'm not going to make it to Wimbledon as a tennis player, but maybe I could get there as a broadcaster." 

Roberts previously attended college at Southeastern Louisiana University, where she played both tennis and basketball. According to Wonderwall, the broadcaster — who majored in communications and graduated in 1983 — became "her school's third all-time leading scorer and rebounder" by the time she left the basketball team. Rather than continuing to play the sport after college, she instead began looking into sports journalism. "I remember when ESPN came on the air, and I was, like, I'm going to work for ESPN one day," Roberts told the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. "People were, like, First of all, no, because you're a woman, and second of all, it's not going to be around that long." 

Roberts did eventually begin working for ESPN as a sportscaster in 1990. This job, of course, launched the successful career the longtime "Good Morning America" anchor has been able to maintain over the years.

2 Chainz

As rapper Tauheed "2 Chainz" Epps' high school basketball coach, James Gwyn, expressed to ESPN in 2012, the aspiring musician showed a lot of promise on the court during his teens. "He could shoot the 3, he could go inside. He played with a lot of confidence and could talk some trash," Gwyn said of 2 Chainz. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the rapper would go on to play the sport at Alabama State University between 1995 and 1997 after being recruited by Clayton Harris, who spoke with SB Nation's Mid-Major Madness two decades later about the potential he saw in 2 Chainz early on. 

"I first saw him play when I was up recruiting one of his teammates named Robert Jackson," Harris said. "His skill was unbelievable." Turns out, 2 Chainz's abilities resembled that of an NBA legend. "I know you're going to think I'm crazy, but he reminded me of George 'The Iceman' Gervin with his body type and the stuff he could do on the floor," Harris continued. "He was real slick."

However, it seems 2 Chainz didn't discover — or at least express — his passion for pursuing music until after college. Explaining why the Grammy-winning rapper's successful showbiz career was somewhat of a shock, Harris said, "He would sometimes sing at the gym [during practice]. But as far as pursuing it as a career, we had no idea he was interested in music." 

Ellie Kemper

Ellie Kemper's successful acting career has taken her far. She's starred in hit movies like "Bridesmaids" and "21 Jump Street," and even landed her own Netflix show called "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." Prior to becoming a household name on "The Office," however, the future star's background as a college athlete in the late '90s and early 2000s helped her realize sports just weren't for her — which is how she eventually discovered her passion for acting. 

According to She Roars at Princeton University, Kemper joined the prestigious school's field hockey team as a freshman, while majoring in English. But as her "My Squirrel Days" autobiography reveals, she wasn't exactly the greatest athlete. "Every single other freshman began to see playing time," Kemper recalled in the book (via Team USA). "Sometimes it was only for five or six minutes, but it spoke volumes to me. I was clearly the worst player on the team!" 

The actor went on to explain that she asked her coach for "some playing time," but was ultimately unsuccessful. Instead, Kemper switched tactics and got involved with the campus' musical theater and improv groups, respectively Triangle and Quipfire!, per She Roars. Despite her setbacks as a college athlete, Kemper was obviously able to reach her full comedic potential.

Terry Crews

Before Terry Crews was a famous actor and host on "America's Got Talent," he was a professional football player. Of course, Crews' career as a college athlete played an imperative role in his success in the NFL. The multi-hyphenate star played defensive end and linebacker for the Broncos at Western Michigan University in the late '80s, where his athletic talent earned him a full-ride scholarship. After college, 1991 saw Crews drafted during the 11th round of the NFL's draft. He first played for the Los Angeles Rams before signing with the San Diego Chargers, and then joining the team now known as the Washington Football Team, per NBC Los Angeles.

During a 2017 "Hot Ones" appearance for First We Feast, Crews revealed that he unfortunately had some bad experiences in the NFL. "I got a tryout with the 49ers [in 1997]. And they treated me so bad. I mean, they treated me like I was dirt," the "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" star said. He continued on about how this influenced his decision to abandon football altogether, recalling, "I remember coming home to my wife, and I said, 'Never again. Never again. I was so done.'" 

After leaving the NFL, the "White Chicks" star relocated to Los Angeles to pursue what obviously turned out to be a highly successful career in the entertainment industry. "That's thing I love about L.A.," Crews later told Surface magazine. "The vibe is super-creative. They will never tell you no ... because this is the land of dreamers. Here, it's okay to dream."

Emma Watson

"Harry Potter" fans might be shocked to find out Emma Watson is just as skilled with a field hockey stick as she is with a magic wand. Although the former child star's acting career was already off to an incredibly impressive start before she even graduated high school, Watson still decided to attend college. Not unlike her best-known character Hermione Granger, the actor's smarts earned her a spot at Brown University in Rhode Island, where she studied English literature between 2009 and 2014, and also played for the school's field hockey team at some point (though she isn't listed on the Bears' roster, so her tenure with the team is unclear).

In an interview with Rookie, Watson spoke about why she was drawn to the Ivy League school. "I really like the fact that it has a very open curriculum, that there aren't any requirements," she said. "Really, I've kind of been in charge of my own education since I started out on 'Potter' when I was 9 or 10, and I liked that I could design my own major if I wanted to, and I could take independent studies if I wanted to on subjects that weren't necessarily in the curriculum." 

It seems that Watson was intrigued by the university's extracurricular opportunities — in addition to playing for the Bears, she was also spotted cheering the team on in 2012. The star's love for the sport was still apparent years later, when she surprised students at a London elementary school with a field hockey game as part of a charity event in 2018.

Bradley Cooper

Bradley Cooper attended Washington D.C.'s Georgetown University after transferring from Villanova University in Pennsylvania in the mid-'90s. He was hesitant to switch schools because of the rivalry between the two institutions' basketball teams. It likely didn't help that Cooper's father was on the latter's basketball team when he was a student there. In the end, the aspiring actor-director didn't let the rivalry stop him from going to his dream school, and he seemingly has no regrets about the transition. "Everybody told me that I shouldn't go here [to the rival school], that I shouldn't be here ... [but] I had one of the most incredible experiences ... in my life," Cooper said during an appearance at the university, per Georgetown University's website.

The "A Star is Born" filmmaker followed in his dad's footsteps by deciding to get involved with sports while receiving his bachelor's degree in English and pursuing theater. Cooper joined Georgetown's rowing team and, according to his former coach's comments to Esquire in 2011, was a very memorable athlete. As one season came to a close, the star managed to convince the coach to let him participate in a major race despite not being as prepared as the other players, having just found his way back to the team after a long absence due to commitments to a theater production.

"There is a fierce, fierce, fierce fire in that guy," Cooper's former coach said of what turned out to be a loss that was "so close" to being a win, before continuing with, "That determination of his — nobody should ever underestimate that."

Leslie Jones

Comedian Leslie Jones was initially recruited to play basketball because of her height, when a junior high school basketball coach couldn't pass up the opportunity to have the six-feet-tall seventh grader join the team. Jones told ESPN about the moment she was scouted in the school hallway: "I remember I was coming down the stairs on my way to class, and Coach Simi saw me and yelled, 'Hey, come here!' And I was like, 'I'm in trouble.' And she asked, 'How tall are you?' And I said, 'I don't know.' And Coach Simi was like, 'You're tall enough to play basketball.'"

Jones went on to play basketball throughout high school and into college in the late '80s. With a basketball scholarship to her name, she began her career as a college athlete at Chapman University in Orange, California, but later transferred to Colorado State University. However, her time at the latter school came to an end when she decided to leave basketball behind for a career in comedy. "Back when I played, basketball was all about fundamentals, about hustling, getting those loose balls, all those rebounds under the basket," Jones told ESPN, before explaining how she's applied that same mentality to her stand-up comedy: "There is no such thing as getting anything easy. Trust and believe. Even if you're good at what you do, you still should be practicing." 

Jones, of course, knows what she's talking about, as she later landed a spot on "Saturday Night Live" at the age of 49 — making her the oldest comedian ever hired for the show.

Denzel Washington

Oscar winner Denzel Washington is known for his incredible acting, but the acclaimed actor was also once a talented college athlete. Back in the early '70s, Washington played on the junior varsity basketball team at Fordham University while pursuing his degree in drama and journalism. In 2013, former teammate Darryl Brown — who went on to be drafted by the Boston Celtics — spoke to ESPN about the star's skill level. "He played great defense, very quick, he had good hops, he was a slasher, he would drive hard to the basket," Brown said. "That's kind of the inner-city game." He also explained how Washington was able to make up for some of his weak spots: "He didn't have the best of shots, but he had all of that tenacity. You didn't want him to guard you, let me put it that way. He knew where his strengths were; he would just get in your jock and he wouldn't let you go."

Washington's basketball background even changed the outcome of a scene in "He Got Game," which features high school basketball player Jesus Shuttlesworth in a one-on-one game against his father (who is played by Washington). In the 1998 movie's script, Washington's character misses every shot, but actor Ray Allen revealed in 2018 how things didn't go as planned. "It was supposed to be 11-0," Allen explained to Yahoo! Entertainment. "But when we started playing, [Denzel] started shooting the ball, and the ball was going in." 

Clearly, Washington's basketball skills stuck with him long after he left Fordham.

Steve Carell

Boston native Steve Carell's love of hockey began when he started playing the sport as a child. The actor went on to play for Denison University in Ohio, where he studied pre-law, and talked about his four-year-long career as a college athlete in a 2013 interview with ESPN

"I was a goalie. At a certain point, you either have to commit to that as a potential career or let it become a fun hobby," Carell shared. "That happened in high school. I had to think about whether I was going to a Division I college hockey program and fight for a job of a goaltender or do something else. Instead, I went to a Division III school ... and played throughout college. It was for fun and not advancing myself." The actor seemingly had no regrets despite not being able to go pro after college. "It didn't go well clearly," Carell told CNN in 2014. "You know, you reach a point in your life when you have to get honest, and that wasn't going to happen. But I enjoyed it." 

Of course, Carell decided to pursue a career in Hollywood instead of the NHL, and it seems he made the right choice. He's still a hockey player, though, and even showed off his skating skills in a couple episodes of "The Office." Known for his longtime support of the Boston Bruins, Carell later joined a recreational team where he spends his free time enjoying the sport he loves, even quipping to CNN, "I am the LeBron James of rec-league hockey."