The Best Sports TV Characters
The television lineup on any given day is not exactly brimming with shows that feature memorable characters whose defining trait is sports related.
It seems the average television show rarely makes sports the central element of the plot, preferring to let sports stay comfortably within the confines of reality.
The best sports characters on television may get our love because their story is exciting or hilarious. Or the often their mark in pop culture because they remind us of an certain era or our own childhood.
From compelling to kitsch, here are some of best sports TV characters ever.
Coach Bill Fuller, Hangtime
Former NBA player Reggie Theus has forged a very successful path for himself since retiring from the game in 1992. Initially he worked as an analyst and later became one of the original panelists of the The Best Damn Sports Show Period.
Eventually he was drawn back to the game via coaching, which is what Theus has now been doing for over a decade.
Clearly his calling is in hoops, but for awhile there Theus came down with the acting bug. His most prominent role was as Bill Fuller, the surprisingly likable basketball coach on the 90s teen sitcom Hang Time.
Like most of the cast, which was basically a quickly revolving door, he only lasted through the first three seasons of the show.
But for a show aimed at a very young audience, Coach Fuller stood out as a capable and respected authority figure, rather than the usual maniacal dictator or bumbling buffoon adults were often portrayed as.
Pee Wee's Exercise Belt
If you grew up in the 80s, the off-the-wall, over-the-top, out of control Pee-wee's Playhouse was a Saturday staple. The show featured dozens of human and puppet character regulars, not to mention an impressive slate of celebrity guest stars.
Cowboy Curtis, Chairry, and Mr. Window were featured more regularly than most.
Of the many less prominent characters in the show was Exercise Belt, an underutilized gem of a character that allowed me to include Pee-wee's Playhouse in this slideshow.
Exercise Belt was an unpredictable vintage vibrating exercise machine that would routinely malfunction, with the user requiring the assistance of trusty Conky to help them out of a pickle.
Exercise Belt malfunctioned more times than not.
Kristy Barnes, Saved by the Bell
If you weren't a proud Saved by the Bell devotee growing up, this one may be a little bit obscure considering she only appeared on one episode.
And for that, I apologize.
Mostly I'm just sorry for you, though, because Saved by the Bell is an institution, the pop culture ramifications from which continue to reverberate to this very day.
Of all the one-and-done guest stars, female wrestler Kristy Barnes is one of the most memorable. After transferring to Bayside, the accomplished wrestler immediately set her sights on making the all boys team.
After being mocked out of the gym, feminist Jessie Spano takes up her cause and successfully rallies to get her on the team.
But she immediately regrets helping Kristy make the team after spying her getting a little too close to AC Slater during some off-the-clock wrestling practice. Jessie goes bananas, but eventually realizes Kristy only has eyes for Zack Morris. And vice versa.
Kristy Barnes became a hit on the wrestling team and landed the hottest guy in school all in a span of 23 minutes.
And she was never heard from again.
Such a shame.
"Pistol" Pete Disellio, Parks and Recreation
"Pistol" Pete Disellio has only made two appearances on the hilarious Parks and Recreation show, but they have definitely been memorable ones. His starring moment was, of course, in the season four episode, "The Comeback Kid."
Leslie Knope attempts to revive her ailing campaign for city council by enlisting the help of Disellio, a local celebrity in Pawnee. He earned his nickname—and a lifetime of fame—from a slam dunk in a high school basketball game.
Tired of hearing about the past, he agrees to endorse the Knope campaign not as "Pistol" but as "Pete Disellio, Regional Distributor for Derwin Ham Loaves."
It turns out Disellio has been going through some tough times, but is eventually charmed by Ann Perkins into performing his famous dunk at a campaign rally and announcing his endorsement.
Unfortunately, there were a few planning oversights and instead of taking place on a basketball court, the rally is held on an ice rink. Pistol's dunk is a flop, literally, and he ends up on his back.
And the hits just keep on coming for the ol' Pistol.
Tony Banta, Taxi
In the 80s classic sitcom Taxi, actor Tony Danza began his career of playing athletes named Tony—he later did the same thing in Who's the Boss?
It must have been his own very tailored-to way of method acting, considering in real life Danza was once a boxer and is named Tony.
Taxi's Tony Banta was a lovable loser, an aspiring boxer who is long on enthusiasm and short on talent. Eventually he's pushed out of the sport entirely after being pancaked in far too many bouts.
But despite his stunning lack of boxing success and an IQ that topped out around 75, Banta's friendly disposition helped him stand out (in a good way) in an otherwise weird, and sometimes very unlikable, cast.
The Original American Gladiators
The NBC attempt at an American Gladiators reboot failed miserably because there was no way to capture the late-80s/early 90s absurdity of its original seven-year run.
The hilariously named gladiators looked like creatures from another planet. And the moderately in-shape contestants—some in far better shape than others—were an amazing juxtaposition.
The big hair. The bronzed brawn. The meticulously over-designed patriotic spandex bodysuits. Oh it was amazing.
And you should never mess with perfection.
Coach Fredricks, Freaks and Geeks
The Judd Apatow gem Freaks and Geeks ranks right along side My So-Called Life as the most riveting teen dramas that barely lasted a season. NBC only aired 12 of the 18 Freaks and Geeks episodes filmed before canceling it in 2000.
The show was loaded with compelling characters, both freaks and geeks. Although the kids were the show's primary focus, there were a few scene-stealing authority figures thrown in for good measure.
One such character was Coach Fredricks, a typical jock gym teacher and every geek's worst nightmare. But he turns out to have a heart when dealing with a geek that had been prank calling and hurling hilariously stupid insults at him.
Although, his niceness could have been more about the fact that Coach Fredricks was dating that kid's mother. But still.
Keith Hernandez, Seinfeld
Retired ball player Keith Hernandez may never make it into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but thanks to his classic two-episode arch on Seinfeld, he'll be forever immortalized in the Pop Culture Hall of Fame.
Hernandez plays himself in the episodes, or some version of himself, in which he befriends Jerry and attempts to seduce Elaine. Both burgeoning relationships are cut short for two very different reasons.
But it was the JFK inspired plot in which Kramer and Newman accuse Hernandez of once spitting on them following a Mets loss that really stole the show. The whole "second spitter theory" was created and, in the end, it's the three of them that live happily ever after.
Sure, Hernandez doesn't exactly possess the acting chops to make a career of it. But anyone who complains about the acting abilities here isn't the type of person who can appreciate great comedy.
Sue Sylvester, Glee
Truthfully, I've never seen a full episode of Fox's singsongy dramedy Glee.
It's just not my thing, and may very well not be your thing either. But from what I have seen, comedian Jane Lynch's portrayal of needlessly vindictive gym teacher Sue Sylvester is the what stands out.
Hilarious in her supporting movie roles like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Role Models, it's no surprise she can pull off such an absurdly villainous character in a show about a glee club.
Sylvester's character is a politically incorrect bully with absolutely no filter. Early in the series her only goal in life seemed to be bringing down the glee club, but eventually her interests broadened and her character deepened.
Dauber Dybinski and Luther Van Dam, Coach
American treasure Hayden Fox was obviously billed as the star of the long running sitcom Coach. After all, he was the coach referenced in the title.
But I am always surprised he never filed any criminal charges against co-stars Bill Fagerbakke and Jerry Van Dyke, who played Dauber and Luther respectively, for stealing that show!
Craig T. Nelson was solid as Coach Fox, but it was lovable Luther and dopey Dauber that kept audiences tuning in to a largely repetitive show for over 200 episodes in nine seasons.
Thad and Sammy, Blue Mountain State
The Spike comedy Blue Mountain State aired for three seasons before being cancelled in 2012. It was set at fictional Blue Mountain State University and centered around the "Mountain Goats," the school's football team.
It had all the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll you'd expect from raunchy Spike comedy, with a little dose of hazing on the side. Thad was your prototypical meat head, an All-American talent with a sense of humor that reached maturity around age 12.
But there was more to Thad than just fart jokes and bullying. He had a close relationship with his family, was an impossibly hard worker on the field and his homoerotic hazing antics knew no bounds.
Thad's antithesis was his roommate Sammy, the team mascot who lives in a closet at the Goat House. He didn't have a great gift with the ladies and was prone to binge drinking. Hijinks prone Sammy was like a funnier grown-up version of Screech, who is always drunk.
Julie Connor, Hang Time
On the 90s teen sitcom Hang Time, Daniella Deutscher's character Julie Connor was just one of two characters to survive the show's entire six-season run.
When the show began, Julie was a transfer student, a beautiful blonde just trying to find her way in the world. And apparently her way in the world included playing for the Deering Tornados varsity boy's basketball team.
I know it took people awhile to come around on women's sports, but I'm pretty sure most high schools had girl's basketball teams in the 90s. My school certainly did, and they were 10x better than the boys.
Anyway. Julie angers the team captain and his jealous cheerleader girlfriend in the process. Wacky hijinks, teenage drama and many teachable moments ensue from there—most of which centers around Miss Julie.
Dani and T.K., Necessary Roughness
There are very few sports movies or television shows that center around a female character, but the USA network drama Necessary Roughness is a notable exception. The show's lead is Dani Santino, a therapist who lands a job counseling athletes for a pro football team.
She's divorced with children and struggles balancing a personal life with the demands that come from her growing professional success. Dani's interactions with superstar player Terrence King have driven the show through its first two seasons.
T.K.'s troubles were the reason the team hired Dani in the first place. His problems, like managing his money and toxic personal relationships mimic those of many NFL players today, making his character—who is based partially on Terrell Owens—so authentic.
Eventually T.K. gets hooked on prescription pain pills and spirals into a full-fledged drug addiction. He's constantly in trouble and Dani is the first face he sees in the wake of each off the field incident. She's also the one who is forced to stage an intervention and get T.K. into rehab.
Matt Saracen and Tyra Collette, Friday Night Lights
It's hard to pick favorites from the cast of Friday Night Lights, which is why Matt Saracen and Tyra Collette aren't the last you'll see on this list. But of all the kids on the show, they are two of the most memorable.
Quarterback Matt Saracen is a shy, but absolutely lovable guy who just can't catch a break. His coach leaves for a better team, his girlfriend leaves him for another guy and his military father dies in Season 4.
It was impossible not to root for him, and the show just wasn't the same in its final season after he left.
Tyra Collette represented your classic story of redemption. Initially she was Dillon High's bad girls, a sexy blonde with a reputation for romancing the boys. Obviously "romancing" is code sleeping around.
Eventually she overcomes her own reputation. She's accepted to the University of Texas and sees a future for herself in politics.
George Steinbrenner, Seinfeld
During George Costanza's stint with the Yankees on Seinfeld, a hilarious parody of the late George Steinbrenner was played by the show's co-creator Larry David. The Steinbrenner character appeared frequently during that time, but was only shown from behind.
The rambling, unpredictable blowhard portrayal was so amazingly over-the-top that you'd assume it must have been conjured up by a Mets fan. But unlike Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David actually grew up a Yankees fan.
Who knows if the notoriously curmudgeonly David meant it as a loving homage or as something less savory. Whatever the case may be, the Steinbrenner character is one of the most memorable and frequently recurring guest stars in the show's history.
Jenny and Rodney, the League
The League is an improvisational comedy on FX about a group of friends who participate in a fantasy football league together each year. They're all ultra-competitive about it, but some take it so seriously to the point of insanity.
Like Rodney Ruxin, an attorney with a trophy wife who struggles to balance the responsibilities of keeping her happy and destroying his friends in fantasy football. He's prone to fits of paranoia, accusing his opponents of colluding against him.
Maybe Ruxin could actually relax if his paranoia was unfounded, but it's turned out to be true on a few occasions.
Then there's Jenny MacArthur, Kevin's wife. He may have been the league commissioner for a few seasons, but Jenny has always been the brains in that operation. She loves fantasy football as much as the boys and, before joining the league herself, ran Kevin's team for him.
Jenny has got a foul mouth, she's a football fanatic and she never welches on a bet. I'd want her in my fantasy league if I didn't think she'd be such stiff competition.
Kelly Kapowski, Saved by the Bell
To most viewers of the teen sitcom Saved by the Bell, Kelly Kapowski was the standout female favorite. Every guy wanted her and every girl wanted to be her.
Even her last name (minus the "ski") sounds like the catcalls she'd hear while perkily strutting by a construction sight. But there was far more to Kelly's character than meets the eye. She may have been blessed with the face of an angel and a body built for sin, but she was also an accomplished athlete.
We learned early on in the series that she was a volleyball player, as evidenced by the life sized cutout of her Zack Morris kept in his closet to greet him each morning. Later in the series Kelly joined up with Lisa Turtle to become Bayside High's two-person cheerleading squad.
And she was apparently quite the swimmer too, having worked summers alongside AC Slater as a lifeguard at the Malibu Sands Beach Club. Kelly wasn't just another pretty face—homegirl was the total package and is still negatively impacting my self-esteem to this day.
Dan Rydell, Sports Night
Writer/producer Aaron Sorkin is best known for creating character-driven prime-time dramas and films featuring rapid-fire and witty dialogue. His hits include The West Wing, The Newsroom, Moneyball and A Few Good Men.
So, a television show about a SportsCenter-like program and the broadcasters behind the desk is a perfect fit for Sorkin's style.
Loosely-based on Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick's days as the top SportsCenter anchor team, Sports Night had an array of compelling and awesome characters.
However, no one was as compelling—and infuriating—as the enigmatic Dan Rydell (played by Josh Charles.)
The intensely ambitious, charismatic Rydell projects confidence as co-anchor and colleague, but beneath it all is a man tortured by the tragic death of his younger brother. Haunted by the loss, he's unable to cope with rejection; something he compensates for by manipulating and seducing women, indiscriminately.
Sadly, Sports Night was canceled after just a two-season run from 1998-2000. So the few fans (and many who discovered the awesome cult classic later) never got to truly know what made Dan tick.
Kenny Bowers, Eastbound & Down
The brainchild of executive producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, HBO's Eastbound & Down is exactly the kind of comedy you'd expect from Ferrell and McKay. Equal parts absurd, gross and deceptively clever, the show is both hilarious and a fantastic homage to that career sausage-grinder known as Major League Baseball.
Eastbound's story revolves around Kenny Powers (played by comedian Danny McBride), a washed-up, former MLB pitcher whose career was ruined by his buffoonery and obnoxious attitude. Forced to return to his hometown of Shelby, NC, he takes a job as a middle school gym teacher while trying to reignite his Major League career.
Powers' dense, curly mullet is an instant classic on it's own. However, his irrationally inflated ego and oblivious embrace of lame and offensive tropes is the prefect parody of that special kind of jerk found in professional baseball.
What makes Kenny Powers more endearing than disgusting is his absolute lack of awareness. While former pitcher and preeminent idiot John Rocker is all too real and says horrible things, the fictional Kenny Powers wields nunchucks and gives his man-parts fancy nicknames.
D.H. and Leon, Playmakers
Playmakers is a cult classic which was produced by ESPN in 2003, the first original drama series created by the network. The show followed the lives of players on a professional football team.
And it was excellent.
It was also authentic, a little too authentic, apparently. Despite high ratings and critical acclaim, the show ended after just 11 episodes due to pressure from the NFL about the negative portrayal of the sport.
D.H., a stud rookie running back, and Leon, a nine-year veteran running back, are two of the most compelling characters. Their relationship is complex, with one obviously there to take the other's job.
They are portrayed in very different lights initially, but it's not long before the audience learns D.H. and Leon have more in common than the position they play. They both have very complicated lives outside football and troubled pasts.
That being said, pretty much every character on this show was excellent. The fact that the NFL wielded their power to shut it down is both shocking and shameful.
Jay Pharoah as Stephen A. Smith, Saturday Night Live
I have disliked ESPN's Stephen A. Smith from the moment I laid ears on him. He's loud, he's cranky and he's usually sitting next to Skip Bayless.
And the fact that he makes up for his slow-wittedness and lack of debate skills with increased volume and exaggerated hand gestures has never helped the situation either.
But there was always something about Stephen A. that bothered me. Something I couldn't quite put my finger on until I saw comedian Jay Pharoah do his brilliant impression on Saturday Night Live. If you haven't seen it, you wouldn't understand it—so watch it.
But here's a little taste discussing cn whether he trusts Chris Bosh in the fourth quarter:
"Chris Bosh and I are like soul mates. We have showered together. We have fed each other seedless fruits for more times than I can remember. But in the fourth quarter, Chris Bosh should be nowhere near the basketball!!! He should be locked in a small closet where there are no basketballs or round objects of any kind!!!
Eric Taylor, Friday Night Lights
The critically acclaimed, viewer deficient NBC drama Friday Night Lights ran for five glorious seasons. It was nearly cancelled after its second season, but remained on the air thanks to a deal with DirecTV, which essentially subsidized the show.
Which is beyond hilarious if you consider the wide array of complete garbage NBC has been vomiting out on an unsuspecting public the last few years. They probably wanted to cancel FNL so they had the time to properly handle Conan O'Brien's smooth transition into The Tonight Show.
Throughout its run, a number of characters came and went, but Coach Eric Taylor was the central protagonist. He and his wife Tami were the glue that held the series together that was otherwise populated by teenagers.
Taylor was not without his flaws, but that's what what gave his character depth. Even in his worst moments, his commitment to high school football, his players and his family could never be questioned.
Al Bundy, Married...with Children
What can be said about the iconic Al Bundy that would fully articulate the painfully familiar shell of a man played by Ed O'Neill in Fox's breakout hit Married...with Children?
The show would have never achieved the same level of success without the perpetually tormented Al Bundy—who's the sports character on this list that is the easiest to relate to on some level.
The pinnacle of Bundy's life was a single season of high school football, when he was named MVP of the Polk High School Panthers and the team won the City High School Championship. As a middle-aged shoe salesman who isn't even the MVP of his own house, Bundy is the sad guy who lives vicariously through his own legend.
He's great because we all do this to some extent, including the jocks who did go on to be pros. Just watch NFL Live or any programming (that's not produced by NFL Films) on the NFL Network. They never miss an opportunity to talk about their experiences as players.
Bundy is great because he's the sports hero who transformed into the cynical anti-hero.
Don Mattingly and Ken Griffey Jr., the Simpsons
"Homer at the Bat" aired during the third season of The Simpsons way back in early 1992. It's generally mentioned among the series' best episodes ever, but it is without question my own personal favorite.
After making a million dollar bet with a rival nuclear plant owner in Shelbyville over the power plant baseball championship, Mr. Burns decides to stack the Springfield team with ringers from MLB.
When it turns out his initial ringers were all dead, Burns brought in some serious star power in Roger Clemens, Steve Sax, Darryl Strawberry, Wade Boggs and Ken Griffey Jr.—among others.
Except for Strawberry (ironically), each of them befall an unfortunate set of circumstances while in Springfield. Ken Griffey Jr. immediately gets hooked on Mr. Burns' crazy nerve tonic, which was obviously not FDA approved, and ends up with a serious case of gigantism.
But no one has it harder in this episode than poor Don Mattingly, whose sideburns continue to rankle Mr. Burns. After repeated attempts at addressing the unacceptable length of his sideburns, eventually a flustered Mattingly just shaves them ear to ear.
Which gets him booted from the team entirely. He just couldn't win.
To this day I can't even hear Don Mattingly's name without hearing the voice of Mr. Burns in my head screaming, "Maaaaaaaaaaaaatingly! I thought I told you to trim those sideburns!!!"
Sam Malone, Cheers
Classic sitcom Cheers is widely regarded as the best show of all time.
It comes from an era of television long since passed, but is one of the very rare shows that can stand the test of time. It's still airing in syndication today.
The supporting cast was amazing, but there would be no Cheers without egomaniac playboy Sam Malone, a former professional baseball player turned bar owner. Later in the series he sells the Boston watering hole, but stays on as a bartender.
Sam's womanizing ways and combative relationship with Diane Chambers hit all the right notes with the audience. And despite the popularity of their central romance, the show didn't even miss a beat when Shelley Long jumped ship.
This proves Sam Malone was the real draw and solidifies his place as one of the greatest television characters of all time.
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