College Football: The 25 Top College Football Movie Characters of All-Time

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2011

College Football: The 25 Top College Football Movie Characters of All-Time

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    What’s better than watching college football?

    Well, the truthful answer to that question is probably nothing.

     Nevertheless, a good second option in a sports world that will, in the very near future, offer only baseball and golf for viewing purposes is the college football movie.

    Though you won’t be watching it live at least you’ll be watching something that is remotely related to America’s most passionate pastime; collegiate gridiron competition.

    It could be a true story, a comedy or some really good made up stuff; regardless of the genre or quality it least our beloved pigskin is featured somewhere in the pages of the story.

    The following slideshow attempts to illuminate the 25 top college football movie characters of all-time; the proverbial honor roll of thespians who have brought our game to the big screen.

    We honor them here while we wait for what only an official’s whistle can bring us, singing out shrilly in the night, signaling the beginning of the 2011 season.

25. Johnny Walker

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    Unfortunately this name has nothing to do with a good bottle of Scotch; instead it is the character in a very questionable sports flick.

    Johnny Walker is the main character of 1988’s Johnny Be Good which delves into the ugly underworld of college football recruiting.

    Walker is depicted by 80’s super teen star Anthony Michael Hall who was more famously featured in classics such as Vacation, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Weird Science.

    Hall’s build and his previous castings make Johnny Walker supposed dominance and desirability as a football player hard to swallow but the story line of recruiting is at least somewhat interesting.

    It’s pretty easy to see why this film is not very well known (or thought of) but Anthony Michael Hall (and his floppy 80’s hair) as a college football player, that’s got to make a list somewhere.

24. Lawrence from LSU

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    John Goodman played the part of Lawrence in the 1988 film Everybody’s All American which also stars Jessica Lange and Dennis Quaid.

    The film is based on a book by the same name and tells the story of gridiron golden boy Gavin Grey who plays at LSU in early 1960’s and goes on to play pro football and then experience the aftermath of a “has been” athlete in decline.

    Lawrence is Grey’s best friend; a beast of a lineman who blocks, tackles, drinks and carouses alongside his buddy until his untimely exit from both life and the film.

    Lawrence is the classic big guy who you remember crushing beer cans with his head, picking on “lesser” men, over indulging and living life on the very edge until the very tragic end.

    Goodman is memorable as Lawrence who gives you a different perspective of what happens to rank and file athletes after the game opposed to what happens in the case of an all-American icon such as Gavin Grey.

23. Biff and Eddie

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    The 1929 feature film So This is College tells the comedic story of frat roomies, seniors and fellow members of the USC football squad, Biff and Eddie, who both have the hots for the same girl (Babs Baxter played by Sally Starr).

    The rivalry is so heated that the friendship is in peril as is the on-field performance of the gridiron Trojans.

    Biff is portrayed by Robert Montgomery and Eddie is depicted by Elliot Nugent.

    Notably, the film features footage of the actual 1928 USC versus Stanford Game which Stanford won 10-0. 

    The real life 1928 Trojans went 9-0-1 and captured both the Pac-Coast Conference crown and the first of USC’s 10 National Championships.

22. Leigh Ann Tuohy

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    Is it a stretch to put a girl on the Top College Football Characters list?  Well, probably so but regardless I think Leigh Ann Tuohy is a definite exception.

    Tuohy is brought to life on screen by Sandra Bullock in the 2009 flick The Blind Side which of course tells the story of Michael Oher who was literally rescued from homelessness by Leigh Ann Tuohy and her family.

    The Tuohy family not only allowed the foundation necessary for Oher to harness his athletic skills but they also provided with little amenities like a bed, a home and a family; all things he had never experienced previously.

    What is fascinating about Leigh Ann Tuohy is that she was a woman that literally had it all; money, prestige, family and in reality had nothing to gain by shepherding Oher.

    It would have been unfathomably easier for someone like Tuohy to send a fat check rather than open her home (and family) to a homeless teenager with a tragic and checkered past.

    Tuohy is masterfully portrayed by Bullock who along with Oher (played by Quinton Aaron) is the heart of this moving story.

21. Gus

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    If you are going to have a girl on the list then why not have a field goal kicking horse?  Of course, if we added Kathy Ireland from Necessary Roughness on a horse we could have all three.

    Gus was the mule that went from mascot to kicker in the 1976 film Gus which told the bizarre story of the California Atoms who went from last to first on the hooves of a field goal kicking stallion phenom. 

    The star is undoubtedly the steed (who awkwardly dons a football helmet) but the film features a mind blowing list of co-stars; Ed Asner, Don Knotts, Tim Conway, Dick Van Patten, Johnny Unitas, Dick Butkus and Tom Bosley are among the highlights.

20. Baravelli and Pinky

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    In another oldie but goodie, Harpo and Chico Marx depict Pinky and Baravelli in the 1932 farce Horse Feathers which also stars fellow Marx brothers Groucho and Zeppo.

    The story line is zany; the new president of Huxley College (played by Groucho) is encouraged by his wayward son (played by Zeppo) to recruit two stellar athletes (who have an uneasy relationship with alcohol) in order for Huxley to beat their arch rival (Darwin).

    The deal goes sour and the wrong two guys (Baravelli and Pinky) get enrolled who aren’t good football players but instead turn out to be useful when they are conscripted to kidnap the two genuine prospects who have been successfully nabbed by Darwin.

    The result is a barnstorming comedy which makes you realize why everyone drones on about how funny the Marx brothers are.

19. Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch

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    The only true life character on the list that plays himself in a film Elroy Hirsch serves as both star and subject in the 1953 film Crazylegs that depicts his career in football.

    Hirsh was a running back and receiver for first the Wisconsin Badgers (1942) and then the Michigan Wolverines (1943-44) and was the No. 5 overall pick in the 1945 draft and went on to play his pro career at the Chicago Rockets and the LA Rams.

    The nickname “Crazylegs” was coined by sports journalist Francis Powers who saw Hirsh play for the Badgers in 1942 and purportedly penned “His crazy legs were gyrating in six different directions all at the same time; he looked like a demented duck.”

    The film zeros in on Hirsh’s college career and while it’s certainly not a triumph in filmmaking it does offer stunning game footage from the period.

    The 1942 Badgers went 8-1-1; the 1943 Wolverines went 8-1-0 including capturing a piece of a Big Ten title and the 1944 Michigan footballers went 8-2-0.


18. Nick Bonelli

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    Tony Curtis plays the fictional All-American gridiron great Nick Bonelli in the 1953 drama The All American which is an updated version of the 1931 film that bears the same name.

    Bonelli struts his stuff for powerhouse Mid-State during a championship game but afterwards he learns that his parents were killed in a car crash on the way to the contest.

    Giving up football he accepts a scholarship to tiny Sheridan University to pursue a degree in architecture but takes a considerable amount of heat for not joining the football team.

    Predictably, Bonelli ends up back on the field in dramatic form and overall it is a decent flick that features some exciting game shots.

    Interestingly, both the producer and director of this film (Aaron Rosenberg and Jess Hibbs) were All-Americans football players at USC.

17. Coach Lambeau Fields

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    The character Lambeau Fields from the 2007 film The Comebacks might just have the best name of an individual on this list.

    Fields is played by David Koechner who plays Todd Packer on The Office and who has also appeared in feature films such as Anchorman, Get Smart, The 40 Year Old Virgin and Austin Powers: The Spy That Shagged Me (and I’m not just mentioning that so I can say “shagged” in this article).

    The plot is basically another tale of a down on his luck coach who takes a rag tag group of athletes to new heights (in Texas, of course) including victory and self awareness.

    The difference between The Comebacks and other films of the same genre is that it is flat out ridiculous and successfully makes fun of a wide array of sappy sports films.

    If a heaping helping of parody and spoof is what you like on your plate; Coach Lambeau Fields and friends are ready to serve it up.

16. Forrest Gump

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    Tom Hanks plays the simple Forrest Gump in the 1994 movie of the same title.

    Of all the historical moments that Gump’s life accidently coincides with his brief career as a speedy rusher at the University of Alabama may be the most random and exciting (at least to rabid college football enthusiasts).

    It’s not a football movie and Gump is no super athlete but his momentary brush with the Crimson  Tide and Paul “Bear” Bryant is thrilling and highly entertaining.

15. Brian Piccolo

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    Though the original Brian’s Song which was first aired as a TV movie in 1971 is really classified as a pro football film, Piccolo’s distinguished career at Wake Forest being featured makes this technically a college football flick too.

    Piccolo is portrayed by James Caan and the storyline focuses on Piccolo’s amazing relationship with his Chicago Bears teammate Gale Sayers who selflessly helped Piccolo deal with his terminal illness.

    Brian’s Song is indeed emotional, dramatic and heartbreaking; but the 1971 version was done in such a way to let the story speak for itself without trying to tell the viewer how he/she feels about it.

    If you don’t want to be a better person after watching this movie you need to sign up for Wayne Fontes’ sensitivity training course (which is held in the Pontiac Silverdome).

14. Jim Thorpe

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    Super-athlete Jim Thorpe is portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the 1951 film Jim Thorpe – All American which goes about telling the tale of Thorpe’s life.

    Though what may be most well known about Jim Thorpe is his pro careers in both football and baseball and the Olympic medals that were stripped from his chest after the 1912 Olympics (due to amateurism); what he did between these events and his upbringing on an Indian  Reservation in Oklahoma was play college football.

    Thorpe was a superstar collegiate athlete at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania (if you don’t know anything about the institution you should check out its history) where he was coached by Glenn “Pop” Warner.

    The Carlisle Indians claim at least a part of the 1911 National Championship; a team led by Jim Thorpe.




13. George Gipp

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    George Gipp’s place in film lore is at least two-pronged; first he is the only college football player in a film to be portrayed by a future U.S. President and secondly his dying lines are among the most memorable quotes in film history.

    George Gipp, the young Notre Dame player who died of strep while under the tutelage of Knute Rocke was portrayed by Ronald Reagan (who later became the 40th President of the United States) in the 1940 film Knute Rockne All American.

    Gipp’s inspirational last dying words; “I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock. But I'll know about it, and I'll be happy,” transcend sports movies and are iconic.

    It’s important to note that Gipp was more than just a kid that died too young (at the ripe age of 25); he led the team in both passing and rushing yards from 1918-20, scored 21 career touchdowns, averaged almost 40 yards per boot as a punter, returned kicks and punts prolifically and  scored five picks as a defender.

    The Irish won two national titles while Gipp was part of the team (1919 and 1920) and he was the first player from Notre Dame to be named an All-American by Walter Camp.


12. Paul Blake

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    Scott Bakula portrayed Paul Blake in the 1991 flick Necessary Roughness which also started Sinbad as Andre Krimm and Kathy Ireland as field goal kicker Lucy Draper.

    Blake was the quarterback leader of a rag tag group of players brought in almost as college “scabs” to replace the entire Texas State Armadillos team that was ousted due to NCAA sanctions.

    At 34, Paul Blake leads the Armadillos on a zany yet heartwarming journey to unexpected victory.

    Ironically, one of the games in this movie pits the fictional Texas State team against the real Southwest Texas State University team who went on to change their name to Texas State in 2003.



11. Gavin Grey

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    Gavin Grey (aka the “Grey Ghost”) is the main character in 1988’s Everybody’s All-American which covers a 25 year time span that begins with Grey’s fictional football career at LSU.

    The movie is based on a novel by the same name and interestingly the book was actually written about a player at the University of North Carolina.

    Grey is an All-American back at LSU who is treated as a faultless hero locally before being exposed first to the harsh world of pro football and then to sad reality of the declining after life of a “has been” superstar athlete.

    Gavin Grey is played by Dennis Quaid who has done his fair share of sports flicks (The Express, The Rookie and Any Given Sunday).

    Quaid does a good job of portraying Grey whose climb to stardom is every bit as intriguing as his fall from fame.

    Of note, some of film was captured at the 1987 Alabama versus LSU game in Tiger Stadium.



10. Bobby Boucher

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    Bobby Boucher is the main character of the Cajun under toned film The Water Boy (1998) which focuses on themes such as revenge, the lion in lambs clothing and, of course, college football.

    Boucher is played by Adam Sandler who brings ridiculous life to yet another character that bumbles his way into your heart.

    It’s the disgraced water boy who shocks the world by becoming the nation’s most feared linebacker on the downtrodden underdog team that beats its bully nemesis.

    And, of course there is presence of the classic hot chick that almost looks too good for Sandler but falls head over hot heels anyway.


9. Nate Ruffin

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    Nate Ruffin (played by Anthony Mackie) is a primary character in the 2006 film We Are Marshall that was based on the 1971 Marshall Thundering Herd Football team.

    In November of 1970 almost the entire Marshall squad was lost to a tragic plane crash and Nate Ruffin was one of the few athletes who missed the tragic flight; in Ruffin’s case it was due to being ill.

    Ruffin leads an inspired group of students to convince the university administration to field a team in 1971 which is the basic storyline of the movie.

    Though coach Jack Lengyl (over played by Matthew McConaughey) is the central character and star of the film Ruffin’s emotional actions are the reason a coaching search was even conducted.

    This is a good film despite the fact that McConaughey’s depiction of Lengyl is a bit over the top.

8. Joe Kane

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    Joe Kane is the Heisman candidate QB from the memorable 1993 movie The Program that attempts to highlight almost every negative aspect of big-time college football.

    Kane is played by Craig Sheffer who was also featured in A River Runs Through It, Some Kind of Wonderful and the TV series One Tree Hill.

    Joe Kane comes fully equipped with an alcoholic father, gets a DUI and after being benched still leads the sanction laden ESU Timberwolves to a conference title and a major bowl berth in the closing scenes of the film.

    The Heisman pressure and the tremendous strain to win at all costs are fully evident in Sheffer’s portrayal of QB Joe Kane.



7. Earl Blaik

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    Legendary Army coach Earl Blaik is depicted by Scott Glenn in the 2005 ESPN film Code Breakers.

    Blaik was a prolific coach at Army where he served from 1941-58, posted a record of 121-33-10 and captured both the 1944 and 1945 national championships.

    The film Code Breakers zooms in on the intriguing story of the 1951 cheating scandal at West Point that was ultimately the downfall of Army as a big time college football program.

    Blaik’s son Bob (played by Corey Sevier) was one of the cadets that were dismissed in the debacle and Vince Lombardi (played by Richard Zeppieri) was actually an assistant coach at Army during the incident.

    To underscore the resounding effect of the scandal, Army went 75-11 under Blaik in the 10 seasons prior to the cheating affair and only 46-22 afterwards.

6. John Cappelletti

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    Marc Singer portrays 1973 Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti in the tremendously moving TV movie Something for Joey which was first aired in 1977.

    Cappelletti, a running back at Penn State, had a special relationship with his younger brother Joey who suffered from leukemia and ultimately died in 1976.

    The brothers inspire each other to reach higher and achieve more and Cappelletti memorably and tearfully dedicates his Heisman to his brother in a dramatic acceptance speech.

    This true story is a tear jerker that will bring even the most stoic college football fan to the brink of breakdown.


5. Knute Rockne

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    Pat O’Brien depicts Knute Rockne in the 1940 classic film Knute Rockne All American which tells the life story of the legendary coach from Notre Dame.

    Rockne, who was born in Norway, came from humble roots in Chicago before saving up enough money to attend Notre Dame at the age of 22.

    After graduating with a degree in pharmacy Rockne became a teacher but also took a part time position as a football coach that eventually transformed him into one of the most celebrated coaches in college football history.

    Knute Rockne died in 1930 at the age of 43 (in a plane crash), a decade before the film bearing his name and telling his story was released.

    His overall record was 105-12-5 and he won five national titles in his 13 years as a head coach (1919, 1920, 1924, 1929 and 1930).




4. Paul “Bear” Bryant

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    Coach Bryant is the only guy to be mentioned as a character twice on the list (the other being as a part of the Forrest Gump film story) but this mention has nothing to do with his stellar career at Alabama.

    Tom Berenger (also star of the baseball classic Major League) portrays Bryant in ESPN’s 2002 offering The Junction Boys which is centered on the 1954 Texas A&M football team.

    The film is based on a tremendous book of the same title by Jim Dent and follows the little known story of Bryant’s 1954 Aggie team and his infamous 10 day training camp at the little town of Junction, Texas.

    Bryant’s tactics to toughen up the Aggies are brutal, questionable and difficult to watch; the value of the experience is left for each individual to judge for him or herself.

    “The Junction Boys” was the name given to the survivors of the camp and includes among its members names like Jack Pardee and Gene Stallings.

    Coach Bryant is absolutely hard core in this movie and Berenger does a great job of depicting the early (and relentless) career of the coaching giant.


3. Rudy Ruettiger

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    The 1993 film Rudy tells the almost true story of the life of Rudy Ruettiger who grew up wanting nothing more than to play football for the Fighting Irish.

    But Ruettiger is undersized and under brained and must fight tooth and nail to even make the practice squad (or get accepted to the University).

    It’s a great tremendous story and Rudy (whether you are a Golden Domer or not) is one of the most inspirational characters in the history of sports filmmaking.

    Yes, it’s sappy at times and yeah it’s drama and Jim Nance type storytelling; but no matter how you slice it, Rudy is truly moving and inspiring.

    “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to go to school here. And ever since I was a kid, everyone said it couldn’t be done. My whole life, people have been telling me what I could do and couldn’t do. I’ve always listened to them, and believed in what they said. I don’t want to do that anymore.”

2. Michael Oher

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    Another non-fiction character, Michael Oher’s story played out in front of our very eyes while we (as a college football fanbase) watched him play for Ole Miss from 2005-08.

    Quinton Aaron plays Oher in the 2009 film The Blind Side which chronicles his moving story from homelessness to the NFL.

    Michael Oher is one of the most inspiring characters in recent college football and the film (though perhaps not as much as the book by the same name) does a skillful job of telling his story.

1. Ernie Davis

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    There is nothing fictional about Rob Brown’s portrayal of Ernie Davis in the 2008 movie The Express.

    Davis was the first African American player ever to win the Heisman Trophy and the film is based largely on his time at Syracuse and his relationship with then head coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid).

    Ernie Davis was an integral part of the 1959 Syracuse team that went 11-0 and captured a National Championship by virtue of beating No. 2 Texas 23-14 in the Cotton Bowl.

    Davis went on to be drafted by the Washington Redskins but was then traded to the Cleveland Browns; tragically Davis would never play pro ball as he died of Leukemia in May of 1963 at the age of 23.