BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — When actor Geoff Stults threw an interception during a critical football game in junior high school, he set a pattern for his life.
“We were about to win, and I threw an interception and got mad at myself and punched the ground and broke my hand,” he says in the coffee bar of a hotel here.
“So I had to miss some games because of that, and people were very disappointed in me because I was the quarterback. So I learned very quickly to handle your emotions a little bit better.”
That ability came in handy when, at 17, Stults decided to move to California to attend college and to try to be an actor. Like most before him, it’s been a struggle. Stults’s first significant role was that of one of the love interests on “7th Heaven.” He and his real-life brother, George, played siblings on the show. George stayed on for seven years, but younger brother Geoff left to do a pilot that failed, finding himself among the unemployed again.
“I think the one thing that athletics prepared me for that’s been more beneficial than anything has been the humbling times,” says Stults, who is starring in Fox’s new comedy “Enlisted,” premiering Jan. 10.
“I learned how to deal with the lows. . . . In sports, every day you can be the hero or the goat. One of my high school football coaches that I still talk to, he told me a quote one day that stuck with me. One game I had the best game of my life, and the news was all out and there were all these touchdowns and blah, blah, blah. And the next day there were four interceptions. It was the last homecoming game, and he walked up to me and said, ‘It’s a short trip from the penthouse to the outhouse.’ I remember that,” Stults says, smiling.
In “Enlisted,” Stults plays one of three goofy brothers, all serving at a military base in Florida. If Fate had swerved slightly, Stults might really be there. He grew up in Colorado and was on his way to the Air Force Academy.
“I was being recruited by them for football. I got my congressional nomination, I would’ve had to run to prep school because my grades weren’t quite up to par, but I was very close. And I wanted to do it. But I just decided against it towards the end. I think once I came out to California and saw the palm trees, that was it. But I was close.
“I’d never been away from my brother and parents before. Looking back I was so ambitious — ‘I’m going to take on the world!’ I was probably less scared to do it then than I would be now,” he says.
He landed guest roles on television and became a regular on shows such as “October Road,” “Ben and Kate” and “The Finder.” His co-star on “The Finder” was the late Michael Clarke Duncan, with whom he became very close. “I watched him unfortunately suffer that heart attack and be in a coma for a little while. Just to be there and watch a guy who was just so big and healthy and vibrant and positive — to watch how that just went away. He was in a coma for 54 days. Just to watch this big personality fight, and you could see him fighting, but it just wasn’t working. You could see him trying. You could talk to him and he’d respond. It was amazing and terrible to watch . . . he was healthy for all intents and purposes. He worked out, tried to eat right — you just never know.”
Stults also lost his best friend when he was a freshman in college to suicide, another seismic shift for him. “I didn’t realize how much it affected me until later. Just appreciating things, and it’s easy to take life so seriously and not (realize) I’m so lucky, and life is great. I see his parents occasionally now, and I just saw how that changed their whole lives, absolutely. It made me miss him but be grateful for what I had, I think.”
(30 minutes) premieres Friday at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.