Ready for a New Stage
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Inside a roadside chain hotel in Akron, Ohio, Jason Taylor sat across from a sports agent named Gary Wichard and listened to the most ridiculous proposal. It was 1996, and the agent spoke breathlessly of motion picture and television opportunities and lunches with celebrities. The agent knew people. The agent called important figures in Hollywood and they called him back. The agent had a cellphone with a 310 area code and an office at the bottom of the hill where Sunset Boulevard goes to meet the sea.
It was preposterous, of course, because nobody outside of dedicated football fans in northeastern Ohio and a handful of NFL scouts even had heard of Jason Taylor. He was a senior defensive end at the University of Akron who weighed only 229 pounds. And yet here was Wichard saying that if Taylor would only choose him as his agent, he would make the player a Hollywood sensation.
Sitting in the back of a quiet auditorium at Redskins Park recently, Taylor chuckled at the memory. "I'm surprised I signed with him. I thought he was crazy," he said.
Today, Taylor will line up at defensive end for the Washington Redskins against the Arizona Cardinals largely because Wichard's words came true and the player landed a role last spring on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars." The show put him in direct conflict with the offseason workout program of his previous employer, the Miami Dolphins, who decided they no longer wanted their most popular player over the last decade and traded him to Washington.
In a way, this is a byproduct of a sports world in which players are increasingly aware of opportunities in the entertainment field, sometimes even cutting athletic careers short when lucrative broadcasting jobs come open. In the spring of 2007, the NFL held a two-day training camp for players who aspired to move into broadcasting. And in the past year, former Redskins quarterback Tim Hasselbeck and onetime Baltimore Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer left football after being offered announcing positions. Early in 2007, New York Giants running back Tiki Barber retired at 31, following his two most productive seasons, to take on various roles at NBC, including the "Today" show.
"I think it's a branding thing," said Ian Birch, who until this summer was the chief content officer of TV Guide. "More and more sportsmen and women looked to become brands and extend their celebrity. Do you want to retire to some fishing village or do you want to start laying down the foundation for some kind of brand?"
Taylor, named one of People magazine's 100 most beautiful people and one of TV's top 10 dream men by Us Weekly, already is a brand. But in attempting to become a star who can cross over from sports to Hollywood while still playing, he seeks something rarely ventured by athletes. The great Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown began his film career while still active in the game. But what makes Taylor unique is that his entertainment career was planned for him before he even joined the NFL.
And yet nothing is guaranteed. While Taylor turned out to be enormously popular on "Dancing With the Stars" -- fans, for instance, flooded TV Guide's blogs and chat rooms with adoring messages -- he still faces great odds in trying to convert his run on the show into something broader.
"There was a bit of a storm there and that's not something to ignore," Birch said of Taylor's popularity on the show. "But it won't propel you to superstardom. There is no precedent. 'Dancing With the Stars' has been a successful vehicle for rebooting fading profiles and in a few cases -- like Mario Lopez [who finished second to Emmitt Smith, another former NFL star, in the show's third season] -- generating new career opportunities. So far, these tend to revolve around cameo roles in Broadway musicals, book deals, TV newsmagazine shows and the like. But a major Hollywood role? Not so much."
It's a thought echoed by Fred Dryer, a defensive end for the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams who made the transition from football to television in the early 1980s, landing the lead role in the police drama "Hunter," which ran for seven years on NBC.
"Jason Taylor is very charismatic and very, very likable, and like they say you don't get to play defensive end because you are a nice guy, you play it because you are good," Dryer said. "It's the same with acting. Something either happens behind the camera or it doesn't.
"I find it takes awhile to break through that way of carrying yourself as a football player. It's always incumbent upon you to become that everyday guy and not have that air, as they say in acting class, of coming off seeming like roses being looked at. There is an actual skill in acting class, and when people say you are a natural it's a trap. I spent five years in acting class before I left football. You can go through some humiliating moments in front of people."