In a way, you can thank football for the career of Burt Reynolds. Reynolds, who died Thursday at 82, navigated several twists in a life that led the son of a sheriff from South Florida to get his name engraved on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. One of those twists came in what has become a college football urban legend.
Then known as “Buddy” Reynolds, the future movie star was a promising tailback and pass defender at Palm Beach High School and earned a football scholarship to Florida State.
Almost immediately, coaches knew he was a standout in his class. He rushed for 134 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries as a freshman, but a car accident his sophomore year cost him two years of football.
When he returned, Reynolds was not the player who arrived in Tallahassee. A knee injury suffered in that crash required a much more invasive — and debilitating — procedure than would have been performed today. Reynolds told teammates he felt like he was “playing on one leg,” according to the Charlotte Observer.
Still, on Oct. 12, 1957, he drew one of the tougher defensive assignments in the Seminoles’ matchup with No. 13 North Carolina State. Speedy wide receiver Dick Christy lined up over Reynolds as the Wolfpack drove into Florida State territory at the end of the first half.
On one play, Christy somehow got behind Reynolds, who always claimed that Christy illegally ran out of bounds, causing the Florida State defense to lose track of him. Christy hauled in the pass at the 25-yard line.
“After evading two would be tackless [sic], [Christy] scampered all the way for the score,” wrote The Technician, N.C. State’s student newspaper.
But if the receiver got away from two Seminoles defenders, Reynolds took all the blame at halftime. Florida State Coach Tom Nugent made clear if the team lost the game, it would be Reynolds’s fault, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.
The Seminoles couldn’t muster a scoring drive in the second half. The result stood. After the game, Reynolds told his teammates he was done with football.
“I think I’m leaving because I’m not the ballplayer I was and I hate to see the hole open and I’m a step slower,” he said, according to the Observer.
He enrolled at Palm Beach Junior College, where he took professor Watson B. Duncan III’s English course. Duncan, having seen Reynolds read Shakespeare in class, cast him as the lead in a play he was producing, “Outward Bound.”
The performance earned him the Florida State Drama Award, which included a summer internship with a touring New York theater company. Connections made there set Reynolds off on a career first on the stage, next on television and finally in Hollywood blockbusters.
He never lost his love of football, or Florida State, though. Reynolds developed a close friendship with former Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden. Members of the school’s football team who live on campus reside in Burt Reynolds Hall.
He was also a co-owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits of the defunct United States Football League. The team was named for Reynolds’s 1977 box office hit, “Smokey and the Bandit.”
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