John Wayne: The Iconic Actor Was Once a College Football Star

by Atlanta Northcutt

You know the saying, “When one door closes, another door opens”? That is the story for young John Wayne, who previous to his acting career was known as Marion Morrison.

Wayne began displaying his fearless tactics when taking charge of the football field. He would use those skills while performing action scenes on set.

He performed as a University of Southern California offensive tackle. However, his football career came to an abrupt end.

Marion Morrison Becomes A USC Football Player

Morrison recovered, and headed to Hollywood with a new name and new objective. With his name now John Wayne, he continued being the tough, manly-man that he was. He was cast in the perfect movie for his acting repertoire. What seemed to be a career-ending accident actually became a career-beginning moment. It was one of those instances that change your life forever, and his change was for the better.

In 1925, John Wayne graduated high school and headed to USC on a football scholarship. Most description of Wayne states that he is quite tall, reaching approximately six-foot-four. He had the perfect build to be a successful athlete, specifically as a football player. He received a football scholarship to attend USC and play for their team. The scholarship was only $280 per year.

According to a review over John on the USC’s website, he was given one meal per day. It states that he and several of the football players began working part-time at Fox Film Corp. while still in college.

John Wayne began taking on competitors of USC as a freshman player. He was then moved to the varsity team when he was a sophomore.

There is an ongoing tale that as Wayne was body surfing at Newport Beach one day, he fell and broke his collarbone right before his junior year as a USC football player. After his accident, he had his lousy scholarship yanked from him. Wayne left college shortly after he lost his scholarship and began working full-time at the movie studios.

Marion Becomes John Wayne & Finds Success

If Marion Morrison hadn’t lost his football scholarship over one negative impact, then there would’ve never been a John Wayne. Where would old Westerns be now without Wayne as the face of the films as he portrayed the roles so perfectly?

He was actually a football player in several of his first roles, including one as a USC football player. He should’ve mentioned how terrible their scholarship funds were.

We all know what happens next. He became a Hollywood Western legend who was the star of more than 140 films. John Wayne was the lead in more than 140 films and eventually won the Best Actor Award at the 1969 Oscars for his performance in the movie True Grit.

A Football Comeback?

However, John’s football career unexpectedly showed up again.

During the 1972 NFL drafts, things got wild.

The Atlanta Falcons decided to vote for John Wayne as their 17th-round pick. Almost 20 years ago it was shortened to seven rounds of picks.

Hilariously, the Falcons coach Norm Van Brocklin asked his staff: “Do we want the roughest, toughest S.O.B. in the draft?!”

The clever Falcons’ coach was of course referring to John Wayne’s popular 1948 film Fort Apache. One of the hundreds of films that Wayne was a part of.

The answer was of course a resounding “yes.” Duh! Scoop up the toughest of them all to join the game, especially since he has football experience. The coach called the NFL organization to inform them of the Atlanta Falcons’ choice to be “Fort Apache State,” choosing John Wayne.

At this point, Wayne was 64 and probably still had a crick in his neck from the previous accident that caused him to break his collarbone. Even a neck didn’t stop him from conquering the Western genre and becoming one of the most recognizable names in our culture. Referred to as the “Duke,” he may not have ruled the football field, but he sure tackled the field of acting.