The Loop

The 21 best sports movie characters

October 17, 2017

The 11-year-old version of me would waste little time anointing Roy Hobbs as the standard bearer for all sports movie characters. In wearing out “The Natural” on loop as a kid, I could think of no bigger hero than the guy who struck out the Whammer on three pitches, knocked the cover off a ball in his first big league at bat, and exploded the lights of a stadium with a pennant-clinching home run into the rafters. Hobbs, as played by Robert Redford, was a mythical figure: freakishly talented, admirably humble, but with enough big-city game to land Kim Basinger.

He was also, looking back, entirely unrealistic.

When we sat down recently to rank the best sports movie characters, we decided to disregard candidates like Hobbs who represented some athletic ideal, but who had no footing in the real sports world. Too many sports movies resort to cliche (yes, we’re looking at you, Rudy), which is why we wanted characters who, in the best and worst ways, smacked of authenticity. Comedy, eccentricity, and even caricatures were all fine as long as the essence of that character rang true.

Add it all up and The Loop’s ranking of the best sports movie characters is likely to elicit the type of “You guys are idiots” reactions that these subjective endeavors tend to inspire. You won’t agree with all of it, which, come to think of it, is kind of the point. —Sam Weinman

21. Kelly Leak (Jackie Early Haley), “The Bad News Bears,” 1976


There is a moment in “The Bad News Bears,” -- the original, not the Billy Bob Thornton remake -- when Kelly Leak (Jackie Early Haley) rounds the bases after his first home run as Bear, and his teammates in the dugout essentially lose it. The subtext is that this hapless team has finally stumbled on a solution, and if it happens to be a kid who drives his motorcycle across the infield, tries to pick up older women, and possibly dabbles in pre-game amphetamines, so be it. Every town has a Kelly Leak in some form or another -- the kid who hit puberty way too early, lacks any adult supervision, and you normally would want your son or daughter to stay as far away from as possible. But if he’s on your kid's team, it’s a different story, because Kelly Leak could also hit to all fields and swallow up fly balls with ease. As is often the case in sports, certain character flaws are willing to be overlooked if you can deliver the goods. —SW

20. Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), “Moneyball,” 2011


Jonah Hill’s character is supposedly based off assistant GM Paul DePodesta. In actuality, it’s a composite of the new-age, Ivy-League-graduate, analytic-driven operatives that are now universal across front offices. Yes, the film drives home the nerd stereotype, suffocatingly at times. But the character is also the perfect fulcrum to showcase the revolution against baseball’s antiquated ideas. "Moneyball" is, at least cinematically, sold as an underdog tale. While Brad Pitt’s charisma is the star of the show, it’s Hill -- who, despite an introverted demeanor, boasts an unwavering conviction in his unconventional approach -- that gives the film it’s David-vs.-Goliath heart. —Joel Beall

19. Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), “The Karate Kid,” 1984


"The Karate Kid"'s young antagonist is a classic schoolyard bully, but instead of a schoolyard, he takes most of his teenage angst out on opponents in the Cobra Kai Dojo. But what makes Johnny Lawrence so identifiable is a soft side obscured by the corrupting influence of an adult. Johnny didn’t want to sweep Daniel’s leg, but was reluctantly obeying the orders of his sensei John Kreese. Then, through the tears of losing the championship match, it's Johnny who hands the trophy to his victorious opponent. Sportsmanship! That’s the most important lesson to teach your kids before sending them out into the real world. Unless, you happen to be a black belt. —Alex Myers

18. Jo Bob Priddy (Bo Svenson), “North Dallas Forty,” 1979


The North Dallas Bulls? Call them thinly veiled Dallas Cowboys of the '60s and ’70s based on the novel by former Cowboys receiver Pete Gent. Svenson plays a menacing, misogynistic redneck—Svenson was born in Sweden? Acting!—but is mercilessly mocked by Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) for a Neanderthal disposition and questionable business acumen. (Elliott’s suggested slogan for his teammate’s restaurant: Jo Bob’s Fine Foods: Eat Here, or I’ll Kill Ya.) The locker room back then was often a cesspool of backward thinking, and the film is a reminder of how far we still have to go today. Truth is, for supporting roles we could have picked Mac Davis, John Matuszak, Charles Durning, Dabney Coleman or G.D. Spradlin, but as Elliott says, “Jo Bob is here to remind us that the biggest and the baddest get to make all the rules.” —Mike O’Malley

17. Bill Murray (Bill Murray), “Space Jam,” 1996


On paper, it’s ridiculous: a team comprised of Looney Tunes and Michael Jordan, battling a group of alien monsters who’ve stolen NBA players’ talent, are saved in the closing seconds of a basketball game by beloved comedian Bill Murray, who’s playing himself. But on screen...well, it’s still ridiculous, even in the context of the film’s premise. Murray breaks the fourth wall (Daffy: “Just how did you get here, anyway?” Murray: "Producer's a friend of mine. He sent a Teamster to drop me off,”) and treats the role with the gravitas it warrants (which is little). Yet because it’s Murray, it works, and it's inarguably one of the highlights of the movie. Some have even argued this is the moment that changed Murray from “actor and comedian” to “American folk hero.” The man is a photobomb come to life, a sentiment perfectly encapsulated by his "Space Jam" appearance. —J.B.

16. Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen), “Le Mans,” 1971


Filmed on location during the 24 Hours of Le Mans and featuring no dialogue until the 36th minute, "Le Mans" is widely regard as the purest racing film of all time and Steve McQueen—an actual racer himself—the most authentic, unfussy depiction of a driver in Hollywood history. The antithesis of Tom Cruise’s Cole Trickle, Chris Hemworth’s James Hunt, and, of course, Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby, McQueen’s Michael Delaney is stoic and focused, driving, as every racer does, with one eye on the track and the other in the rearview—replaying the one mistake he can’t take back with the ferocity of someone who, quite literally, puts their life on the line for sport.—Coleman Bentley

15. Dr. Harry Mandrake (James Woods), “Any Given Sunday,” 1999


Oliver Stone films are endlessly complicated, but at their core is usually an elemental clash between good and evil. Enter Dr. Harry Mandrake, the ethically-challenged team doctor of the Miami Sharks played to oily perfection by James Woods. Mandrake looks the other way at players’ injuries, pumps them up with enough pills to get them through Sundays, then justifies it all by saying he doesn’t want to stand in the way of their livelihoods. Great characters don't have to be sympathetic characters, but in the way he embodies the ugly side of professional football, Mandrake strikes uncomfortably close to the bone. —S.W.

14. Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray), “Kingpin,” 1996


Take a straw poll amongst your friends on their favorite bowler, and you’ll likely hear two things: 1) Why are you asking that? and 2) Ernie McCracken. That McCracken is fictional testifies to this character’s resonating performance (and perhaps the lack of reach of the Professional Bowlers Association). McCracken is sleazy, flamboyant, obnoxious, a showman in the same vein as Siegfried & Roy. There’s not a single redeeming quality about him, and yet Bill Murray is able to magnetize these attributes to the degree that the audience finds itself cheering when McCracken defeats protagonist Roy Munson at the end. Perhaps the biggest proof of McCracken’s influence? Pete Weber, arguably the most famous real bowler, has been doing a knock-off McCracken for two decades. —J.B.

13. Becky “Icebox” O’Shea (Shawna Waldron), “Little Giants,” 1994


On the surface, “Little Giants” is your family-friendly, Saturday-night-movie-of-the-week affair. But at its core is the undeniably heartbreaking -- and unfortunately, two decades later, all too real -- plight of the tomboy. How brutal did it get for Becky the Icebox? Even when your uncle is the coach of the town peewee football team, and you’re clearly the best player at tryouts, you get cut. Becky the Icebox, a menacing linebacker in “Little Giants,” had to start her own team of misfits coached by her dad—and it got so bad she tried to quit the team and become a cheerleader. But like any PG video in the 1990s, there was a lesson to be learned. Thankfully for us, Becky’s coming of age moment led her to rally her team and pull off a historic upset of the Cowboys against her cruel uncle (Ed O’Neill, a former Heisman Trophy winner). In doing so, Becky won over DJ the quarterback who she had a crush on, and made it cool to be a tomboy. And for countless ‘90s kids, that was an important lesson to learn. —Stephen Hennessey

12. Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), “Million Dollar Baby,” 2004


Maggie Fitzgerald is frustrating. Bullheaded, single-minded, one dimensional. Tough to like, easy to hate…just like almost every fighter in human history. You may not be able to stand her as a character, but you can’t argue that character’s authenticity. Made even more poignant by the rise and subsequent fall of Ronda Rousey—a hard-nosed woman who became the biggest name in her male-dominated sport—Fitzgerald is not a polished Hollywood archetype, nor should she be. Instead she’s a crooked-nosed thorn-in-the-side and the perfect embodiment of someone who punches other people in the face for a living. —C.B.

11. Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), “The Wrestler,” 2008


Beyond the spandex and tassels, beneath the spray tans and arena-detonating signature moves, wrestling entertainment has a dark side—a tragic history of addiction, mental illness, debilitating injury, and death that makes the NFL’s CTE crisis look like a fairy tale. And while most of the schlock that comes out of the WWE’s growing film resume tells the former story, Mickey Rourke’s hardened, heartbreaking turn as Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler paints the true picture—one of a man who gave everything to the ring because the ring was the only place he ever mattered.—C.B.

10. Shooter McGavin (Christopher McGavin), “Happy Gilmore,” 1996


What’s there to say about Shooter McGavin that he hasn’t already said about himself… in the third person? Seriously, one of his best, most absurd quotes came standing next to Happy Gilmore at the bar, in all its narcissistic glory. “This is Shooter’s tour, I’ve worked hard my whole life, paid my dues, and now … it’s Shooter’s turn.” He’s at his best in a country-club setting, the only jokes he knows are cheesy and trite, and his insecurity is overwhelmingly transparent. Don't like him? Go back to your shanties. —Christopher Powers

9. Morris “Mo” Wanchuk (Brad Sullivan), “Slap Shot,” 1977


Quite possibly the most surprising entry on our list, if only because it is pulled from a movie with so many other worthy candidates. For hockey players and fans, “Slap Shot” is not just a movie, but a cultural touchstone. But more than the cartoonish Hanson brothers, the frustrated goal scorer Ned Braden, or the scheming player-coach Reg Dunlop, it is Mo, a mere depth player on the minor league Charlestown Chiefs, who best represents a readily identifiable figure in every locker room: the oversexed, unabashedly vulgar teammate capable of steering even the most innocuous conversations in a depraved direction. Mo tells stories of bedding bar maids on the road, endorses a team move to Florida because of all “the snatch in F-L-A”, and laments how figure skaters’ outfits don’t show enough of their thighs, prompting goalie Denis Lemieux to reply in his thick French-Canadian accent, “You make me sick when you speak, Morris.” —S.W.

8. Buck Laughlin (Fred Willard), “Best In Show,” 2000


How Fred Willard’s depiction of a dog show play-by-play man compares to reality isn’t the point, because Willard’s Buck Laughlin, the tone deaf announcer of the Mayflower Dog Show, has no interest in trying to be a good dog show play-by-play man. He is the prototypical blowhard TV guy, good natured but ill-informed, given to the type of sexist asides that in today’s climate, would likely result in a public apology and a suspension. Mostly, though, he’s just clueless, whether he’s asking his color man how much he thinks he can bench press, or suggesting that bloodhounds should be required to wear Sherlock Holmes hats and smoke little pipes. Even his attempts at earnest sentiment clangs: “It’s sad to think when you look at how beautiful these dogs are,” he laments, “that in some countries these dogs are eaten.” —S.W.

7. Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), “Rocky,” 1976


Before you knew there was such a thing as a boxing trainer, Mickey Goldmill was what you pictured a boxing trainer to be. The raspy voice, crooked smile and shuffling gait betray the sunlight-deprived hours logged in a musty gym training fighters not to get killed. The thing is, everyone needs a Mickey in their corner. He’s the ultimate motivator, a life whisperer in a stocking cap who never seems to not be angry with you, but always has your back. Without Mickey, Rocky Balboa gets knocked out by Apollo Creed in Round 2. —R.H.

6. Bob Sugar (Jay Mohr), “Jerry Maguire,” 1996


“You let that snake in the door?” A wounded Jerry Maguire utters these words to his top client’s father on the eve of the NFL Draft, pretending not to panic. But deep down he must know it’s too late. Bob Sugar, the slimy agent, winds up winning this battle against Maguire, a former co-worker fired for actually having a conscience. That Maguire was fired by Sugar in a crowded restaurant only adds to the insult. Because in the cutthroat world of sports agents, we’re taught that actual nice guys finish last and smooth-talking snakes like Sugar (“That’s my job, to remember the names of skanks you bang on the road”) slither up the food chain. The only unrealistic part? That Maguire, not Sugar, prevails in the end. —A.M.

5. Pepper Brooks (Jason Bateman), “DodgeBall,” 2004


Somehow Michael Bluth, err, Jason Bateman managed to embody the entire male populace of Orange County circa 2K7 in a single motocross-jersey-repping bit-part burn-out. To compare Pepper Brooks to iconic X Games host Sal Masekela is probably slightly uncharitable (to Sal, that is), but the archetype is there and Brooks is almost as influential, laying the groundwork for ESPN’s recent “The Ocho” revival with one unforgettable line: “It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see how it pays off for them.” —C.B.

4. David Simms (Don Johnson), “Tin Cup,” 1996


Arrogant. Selfish. Mean-spirited. Smarmy. David Simms has plenty of objectionable qualities, yet golf fans still admire him because he makes a lot of money hitting a golf ball, and let’s be honest, Don Johnson just oozes cool. In fact, viewers are led to believe the worst thing about him is his conservative style of play, the opposite of Kevin Costner’s go-for-broke (or until you’re broke) attitude.To be fair Simms is right about taking pars “all day long” at most U.S. Opens, but here he doesn’t get the U.S. Open trophy or the girl at the end. For the cocky tour pro, there will be other trophies and other girls. “Don’t you look cute,” he smoothly says to a female fan in his final scene as he lifts a tournament rope. “Come on under.” —A.M.

3. Norman Dale, (Gene Hackman), “Hoosiers,” 1986


The new basketball coach at Hickory High is as much an underdog as the players he’s looking to inspire. At first, the town elders don’t care for his coaching tactics, and when the murky past of how he lost his previous coaching job comes to light (for hitting a player), they try to get rid of him. But after his ragtag team rallies around him, Dale’s tough-love strategy pays off. What makes Gene Hackman’s character more than a one-dimensional Knute Rockne knockoff are the things we recognize in obsessive coaches—his temper and the razor’s edge he walks with his unconventional methods. Ultimately, he manages to tap the unseen potential in all those he encounters, including himself. —R.H.

2. The Tidwells (Cuba Gooding Jr. & Regina King), “Jerry Maguire,” 1996


The scariest moment in cinematic history doesn’t come from a horror movie. No, it’s the climactic scene in “Jerry Maguire” when Rod Tidwell lays motionless on the field after taking a vicious hit in a Monday Night Football game, all while his family is forced to watch helpless from afar. Diva wide receivers are routinely listed as the most hated players in the NFL. And with good reason. They’re loud, flamboyant, arrogant, greedy, quick to point blame, and generally carry themselves with an underserved sense of self-worth -- attributes flaunted to the nth degree by Tidwell. And yet a closer look at Tidwell and his tight-knit family reveal them as deeply sympathetic, which is why when he lies on the field, you just want him to get the hell up. —A.M.

1. Judge Elihu Smails (Ted Knight), “Caddyshack,” 1980


Given our golf bias, a character from the mother of all golf movies heading our list might not come as a surprise. But there is a reason Judge Smails, played with impeccable buffoonery by the late Ted Knight, rises above other "Caddyshack" standouts like the eccentric Ty Webb, the everyman Danny Noonan, or the chemically-unbalanced greenkeeper Carl Spackler. Mostly it is how Smails embodies an entire country club culture of uptight, entitled white men. Guys who are drawn to ugly plaid hats, who admonish against gambling at Bushwood, who tell jokes in the locker room about “colored” people, and who deliver cheesy poems at the christening of their yachts. He is so funny precisely because he lacks a sense of humor. And almost 40 years later, he still speaks to the uphill battle golf faces in taking itself way too seriously. —S.W.