Former NFL player Jarrod Bunch finds new role as an actor (cont.)
Don King: Only in America premiered on November 15, 1997, and Bunch was praised for his subtle, understated depiction of a subtle, understated man. One particular scene -- when Foreman, terrified of dogs, meets King's German shepherds -- sold Herzfeld for life. "Jarrod's eyes took that to a beautiful level," he says. "It was a natural instinct."
Hollywood is filled with the uplifting sagas of unknown actors using isolated opportunities to burst into stardom. Matthew Perry died in a hospital on Growing Pains before he became a cornerstone of Friends. Don Cheadle turned his work as "Ice Tray" on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air into a glorious run of glorious films. Yet if Bunch thought Only In America would serve as a gateway to instant greatness, he was battered by a harsh reality.
Shortly after the film was released, Bunch learned of another project -- an Oliver Stone-directed motion picture titled Any Given Sunday. Among the film's characters was a faded running back with ... a bum knee (check!), a wife named Robin (check!) and the uniform number 33 (check!). "It was me," he says. "Literally, it was me." Bunch was 30 years old at the time, floating on the George Foreman high and naive to the hellish brutality that is Hollywood casting. He got a meeting with Stone, but quickly realized it wasn't going well. "He didn't even pay attention to me," Bunch says. "I had auditioned first, but Oliver was never going to give me a shot. They had L.L. Cool J lined up for the role."
"That was probably as low as I've ever seen Jarrod," says Robin Emtage, his wife of nearly 13 years. "To have your hopes crushed like that ... it's rough."
"Jarrod," says Willietta Bunch-Marbury, his mother, "is an optimist by nature" ... has been since his boyhood in tiny Ashtabula, home to 20,962 people and the annual Blessing of the Fleet Celebration. He began playing organized football at age 8, promising Willietta, "I'm going to be a pro football star one day, and then I'm gonna buy you a house."
Even as the younger of her two sons grew and grew and grew, Willietta was skeptical. Then, one day in 1986, Bo Schembechler, Michigan's legendary coach, showed up at the family's modest house on West 54th Street, armed with a scholarship offer and promises of academic excellence. "Jarrod received hundreds of letters," says Willietta, talking via phone from the home her son purchased. "But Coach Schembechler was the only coach to say, 'Mrs. Bunch, I guarantee you he will graduate.'"
Bunch earned his degree in four years, and in his fifth year at the school (Bunch was redshirted as a freshman) was accepted into the graduate program for facility management. He relished his time at Michigan -- strolling the stately campus, running through the defenses of Ohio State and Michigan State and Minnesota, feeling as if he were a part of something bigger than himself. Then, when the NFL came calling, he was euphoric. This wasn't merely about the gratification of fulfilling a long-ago goal. No, it was about making it, when others said he had no shot. Throughout his boyhood, Bunch says classmates mocked his stated goals, insisting he had no shot of escaping the malaise and boredom of his hometown. Nobody from Ashtabula had ever played professional football, and as far as most people were concerned, nobody from Ashtabula ever world play professional football.
"Well, I did," he says. "I'm extremely proud of that."
In his years with the Giants, Bunch was known as a workmanlike bruiser who showed up, did his job and left -- no mess, no fuss, no hype. In many ways, he's that same way now. Since his breakthrough in Only in America, Bunch has landed a steady stream of interesting -- if short-lived -- acting gigs. He had bit parts on two TV series, New York Undercover and Third Watch, as well as a brief recurring role (well, two episodes) of 100 Centre Street. He played a corrections officer on ER, a security guard on Entourage, a bouncer on The Unit and a football player (literally, he is credited as "Football Player") in Two for the Money, the 2005 film starring Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey. According to Herzfeld, Bunch's reputation is that of a consummate professional who'll arrive on time, work as long as necessary and devote himself to the project. "I don't know anyone who has a bad word to say about him," Herzfeld says. "He's a true gentleman."
And yet, Bunch wants more. Although his football days have long past, it's proven difficult for people to see beyond his resume and physical stature. "When people are looking for the bouncer, the body guard, the big guy, Jarrod is an easy fit," says Tina Kiratsoulis, his agent. "Getting past that can be a challenge."
Bunch is open to being the beleaguered gardener, the soft-spoken guitarist, the ballet dancer; the yoga instructor; the heavy metal guitarist, the AIDS-stricken patient. He desperately wants to one day win an Academy Award, but knows someone will have to offer him the opportunity to challenge the stereotype. "When people only see the character, and not the man behind the character, that's when greatness happens," he says. "I aspire to greatness."
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