Posted: Friday October 7, 2011 11:59AM ; Updated: Friday October 7, 2011 1:23PM
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Former NFL player Jarrod Bunch finds new role as an actor

Story Highlights

In 1993, Jarrod Bunch was a hulking FB for the Giants when his life changed

A torn MCL in his knee essentially ended his career and he needed a profession

Bunch became actor and has had some success, but strives for much more

By Jeff Pearlman, SI.com

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Jarrod Bunch was a bruising fullback for the New York Giants in the early '90s until a knee injury ended his career.
Jarrod Bunch was a bruising fullback for the New York Giants in the early '90s until a knee injury ended his career.
Richard Mackson

Jarrod Bunch knew it was bad as soon as it happened. How many punishing blows had he absorbed throughout his life as a football player? Hundreds? Thousands? Knocks to the skull that left him dizzy. Drills to the thighs that manifested themselves as black-and-blue-and-maroon canyons. Bunch was a fullback -- a large (6-foot-2, 250 pounds), fast, powerful fullback who, through his days at Ashtabula (Ohio) High, the University of Michigan and now with the New York Giants, had collected collisions the way a spider collects wayward flies.

But at this moment, at the Giants' training camp in July 1993, well, everything was different. As soon as Jerold Jeffcoat, a free-agent defensive lineman with a Band-Aid's chance of making the roster, hit him, Bunch heard three pops crackling from his right knee.

Pop!

Pop!

Pop!

"Crap," Bunch immediately thought, reaching for his leg. "Thank God I have health insurance."

Bunch lifted himself off the turf at the team's training camp in Morristown, N.J., but his leg refused to follow. The knee was swelling. Throbbing. He was helped to the locker room and later diagnosed with a torn MCL. "I had to miss four weeks," he says. "Four weeks! Then when I tried to come back without surgery, it never healed properly and I got pneumonia. That whole period felt like the darkest time in my life. I was helpless."

Like most of his athletic peers, Bunch greeted a potentially career-ending malady in stages. First, denial; he would get better. Then, resolve. He worked hard to come back, returned midway through the '93 season and spent part of the ensuing year with the Los Angeles Raiders (albeit, as a hobbled shell of his former self). Finally, he came to the most heartbreaking of conclusions: It was over.

In 1991, he had been a first-round draft pick, the latest addition to the defending Super Bowl champions and coach Bill Parcells' ideal model of what an NFL fullback should look like. In 1992, he rushed for 501 yards and three touchdowns and was named New York's Offensive Player of the Year.

Now -- poof! -- it was all gone.

Bunch, an intelligent man with a degree in sports management and communications, was well aware of what often became of washed-up jocks. In the best-case scenario, there were opportunities to manage an auto dealership or a bar; perhaps get paid $200 to attend a handful of Grade-C celebrity autograph shows in dingy hotel ballrooms alongside Emmanuel Lewis and Danny Butch. In the worst case, there were the drugs and alcohol, the worthlessness and the depression.

"I made a decision," Bunch says. "I refused to let football define my life. I refused to live as an ex-jock."

Two months ago, Bunch wrapped shooting on Slumber Party Slaughter, a film a film starring Tom Sizemore and Ryan O'Neal. It is the latest impressive project on a resume filled with them, the latest testament to a man who refused to be defined by others.

*****

The sun is shining in Los Angeles.

Heck, when you're Jarrod Bunch the sun always seems to shine in Los Angeles. Just a few hours earlier, Bunch returned from Malibu, where he put some finishing touches on Slumber Party Slaughter. Later on, he'll grab a bite with his wife, Robin, then head back to their Hollywood home. Maybe after that he'll take a walk. Or do some Jiu-Jitsu training at the gym. Or read through some potential projects for Generator, the full-house production company he co-owns. Or come up with ideas for SILKtáge, the hair-care product he and Robin develop.

Bunch is 42, but you wouldn't know so by looking at him. Though he hasn't played football in 17 years, his arms are still muscular, his chest still sculpted, his face unblemished by time and age. As many of his former teammates find themselves soft and lumpy, Bunch is a rock. A few months ago, Bunch, a black belt, competed in the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship.

"The other day someone asked if I was thinking of making a football comeback," he says, laughing. "I was like, 'Man, no chance. I haven't played in forever.'"

In a sense, Bunch concedes, Jerold Jeffcoat may well have done him life's greatest favor. Had Bunch's knee not been turned into mulch, and had he gone on to play for 10 years, would he be walking with a limp? Would he be going on his 12th so-and-so replacement to fix so-and-so part of his body?

Would he be here?

In the waning days of his final season with the Raiders, before the team released him, Bunch began thinking of things that made feel happy and fulfilled. He went through a checklist in his mind and kept returning to one word: Performing. "When I was playing football, I performed in front of 100,000 people, and I loved that," he says. "There was an energy, an electricity. You're surrounded by eyes, but you have to bear down and focus completely on a task. It's wonderful, and it's the same way in acting."

Hence, Bunch retired from the NFL, returned to New York and enrolled in courses at The Actors Institute. He never felt the need to tell people of his football success. This was about starting anew, about establishing himself as a thespian who happened to have played football. For two years, Bunch devoted himself to drama workshops, breaking down his tough-guy football persona and learning what it means -- what it truly means -- to express vulnerability and grief and anger and excitement and fear.

"One of the best attributes of a good actor is when you look at him and assume one thing, then find yourself surprised," says John Herzfeld, the veteran director who has worked with Bunch of several projects. "Jarrod brings that complexity and mystery. There are a lot of things going on in his mind that you, the viewer, have to watch out for and pay attention to. That's not something an actor can learn. It's very natural."

Bunch landed a handful of commercial roles, as well the part of a suspected criminal on America's Most Wanted, and in 1996 caught wind of an opportunity that, he was quite certain, would serve as his big break. Herzfeld was casting an HBO movie based on Jack Newfield's biography of Don King: Only in America. Bunch's agent arranged an audition for the part of George Foreman; it was the first time Bunch and Herzfeld would meet. Before that moment, Herzfeld had never heard of Jarrod Bunch. In fact, he glanced over his biography and assumed he was about to encounter washed-up-jock-who-thinks-he-can-act-because-he-has-nothing-better-to-do-with-his-life No. 12,471.

"I was looking for qualities and attributes and subtleties that an actor would bring, aside from the purely physical size, of Foreman," Herzfeld says. "You have to speak the truth when he play George Foreman, because at that point everyone knew him as the guy selling those grillers on TV. Well, Jarrod walked in and he just nailed it. I was blown away."

 
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