David M. HaleESPN Staff Writer
Before he was the most famous actor in the country, before he was a tabloid sensation and a Hollywood legend, Burt Reynolds was a football player. He was a 205-pound running back at Florida State, and football was his passion.
“He had a dream of playing in the NFL,” said ESPN’s Lee Corso, Reynolds’ roommate at Florida State. “He loved football.”
A knee injury ended that dream before Reynolds’ football career could take off, however, and so he set his sights on conquering Hollywood instead. Corso remembers Reynolds returning from a summer stock theater program in Palm Beach, Florida, and announcing he was moving to California to become a star.
“OK, sure,” Corso told him.
But that’s exactly what happened. In the ensuing years, Reynolds would become one of the most famous men in the country, and he made some of the most popular sports movies of all time, from “The Longest Yard” to “Stroker Ace” to “Cannonball Run.”
For all his fame and fortune, two things remained a constant for Reynolds: He loved sports, and he loved his teammates, and he kept those two things close until he died last week.
“We were friends 64 years, and it started when we were teammates at Florida State,” Corso said. “He became the world’s biggest movie star, but he never forgot his old teammates at Florida State. We were close. Good and bad times. But especially in the bad times, we were the closest.”
Reynolds’ quarterback during his playing days was Vic Prinzi, who went on to become the longtime color analyst on FSU broadcasts. Dom DeLuise’s character in “Cannonball Run” is named Victor Prinzim in a nod to Reynolds’ old teammate, and the two remained close friends until Prinzi died of lung cancer in 1998.
Prinzi’s broadcast partner, Gene Deckerhoff, remembered visiting Prinzi a few months before his death. Florida State had lost to Florida the day before, and that’s all Prinzi could talk about.
“He was dying, was doing chemo, and he was cussin’ mad about us losing to Florida,” Deckerhoff said.
The next week, Deckerhoff was in New York City for a basketball tournament. He knew Reynolds was in town, too, so Deckerhoff called him. The first thing Reynolds wanted to know was how his friend was doing.
“He looks awful,” Deckerhoff told him. “And all he wanted to do was complain about us losing to Florida. He was cussin’ mad.”
There was silence on the phone for a moment before Reynolds chimed in.
“Well, Gene,” he said, “aren’t we all?”
Reynolds was so passionate about Florida State football that he made it a priority to get to Tallahassee any time he could. He owned a home in Jupiter, Florida, and in the 1980s and early ’90s he’d hop in a helicopter and fly up just to watch practice.
“He’d arrive unannounced and land on what used to be the Florida High School baseball field,” said FSU associate athletics director Rob Wilson. “He’d just come over and watch practice for an hour and a half in the middle of the week.”
It might come across like a hot-shot celebrity move, but Reynolds never acted like a VIP once he arrived. He became close with FSU coach Bobby Bowden and others at the school and made generous donations to the program.
“He could walk into a room and light it up,” Wilson said, “then just start cracking on people. He was just the best guy.”
Bobby Bowden has a joke he likes to tell about his time with Reynolds that’s at least partially based on a true story.
Back in the early days of Bowden’s tenure at Florida State, it was still OK to bring boosters on a recruiting trip, so Bowden pitched Reynolds on a plan. There was a kid from Ohio that Bowden wanted to sign, the son in a single-parent home. So the pair flew up for a visit, with Bowden selling the kid on Florida State while Reynolds wooed the mom.
Bowden’s punchline: “The kid ended up going to Notre Dame, and the mother came to Florida State.”
In 1993, Reynolds was starring on a TV show called “Evening Shade,” and he had a role in mind for Bowden.
On the show, Reynolds plays a former NFL player and high school coach, and in the episode, he’s hoping Bowden will recruit his son to play at Florida State. The episode’s title is “Saint Bobby.”
Bowden was in New York City, scheduled to fly to L.A. the next day for filming, when he got the script.
“It was about an inch thick,” Bowden said. “I thought there was no way I could memorize all that.”
Bowden showed up on set utterly terrified, and things only got worse when he realized there was a live studio audience. A big game is one thing, but flubbing lines in front of this crowd was a whole different deal.
“Reynolds realizes what’s going on, and he sits Coach Bowden down and says, just do what you would do when you’re recruiting a player,” Wilson recalled.
So that’s what Bowden did. He got the gist of the script, and in the end, no one seemed to notice the coach hadn’t a clue what he was doing.
“When it was over,” Bowden said, “[Reynolds] came over and gave me a trophy and said, ‘Good job.'”
“The Cannonball Run” and “Stroker Ace” gave Reynolds entry into the world of cars, and, of course, his most famous role in “Smokey and the Bandit” featured him in a Trans-Am that became synonymous with his brand. It all helped Reynolds develop a love for racing that eventually convinced him to start a race team with actor, director and stunt man Hal Needham.
Harry Gant was a longtime driver who had worked with Needham and Reynolds on “Stroker Ace,” and Reynolds wanted to hire him to drive their car, the Skoal Bandit. Reynolds spent several hours calling Gant, trying to offer him the job, to no avail. Finally in frustration, he dialed up Humpy Wheeler, a mutual friend who was the general manager of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, complaining that Gant wouldn’t answer his phone.
“That’s kind of the way these guys are,” Wheeler explained. “They’re kind of cowboys.”
Reynolds always wore a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, but he was still a Hollywood big shot, and he wasn’t used to people not returning his calls.
“I finally got a hold of Peggy, his wife,” Wheeler said. “She said he was on the roof. And I knew what he was doing on the roof, because he had this weird deal about shingling roofs. Some people like to do crazy things, and that was one of them.”
Well, Wheeler explained to Gant’s wife, Burt Reynolds had been calling and he really needed to speak with Harry. Gant had worked all his life to get a job like this, Wheeler said, but that still wasn’t enough to get him off the roof.
So Wheeler called Reynolds back with the bad news.
“You couldn’t get him on the phone?” Reynolds asked.
“No,” Wheeler said.
“Well, where is he?”
“He’s on the roof.”
“Well throw the phone up to him,” Reynolds insisted.
Wheeler had to explain he didn’t own a cell phone — this was 1982 — and that Gant wouldn’t talk anyway. He’d return the movie star’s call when he was done shingling.
In the end, Reynolds had to respect the dedication. He gave Gant the job anyway, and they worked together for the next few years, with Gant finding success in Reynolds’ car.
(Of note: Gant was scraping wallpaper at his home when contacted for this story.)
Gant worked with Reynolds on several movies, including driving the famed Trans Am in “Smokey and the Bandit,” pulling off some of the stunt driving scenes, with Needham chasing behind in a patrol car.
Between scenes, Gant and Reynolds would chat about racing and movies, but mostly music, Gant said. They were both fans of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. And during the filming of “The Cannonball Run,” Reynolds even invited Gant to dinner with the cast.
“We got to sit and eat a meal with Burt and Dean Martin and all those folks,” Gant said.
One of Gant’s favorite stories happened when shooting “Stroker Ace,” a film about a NASCAR driver. The scene called for a stunt driver to bring the race car around the turn and stop just short of the pits, where Reynolds would hop into the car, pull up for a stop and say his lines before swapping places with the stuntman once again.
The first part went according to plan, and Reynolds breezed through his lines perfectly. But rather than trading with the stunt man afterward, Reynolds spun the tires and took off around the track at top speed.
“Old Hal Needham jumped up screaming,” Gant said. “He’s yelling, ‘All I need is him to break his leg!'”
Reynolds’ ownership stakes weren’t limited to racing either. In 1983, he was one of the general partners of the ownership group for the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits, a name that paid homage to one of Reynolds’ most popular characters.
The Bandits coach at the time was Steve Spurrier, who’d go on to torment Reynolds’ beloved Florida State Seminoles as the coach of the Florida Gators, but in the mid-80s, the two were pals.
Reynolds would come to games and roam the sidelines at the old Tampa Stadium a couple times a year, Spurrier recalled.
“And, of course, he attracted a crowd,” he said.
In 1985, the team flew to California for a game against the L.A. Express, and Reynolds invited the entire coaching staff to his Bel Air mansion for lunch. Spurrier brought his wife, and they got to meet Reynolds’ then-wife Loni Anderson, too.
“It was quite a thrill for all of us on the coaching staff,” Spurrier said. “And then we went back and beat the LA Express 28-13. Go look that up, see if I’m right. Steve Young was the quarterback for the Express, and he didn’t do much against us that day.”
Turns out, the Bandits actually won 24-14.
Reynolds never got far from the Florida State football program. He hung FSU memorabilia in the background of his movies, and he donated money to fund the construction of Burt Reynolds Hall, which served as the football dorms for decades. He was on hand in Tallahassee for the dedication of the building, too, bringing along other stars like DeLuise, Ricardo Montalban and Ben Casey.
During the ceremony, however, a storm sprung up, sending everyone running for the dorms. Wilson crowded into one room with Reynolds and a handful of other non-Hollywood dignitaries. For the next half hour, while they waited out the rain, Reynolds regaled the group with stories about Clint Eastwood and some of his many leading ladies.
“I’m convinced if someone had thrown a few cigars in there,” Wilson wrote for Seminoles.com this week,” he might’ve made a night of it.”
Deckerhoff worked with Reynolds from 1984 through 2009 on a regular segment for Bobby Bowden’s television show “Great Moments In Florida State History.” The segment was Deckerhoff’s idea, and he’d written a letter to Reynolds asking if he’d like to be a part of it. Reynolds was thrilled at the invitation.
Each summer, a few weeks before fall camp, Deckerhoff would fly to Jupiter, Florida or out to Beverly Hills to meet with Reynolds and record a season’s worth of pieces. He recalls Reynolds and Prinzi arguing over how long to cook a steak on one visit and being invited to the home of Ann-Margret and Roger Smith on another occasion.
Once the season started, Reynolds relied on Deckerhoff to ensure he got his FSU football fix, too. In the early days, when the games were all broadcast on the radio, Deckerhoff ensured Reynolds had a direct line to the broadcast studio, where producers would patch Reynolds’ phone in so he could listen to the games on speaker phone. In later years, Deckerhoff would call Reynolds with the satellite coordinates for the television broadcasts of the games.
“He had an electronics guy who knew how to figure out how to unscramble the signals, and they’d have a big viewing party where everyone came over to watch the games,” Deckerhoff said. “That’s how big a Seminole fan Burt was.”
Bowden got a call in 1982 from Reynolds. He’d been watching a Cowboys game and loved how the star on their helmets looked.
“I don’t like our uniforms,” Reynolds told the coach.
“I don’t either,” Bowden said. “But we can’t afford new ones.”
That’s all it took. Reynolds donated the money for a new set of uniforms on the condition he could help design them. So Bowden reached out to Notre Dame to find out where to get some gold pants, and Reynolds worked with a Hollywood designer to put together the jerseys. The helmets came emblazoned with a spear along the side. They were a hit.
A few years later, Reynolds called again. Back when he played, Florida State had nice, white jerseys. He wanted those, too, and so out came another check to cover the costs.
Then, in 2007, Bowden said Reynolds called again. Bowden insisted the team didn’t need new uniforms, so Reynolds said he was sending money for Bowden to spend on whatever the team needed most.
Reynolds showed up for the Seminoles’ game against Alabama that year, and as was customary, Bowden invited him down to the field for warmups. The pair stood in the center of the field, with Reynolds eying the players, wondering what Bowden had bought them.
“New shoes?” he asked one player.
“New helmet?” he asked another.
Finally, Reynolds turned to Bowden and protested.
“I thought I said to spend it on something they really needed,” Reynolds said.
Bowden looked at Reynolds and grinned.
“I did,” he joked. “I gave it to the officials.”
Reynolds’ nickname among close friends was “Buddy.” It so happens, that’s also what Bowden calls just about everyone. So the apocryphal story made the rounds that, upon first meeting Reynolds, Bowden said, “Well hey there, Buddy,” which tickled Reynolds that the coach knew his nickname.
Truth is, Bowden said, someone had tipped him off about the nickname in advance, and the rest was just a coincidence, but he’s never been one to let a good story go to waste.
Still, the pair really did become buddies, and it’s hard for Bowden to begin to capture the impact Reynolds had on Florida State football.
“He was the biggest positive thing we had going for us when I came to Florida State. The fact Buddy Reynolds was a former Florida State football player, and he might show up at a game any time. I felt like he gave a lot of credibility to our program in the early stages.”