Eastern Michigan University
From Rynearson Stadium to Hollywood
by Michael Bailey Smith
I’m what you call a working actor. I’m not famous, but my big mug is recognizable. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in almost 50 films and over 100 episodes of TV, and let me tell you—Hollywood is a crazy business.
One day I could be riding a horse doing a commercial, the next week I could be speeding down a mountain on a snowmobile being chased by a chimpanzee, and maybe the next month I’m in Morocco shooting a horror movie. Right now, I’m on the set shooting a new video game using a motion capture skin-tight suit.
But my life wasn’t always this way.
Growing up, I was picked on because of how I looked—I was very skinny, kind of goofy and had ears that stuck out like Dumbo’s.
As I grew older, football became a big part of my life. I started out on the freshman football team at my high school in Oscoda, but I was terrible. I think I got in one game and played for about two plays. Then, just before my junior year, my dad, who was in the Air Force, got stationed in Tehran, Iran, where I went to Tehran American High School. The school was big enough to have three football teams, and by the time I was a senior I became a pretty good football player.
I loved the sport and, like any kid growing up, I wanted to play in the NFL. I guess I made a good impression on my coach at the time because he told me I had the potential to play college ball.
That was great to hear, but when you’re living in Iran there’s not a lot of college scouts looking for football players. So after I graduated, I went to work. My goal was to save enough money to go to college and somehow find a way to play football. I soon realized the money I was making wouldn’t be enough, so I joined the Army to get the GI Bill to help pay for college—I became a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division.
When I went in, I was 6’4” and 165 pounds. Knowing my size wasn’t going to cut it, I started working out every chance I could get. The guys in my unit called me the “muscle head” because if I wasn’t working out in the gym, I was doing sprints to get faster. And all of that work and dedication paid off, because by my last year in the military I got up to almost 240 pounds.
While I was in, I found out that our division chaplain had been an All-American outside linebacker at Kansas State and that he had helped place guys from our division into colleges to play football, so I asked if he could help me out as well. About six months from getting out, he made some calls and talked to Notre Dame. They were very interested and wanted me to visit, but the chaplain said I’d probably ride the bench for a few years before I could play.
After finding out I was from Michigan, he told me there were some good Division I schools there. He named Western, Central and Eastern and asked what school I’d want to go to. Since I have relatives in the Detroit area and my grandma worked at a manufacturing plant in Ypsilanti back in World War II, I told him Eastern.
I guess I was what you call a preferred walk-on. Now, having not played football for three years because of the military, there was really only one thing I could do well and that was hit. So I made sure I was first in line in every drill and came in first on every sprint. I did everything I could to get recognized and make an impression.
In my red-shirt freshman year, 1981, I moved up to second-string center. I also got to be on special teams, both kickoff and punt. That’s when I got to play in my first college game. It was a night game, at home, against Akron. That night I flew around and made two or three tackles; it was an incredible experience.
Because of how well I played, that next Monday they moved me to starting right guard. I practiced for a week and then we traveled to Illinois State. I’d like to say I played great during the game, that I made the big block to help us score the winning touchdown, but that’s the farthest thing from the truth. I got my butt kicked the whole game and, needless to say, I was moved back to second-string center.
But I didn’t let that stop me.
Going into my junior year, I got up to 275 pounds and my 40-yard dash time dropped from 4.9 to 4.8. During spring football, the starting offensive tackle blew out his knee and I stepped in—this time I was ready. I played the rest of the season and by the end of the year, I was getting letters of interest from a ton of NFL teams.
Entering senior year, I was made co-captain and everything was set. The team was ready for a great year and I was ready to take the next step.
Then, two days before our first game against Youngstown State, we were in shorts and shoulder pads. I remember the Oakland Raider scouts being at practice. I was pass blocking when the “pile” hit my left leg and I went down. I looked down and my kneecap was on the side of my leg. The trainers rushed over, put it back into place and took me to the hospital.
I have to tell you, that was probably was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced. Not the pain, that’s nothing. But knowing that your football career could be over. Everything you’ve worked for, gone in a second, in one play. It’s something that bothers me even now.
The next day I met with the coaches and team doctor. They gave me two options. Have surgery to realign the kneecap or play through the pain, knowing my kneecap would continue to dislocate. Without hesitation, I chose to play through the pain. I came back the next game against Marshall and had a great game until my knee dislocated two more times. I continued to play the rest of the season, each time fighting through the pain as my knee continued to dislocate.
After the season, I had my knee operated on. The good thing was that NFL teams were still interested. The bad thing was that my kneecap was not aligned correctly. Bending the knee caused the kneecap to grind onto the bone and I’d lose power in my leg, but that just meant I had to work harder. The night after the NFL draft, I got a knock on my apartment door. It was a scout from the Dallas Cowboys; they wanted me as a free agent.
My NFL career was very short. I got there and was doing well, but then I tweaked my knee again. I soon got that dreaded call to bring my playbook to coach Tom Landry’s office. He told me that my knee wouldn’t make it through the season and they were going to release me.
I wish I could say that I happily carried on with my life, but that wasn’t the case. I was pretty depressed and felt lost. This went on for months until I got a call from my parents who pushed me to move on. So I regrouped, got focused and finished my degree in Computer-Aided Design at EMU.
After graduation, I moved to San Diego. A friend of mine had an audition in L.A. for a movie called “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child” and he wanted me to come along to check it out. At the audition, the casting director asked if I wanted to audition as well and I reluctantly agreed—I ended up getting the part of “Super Freddy,” playing a bigger version of Freddy Krueger. That role was an incredible experience, and it was right then that I decided to become an actor.
Now, more than 20 years later, I’m still doing it.
I owe a lot of what I’m doing today to playing football at Eastern. I’ve been down to my last 20 bucks, sitting on the curb with everything I own stuffed in my car, having just got kicked out of some crazy chick’s apartment, wondering what to do next. But, just like playing football, I never thought about quitting. And, just like in football at Eastern, I haven’t let the rejection and toughness of trying to make it in Hollywood stop me. 3