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Former NFL player Jarrod Bunch finds new role as an actor

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."

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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