It reads less like a résumé and more like The Great American Bucket List: Heisman Trophy. Super Bowl. Television. Broadway. When you’ve already won the first and second acts of life, Eddie George, what the devil do you tackle for an encore?
“I would do this forever,” the former Ohio State and NFL tailback turned analyst/actor — actually, it’s more like analyst/actor/entrepreneur/educator/husband/dad — told Land of 10 recently. “But God has a way of changing things in my life. I may wake up 5 years from now and say, ‘You know, it’s time for me to move in a different direction.’
“Maybe to be a more of a leader. Maybe jump into politics.”
Politics? If you thought the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers were bruising …
“I’ve been asked before,” the 43-year-old George said. “But the timing wasn’t right. The timing wasn’t right for me. That’s something I would like to (accomplish), if I want to ever jump into that. But I’m very aware — my businesses require me to be aware of an environment that we live in, and (where) the markets have to be.”
“We have a pro-business president. There are some things — I don’t want to get political — that you are concerned with. But there are some other things that you look at and go, ‘OK, there are some good things.’ It depends on how you want to take advantage of it. I’ll just leave it at that.”
All the world’s a stage, after all, and George hasn’t wilted underneath a spotlight yet. The 1995 Heisman Trophy winner and 1996 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year is currently part of the national touring company of the musical “Chicago,” playing smarmy attorney Billy Flynn in the long-running show.
He made his Broadway debut playing the part in January 2016 during a limited engagement, becoming the first Heisman winner to truly bridge the Downtown Athletic Club with the Great White Way.
“The challenge now is, ‘How do I find a freshness each and every night?’” George explained. “What are the nuances within the play? Why is Billy doing what he’s doing? What’s the real backstory? What’s his relationship with the other characters in the play? Everything with him is very spontaneous and off the cuff … it’s a lot of work that you put into it, each and every night, to try and give a freshness that the audience deserves.”
‘Just tell a story and get out of the way’
And yet he relishes the pressure, the adrenaline, the craft, smiling with every shuffle. After retiring from the NFL in 2004, George got an MBA from Northwestern and started a financial planning firm to pair with his landscape architecture business — your fairly standard post-football route.
Only acting lessons turned into voice lessons, which turned into community theater in Nashville, leaping from tightrope to tightrope, sometimes painfully, the confidence building along each step. “The Whipping Man.” “Topdog/Underdog.” “Othello.” In less than a decade, George had gone from Bart Scott to the Bard of Avon.
“You know, I’m not a traditional singer. I’d never really sang outside the halls of my house,” George chuckled. “(Now) I’m going on Broadway and singing not one but three songs. Just in my own mind, I’m like, ‘God, I hope the right notes come out, and I hope it sounds right.’ It was really about gaining confidence in that. It’s like, ‘Hey, if I crack a note or whatever, it doesn’t matter. Just tell a story and get out of the way.’
“The trick — not the trick, but the challenge — of the theater is it’s like tapping your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. It brings all those elements together. To be a triple threat and sing and act and dance, all in the same breath, that’s difficult.”
Steeper climb: Hammering through a Michigan defense in the Big House, or singing to thousands of strangers in the Big Apple?
“Listen, there’s nothing easy to any of them,” George replied. “To do Shakespeare, and make Shakespeare believable, is difficult. To learn a musical and to go out on stage and have the courage to do that and belt out songs and to act and tell a story and stay focused is difficult. To play any football game at the highest level is difficult, whether it be (against) Michigan or the Cleveland Browns.
“So there’s a level of focus and commitment to each one of them. But there’s a process, and it’s a craft that you have to definitely pay attention to and cultivate on a daily basis. So when I was a football player, that’s what I was committed to. Now that I’m an actor and a businessman, that’s what I pay attention to. That’s where I’ve honed my focus. I worked on my craft in those areas.”
Actors want to ball. Jocks want to act. Shooting commercials and viral videos and cameos in movies and television shows are fun, but brief. Disposable.
But to take acting on seriously is work — grinding work, monotonous work, thankless work. The NFL has combines, tryouts and practices; Professional theater has casting calls, auditions and rehearsals. In both circles, the competition is young and hungry, the business lords behind the scenes cold and unforgiving.
Of all his old Buckeyes teammates, George thinks fellow RB Raymont Harris could have taken the theater ball and run with it, if the bug ever bit.
“He’s a chameleon,” George said of Harris, currently Ohio State’s director of development. “He’s got a great work ethic and the chops to do it, there’s no question about that. You know, it’s never the clown, it’s never the comedians … I could see quite a few teammates doing it. (Former Buckeyes TB) Robert Smith is somebody that can do something like that.”
(Fun fact: Smith did try it, a bit, during his NFL days — taking a small part in an installment of the ‘90s cult television show “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”)
“It’s not just the audience,” George said. “I think it’s having a process to commit to, much like the craft of football and preparing for a game and preparing for a season. It’s the same as (when) you’re preparing for a role and understanding the character and telling the story in imaginary circumstances — it’s all of that.
“I really have enjoyed doing that, whether it be on the theater stage, in front of the camera, or just telling a story of my own personal life in speaking engagements. The art of telling a story is a passion of mine.”
‘I aim high, bro’
And having A-list entertainers — from sports to broadcasting to theater — to sound out doesn’t hurt, either. George went to see two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington in the play “Fences” on Broadway a few years back and ran into the iconic actor later at an after-party, picking his brain on the nuances of character and how to shape a performance from your own life experiences.
“That always stuck with me,” George said. “Every experience in life that you have, good and bad … you can use that, at some point in time, to help tell a story.”
“There’s nothing Buckeye faithful won’t support when it comes to their Buckeyes after football.”
— 1995 Heisman Trophy winner and former Ohio State star Eddie George
As the former football player pressed on, taking mental notes, Washington raised an eyebrow.
“And he looked at me strange and he says, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’” George recalled with a laugh. “’You should be working.’”
So now he is, logging about two states and at least a half-dozen shows per week. “Chicago” is slated to play at Toledo from April 20-23 and in Akron on May 9-10, and George has found Buckeye fans to be supportive — if not downright effusive.
“Those who have seen it, I think they’ve walked away quite impressed,” George said. “They’ve enjoyed it. In fact, (we) had buses come up from Columbus to see me on Broadway.
“In the future, I think I’ll be doing ‘Chicago’ in Columbus. I think the Buckeyes are going to support me, anyway … there’s nothing Buckeye faithful won’t support when it comes to their Buckeyes after football.”
A family and two boys back home in Nashville keep a pair of light feet grounded. Business interests tug at the head; theater and part-time teaching at Ohio State pull at the heart. The personal portfolio is almost as diverse as the financial one, rooted firmly in three Es: Education, Entrepreneurship and Entertainment.
Not Elections, though.
Well, not yet, anyway.
“I may be in a situation where I’ve seen (my) business (interests) thriving and growing and I can hand it off to my sons and go out, in my heart, to do more philanthropic work,” George said. “I never close the door on anything. I’m open to all possibilities.”
The play’s the thing. It just isn’t the only thing.
“That’s one thing I tell kids: ‘Once you learn to think outside the box, you learn to eliminate the box.’ You step away from your safety net and you operate on a very high spiritual level.
“Yes, I love acting and I will always love it. But there might be a time when I’m called to do something else.”
Another tightrope. Sans net.
“No doubt. I aim high, bro,” George said, chuckling again. “I don’t aim low on anything. I aim extremely high.”