October 6, 2022

Is Keanu Reeves Hollywood’s most underrated athlete? Stories from his sports movies

Read Time:18 Minute, 11 Second

Keanu Reeves is one of the most famous actors in the world, but he also might be the most underrated athlete in Hollywood — a former high school hockey goalie who, according to one former NFL quarterback, could have played college football, too.

Of course, Reeves did play a former college football quarterback in “Point Break”. He also played a professional QB in “The Replacements”, a youth baseball coach in “Hardball” and an eccentric goalie in “Youngblood.” He almost got Woody Harrelson’s role in “White Men Can’t Jump,” but it turns out Reeves could jump better than he could ball.

So here are some of the best Keanu Reeves sports stories, told by actors, directors, extras, stuntmen and old pickup hockey pals. They are just as quirky, funny and inspiring as you’d expect.


D.B. Sweeney, actor, “Hardball”: He’s an interesting cat.

Chris Robbins, stunt double, “The Replacements”: He’s probably one of the best souls I’ve ever been around.

Sweeney: We played hockey together out in LA. There’s a loose group of actors that played out there. A lot of Canadian guys. Tom Cruise came a couple times; that was a big deal. And also Keanu came out a couple times.

Mark Ellis, sports coordinator, “Hardball” and “The Replacements”: He’s a different dude, made out of a different cloth.

Sweeney: It was interesting because he was even more offbeat 20 years ago than he is now, so when I found out Keanu Reeves was a goalie, I was like, “Oh, that’s perfect. Of course Keanu Reeves is a goalie.”

Rick Neuheisel, former UCLA football coach: I get a phone call from (“Point Break” director) Kathryn Bigelow. … She asked if I would have an hour or so to work with Keanu Reeves. He was going to be an FBI agent that was a former All-American quarterback trying to infiltrate this surf group, and there was going to be a beach football scene and he has to look like he is playing football. Could I teach him some basics? I said: “I’d just seen Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, I’m all in.”

Ellis: You could tell he was an athlete from the moment he put the ball in his hand.

Neuheisel: He comes in gung-ho with a backpack and jean jacket on. He comes into the UCLA office and we go down to the field. You could tell he was a try-hard guy, that he wants to do this and he wants to do it well.

T.J. Rubley, quarterback coach, “The Replacements”: Truth be told, when Keanu was done, he could drop back, he could throw just about every throw on the route tree. He probably would have been recruited by Division II or Division III (schools) out of high school.

Ellis: He’s unique in so many different ways.

Jason Kay, childhood friend and hockey pal: We were moving houses one year — our family was — and we had this big fridge in the basement of our house, and we weren’t sure how to get it out, and Keanu put some kind of tether around his upper torso — almost around his shoulders and neck — and he strapped it around the fridge and he carried the fridge by himself upstairs, and that’s how determined he was.

Ron Shelton, director of “White Men Can’t Jump”: One memory is of him in my production office wanting to show me how high he could jump, and he leapt up and his hand went through the drop ceiling.

Boban Marjanović, Houston Rocket, “John Wick” actor: He’s a huge fan of basketball. He said he loved when I walk in a game, how people are basically scared of me and how I show my power and how tall and powerful I am. I was like, “No way Keanu is talking to me about basketball and he’s giving me compliments. No way this is happening. No way. This is not true.”

Kris Lofton, child actor, “Hardball”: Just literally the coolest person.

Marjanović: Every time when I’m feeling run down, I remember those words and they make me practice and do better and be who I am.


“Hardball”

Sweeney: We’re shooting “Hardball” in the Robert Morris Projects. We’re talking about the scene and we’re standing at home plate and we’re about to film an argument. Keanu, forgive me if I’m misquoting this, but we’re talking about the scene. There was a question about the script, and he looks up and goes: “Whoa. It’s crazy that we’re here in the projects … and we’re working on a project.”

Bryan Hearne, child actor: He’s the reason I’m a hippie.

Julian Griffith, child actor: He was the most chill guy I’ve ever worked with, man.

Sweeney: In between takes, he would sit there and just visit with these kids, but he wouldn’t talk to them like they were 12. He’d just talk to them.

Hearne: We would talk about stuff like the ocean. We would talk about what’s in the ocean and how maybe we’re the aliens and all the whales and dolphins and sharks are the true natives of Earth.

Griffith: You would have thought we were sitting around smoking a joint or something. (I don’t smoke, by the way!) It was like, “Why do our eyes turn red but we don’t see red?”

Hearne: He changed my perspective on a lot of things. We even talked about the Bible and how he believes that Jesus wasn’t a white male. He thought Jesus was maybe an olive-skinned man with dreadlocks.

Michael Perkins, child actor: It was a nighttime shoot, and it was pretty cold that night, and I remember sitting in a station wagon, and all of a sudden, he’s like, “You hungry?” And I was like, “Yeah.” And he was like, “You want some Burger King? Here.”

Sweeney: He was very present. He was completely around, even if he might be off in his own headspace.


“I consider myself a self-aware person,” “Hardball” costar Bryan Hearne (right) told The Athletic. “I credit Keanu for that.” (Chuck Hodes / Paramount Pictures via Getty Images)

Lofton: We’d be on set in between takes or they’d be setting up a shot, and I’d be like, “Hey, Keanu, let’s play catch.” He’d be like, “Oh, sure, I’ll play catch with you.”

Griffith: My mom always taught me to greet adults with Mr. and Miss. Every time I would talk to him, every time he said something, I’d be like, “Thank you, Mr. Keanu.” He’d be like, “Hey, hey, hey, hey. It’s just Keanu, OK?” I’d be like, “How are you today, Mr. Keanu?” He’d be like, “I’m good, but you don’t have to call me Mister. It’s Keanu.”

Lofton: We were out there teaching him how to do the Big Poppa dance, like waving his hands in the air.

Griffith: We could expect to see him with a cigarette, coming in on his motorcycle, a cup of coffee.

Hearne: He was always wearing some funky boots.

Griffith: Dystopian, “Book of Eli” boots.

Lofton: He smoked cigarettes a lot. My mom and dad also smoked cigarettes. He would ask my mom and dad for so many cigarettes that eventually my dad literally told him: “You know what, Keanu? You’re rich enough to go buy a whole truck of cigarettes. I’m not giving you anymore.” And Keanu just started dying laughing.

Hearne: A lot of people say that he’s not a good actor. I think that he was letting the media and the critics and the fans get to him. They’d cut and he’d be like: “Oh, God, I suck!” We’re like seven 12-year-old kids trying to let this guy from “The Matrix” know that he’s amazing. I had this one scene with him where we’re walking through the projects and he’s taking me home, and he says, “What do you guys do for fun?” I tell him that really all we do for fun is play baseball with him. I did the scene a few times and wasn’t feeling it. I was kind of like Keanu, I was like: “Oh, I suck!”

Perkins: Even if mistakes would happen, he was just like: alright, cool, relax, get some time to yourself. Go breathe.

Hearne: He told me to take a breather and, after the question is posed to my character, to really just actually think about it, then say it as if it’s the only thing I could think of. That’s my favorite scene.

Ellis: At the end of “Hardball”, I’m getting ready to go home. He walks up to me and hands me a sweet, brand new Rawlings baseball glove, with my name engraved on it. Out of nowhere. Very nice gift. Later on, when I found out he did “The Matrix” and gave all those stunt guys Harley-Davidsons, the next time I saw him I said, “Let me get this straight: I get a baseball glove, they get Harley-Davidsons?” He goes, “Well, I needed somebody to ride with.”

Griffith: I wasn’t invited to do one interview in LA, and when he walked in, he said, “Where’s Julian? Julian should be here right now.”

Hearne: I consider myself a self-aware person. I credit Keanu for that.


“The Replacements”

Dustin Dennard, extra: He comes in that first huddle and was like, “Good lord, you guys are enormous.”

Robbins: We were at some high school in Baltimore for a training camp.

Ellis: It’s hot and it’s early on. We got in the huddle, called the play and Keanu fumbled the snap. I blew the whistle to stop the play: “Daggone it, get it right! Let’s go! Get back in the huddle and call the play again!”

Dennard: I’ll be damned if it doesn’t happen again. This time, he gets a grip on it, but as he goes to step out, it falls out of his hands. (Actor) Pete Ohnegian has played center his whole life. He’s getting it to where it needs to be.

Robbins: Petey O. could probably rip a phonebook in half with his bare hands.

Dennard: So we huddle up again. Keanu, you can see him be like, “What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I get this right?” He’s really concentrating.

Ellis: He gets back in the huddle and says, “My fault, guys.” He calls the play and says, “Ready, break.” But they don’t break. (Ohnegian) looks at him and says: “Don’t f—— fumble it again.”

Ohnegian: It just felt comfortable treating him like one of the guys.

Dennard: Keanu, in his humble self, he’s walking, looking down at the ground, and just goes: “I got it.”

Ellis: Keanu tells me the story later and cracks up.

Bob Gagliano, former NFL quarterback and private coach: Sometimes I wondered what part of town he was coming in from for our workouts. He had this little Porsche and it was just a mess. There was sh– all over that car. Clothes, crap all over.

Ohnegian: I always give everybody nicknames. He’d show up just who he is: disheveled, unshaven, like he was just up all night. I’d be like, “You’re the star. How do you show up like Mr. Crabby Pants?”

Gagliano: He didn’t care. I kind of admired that about him.

Ellis: He wanted to understand, down to every detail, what his first primary receiver was, his second primary receiver, how long he would have, what the clock in his head should be telling him and why he was making this decision.

Dennard: “OK, do I buckle my chinstrap when I come in the huddle? Should I take a knee?”

Robbins: He was one of the guys. His locker was beside mine. He wasn’t in his trailer.

Rubley: Blisters and the whole thing like the rest of us.

Robbins: We were going to have this opportunity to shoot the four biggest plays of the movie at halftime of an NFL preseason game.

Ellis: We’ve paid a lot of money to get this, and we can’t screw it up because if we screw it up, we don’t have the freaking end of the movie. No question we’re going to use the (stunt) double. No question.

Dennard: We only had maybe 11 minutes, somewhere in there. We rehearsed these plays time and time and time and time again.

Ellis: During the process of all this one day, Keanu walks up to me. He says, “I want to do this.” I look over at him like, “What?” He goes, “Give me a chance to do this.” That means I’ve got to say to the producers and everybody else, “He’s ready, he can do this, let’s let him run these plays.” He wanted to be the guy under center, in front of that crowd. I’m like, “Two weeks ago, you couldn’t take the damn snap! Now you want to go out in front of 65,000 people?”

Dennard: Three or four of us shared a little two-bedroom apartment to keep costs low. We were four or five days into rehearsal for that halftime show. It’s redundant. It’s hot. We’re sweating to death, just out there getting put through the ringer. Keanu can sense it. He said, “Hey, what are y’all doing this evening”? It was like a Friday: “We’re just going to hang out, maybe go grab a beer.” He was like, “OK, I’m going to come by later. Maybe we’ll grab dinner.” The freaking guy shows up and brings dinner and is like: “Hey, I just wanted to tell y’all thank you.”


“Of course Keanu Reeves is a goalie.” (Ronald Siemoneit / Sygma via Getty Images)

Ellis: We’re sitting in the tunnel the day of the game, and his eyes are like saucers because now he can hear the crowd before we run out. Boom, the whistle blows, ends the half, the Ravens and Panthers run in their tunnels and we come flying out. We’ve got everything in place, stopwatch starts, and we know we have to be off that field no matter what. We’ve got a million dollars on the line, at least. If we screw up…

Dennard: There was not anybody on that set that worked harder to get better than he did.

Ellis: He gets out there and freaking does it, and I mean FREAKING does it. Bam. Just like we practiced. The horn blows and everybody gets back into the tunnel. Keanu runs up to me. I’ll never forget this the rest of my life. To see the look on his face. The goosebumps on his arms.

Robbins: He is 100 percent present with you. You get full attention, no matter who you are.

Ellis: Man, you get old and look back … (clears throat) … The guy looked at me and thanked me for believing in him. To have that moment, he didn’t owe that to me. (Voice wavers) He just made me look great. But he flips it. (Voice cracks) He flips it and immediately makes it about you. (Pause) Whether you’re on a movie set or on a real football field or just in life, man, that moment — I had just never had one like that, I mean, so genuine and authentic. The pure joy and thankfulness. (Sniffles) It put me in the moment. It made me feel great about me.

Robbins: There was one particular stunt where I just got pummeled, and he sent his masseuse just to take care of me. I didn’t say, “Oh man, I’m hurting today, Keanu.” He just sent his masseuse.

Gagliano: He worked out at Glendale Junior College, where I went. He made a donation to Glendale College — and we just worked out there one day.

Ohnegian: I had a picture made into a 16-by-20. He signed the picture: “Pete — if I sound at all like a quarterback, it is because of your help and support. My thanks to you. I wish you all the best. Keanu Reeves aka Mr. Crabby Pants.”


Brant Feldman, agent: In the mid-90s, Keanu would come and skate at Iceoplex North Hills, which was the training home of the LA Kings.

Reeves (on Reddit): For a long time in Los Angeles when I first moved there, when I was 20 years old, it was such a new world and so I saw some guys at a gas station once who had hockey equipment in their car, and I asked them what they were doing, and they said they were playing street hockey, so I asked them if I could play. So I became involved in a street hockey game that took place every weekend for over 10 years. That was cool to be a part of. It was a cool thing to have happen. Made some friends.

Sweeney: Mike Myers had showed up, and he’s from Toronto. Mike Myers wasn’t very good and he wasn’t very friendly. Tom Cruise came once, and he was Tom Cruise, shaking everybody’s hands. Keanu kept to himself, and he was putting his gear on and you’re thinking, “This could go either way. He could be a sieve or he could have a tantrum and he could skate off.”

Pat Brisson, agent: At that time he was playing a lot, on different teams and at different rinks.

Sweeney: There were some former pros and college players, and they were ripping the puck pretty good. He didn’t back down. He had my respect.

Peter Markle, director, “Youngblood”: We had a game where two-thirds of the people on the ice were Junior A (players). Keanu was in net and took a ton of shots. He handled himself really well. He was getting shots from guys who played for the Marlies (Toronto’s minor-league team) and didn’t seem to have any problems. Pretty gutsy guy.

Randy Walker, extra on “Youngblood”: There’s a scene in the movie where he does quick “up-downs,” like he goes down in the butterfly a bunch of times and gets back up. And he was like that.

Markle: He had a good glove hand.

Kay: He was a very unique individual back in the day, just a big personality, and that kind of goes with goaltending.

Markle: I was very receptive to his ideas. He would walk in the locker room and be like, “What do you think of this?” And he’d put like five rolls of tape on top of his head to balance and I’d let him walk through scenes like that.

Steve Hahn, actor, to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 1996: We always go to someone’s house or a bar in Hollywood, hang out, watch hockey. He never has any money. He’s always asking me for money. … So finally, about the fifth time I said, “Keanu, what’s up? You’re like making like $9 million a movie and you’re asking me for money.” He said, “I’m sorry, I just never have any money on me.”

Walker: I just remember him just being like a normal Canadian guy with jeans and a lumber jacket.

Markle: In Toronto, I was only about half a mile away from Keanu’s. We would drive together to the rink on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He had this old beat-up Volvo station wagon. I got a call from him one day when he had moved to LA. I said, “Well, how did you get there?” He said: “I drove the Volvo.”

Hearne: He’s a really down-to-earth dude.

Ellis: Somebody let him look behind the curtain, and he gets the universe.

Carl Paoli, stunt double, “Hardball”: I compare him to Picasso. If you really know Piccasso and you’ve been to the Picasso museum, you’ll see that Picasso can paint like Rembrandt. Picasso can paint realistic, historical, gorgeous paintings. He chose to paint like he was crazy. He chose to make it look very new and abstract. That’s what Keanu does. … Every once in a while, his absolute intelligence and philosophical background slips out.

Perkins: He was like a neighbor. You talk, have a good conversation, and then go about your day. And it’s like: You just met one of the coolest people you’ll ever meet.

Hearne: He never says too much and he doesn’t say too little. He provides just the perfect amount of conversation, the perfect amount of energy. He makes you smile, and by the end of it you leave and you’re like, “I want more of him. How can we get him back?”

(Illustration: Wes McCabe / The Athletic; Photos: Lance Staedler, Ronald Siemoneit, SGranitz, Scott Halleran / Getty Images)





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