Editor's note: Welcome to the first installment of "How Good Was He?" It's an occasional Playbook series in which we delve deep into the the athletic pasts of celebrities.
Whether it’s playing sardonic Jeff Winger on NBC's Community or providing the punchlines for absurd TV clips on The Soup on E!, Joel McHale throws himself head first into every project. So it’s no surprise that his former teammates at the University of Washington describe him the same way. The 6-4 tight end-turned-actor walked on to the UW football team in 1992.
Though his time as a Husky lasted only about a year and a half on the scout team — McHale never made it into an actual game — he did leave a lasting impression. Hear from the actor and his Husky mates on how he earned respect on the gridiron before going Hollywood...
Joel McHale: I had been recruited to row at the University of Washington and I only played one year of football in high school. I got into a fight with the crew team over not pushing in a chair properly. They have all these rules I never figured out. The freshmen shave their hair and eyebrows off and throw all that hair into a pillow. They have a whole display case full of hair pillows from over the years, which is a wonderful thing to look at. This friend of mine, we’re surrounded by [the crew team] and got into a fight. That was pretty much the end of that.
Chico Fraley, inside LB: I remember Joel a little bit more because we were in the same fraternity, Theta Chi. Joel was actually on the crew team when he first joined the house and we kind of made fun of him a little bit.
McHale: I really didn’t know what I was doing. It was not smart. It was one of those things where I didn’t know how long I could do this for. And then I turn around and all of a sudden, six months had gone by. I had gained a bunch of weight, I was in much better shape and I was really enjoying it.
Damon Huard, QB: I can’t believe how skinny Joel is now because he really did take a lot of pride and put on a lot of weight, he was never the athlete that those other guys were, but I think he genuinely did care about it and wanted to be a player. If I remember right, we pledged to the same fraternity. It was me, Joel and Ernie.
Ernie Conwell, TE: He came and worked hard. We kind of prided ourselves on being tough-nosed and hard-working and he fit right in there perfectly with us. He wasn’t great, but he had everything he needed: desire and want-to. He was tough, he could catch the ball and he wasn’t afraid to put his body on the line. That’s really one of the biggest challenges — you’ve got to be willing to suppress your own self-preservation, especially a guy who played tight end.
McHale: The university had a healthy walk-on program because Don James, the coach, felt like you create the competition that will push the scholarship players to work harder. As a walk-on, you’re friends with the other guys — but you don’t have a scholarship so you kind of felt like you were members of the Dirty Dozen or the Bad News Bears.
Fraley: He does have some athletic ability and he beefed up pretty quickly. I got to see him a little more since he was on the scout team offense. He didn’t have any memorable hits or anything like that. But he was good enough not to be remembered for how bad he was.
McHale: I was very good at making the defense look good when I was on scout offense. I knew how to crumple really well and get tackled.
Mark Bruener, TE: One thing I do remember is he never was one to deliver a blow as much as take a hit from anybody and get right back up. He definitely was a tough guy. When we were in our individual periods, we’d catch passes and make breaks, runs after the ball. A lot of us would try to make a move. Joel had one move: just go straight up the field. He wasn’t going to run around anybody as much as go north-south. He knew his limitations and he wasn’t going to vary them.
Dave Hoffmann, inside LB: There’s a story he tells. I didn’t like anyone running the ball up the middle anywhere between the tackles and I didn’t like somebody running a route across my face. I took offense to that. He came in and his eyes were on the ball, I have to give him credit. He was trying to catch that thing. He knew I was there and still came. He did what he was asked to do.
McHale: What happened was: You’re running the plays for the other team. If the play is successful, you run it again. The first time we ran it, the ball was thrown my way, I caught it and Dave Hoffmann leveled me. Then you hear, “We’re doing it again.” The wind has been knocked out of me and has not come back yet. We run this play again. I catch the ball — same thing, Dave levels me. So I got the wind knocked out of me twice. And then they wanted to run the play a third time, I don’t know why. I look up and I can’t breathe. I look at Dave and he’s looking at me and says, “You’re okay.” I just basically ran off the field.
Conwell: He was a funny guy to be around. He made me laugh a lot. High level D-I football can be a stressful environment for young athletes. It’s always good to have guys around you that are comic relief at times or break the silence.
McHale: I know I got the most respect from the entire team on skit night, of course.
Hoffmann: When we went down to the bowl games, we had talent shows. One time in particular, the old joke was no matter what your injury was, it was ice and ibuprofen. He was the trainer [and would say] ‘Ice and Advil!’ And then the guy comes in with a huge tumor coming out the top of his head and he said, ‘Ice and ibuprofen!’
McHale: I did it about the team doctor, who basically, no matter how bad your injury was, he’d say, "You can play, right?" I played the doctor. A player would come in with a hurt ankle and it was just like, “We’ll ice it and give you some Advil.” Then a player would come in with a broken leg. Then we dragged this body in and it was, “Let’s ice him up and give him some Advil and he’ll be fine.” Then of course the kicker came in – kickers never get hit – "I jammed my thumb," or something very small. That’s when I said, “Bring the cortisone shot! Bring the gurney!” They very much appreciated that.
I started in January of 1992 and left in August of ’93. There’s a side of me that would have loved to play. The time spent there I felt was very precious and I learned a ton. I was doing school, I was doing football and I was doing theater and those days really taught me about work ethic and what you have to do: You have to work really hard at the thing you love doing to be able to do it.