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Terry Crews Interview: Life as an athlete, actor and artist

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Southern California sports fans may recognize Terry Crews from his days as a linebacker with the LA Rams and San Diego Chargers. But over the past decade Crews has made a name for himself as a larger than life actor who could either break you up with laughter or just break you.

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Crews has co-starred in films such as White Chicks, The Expendables, Bridesmaids, as well as numerous TV shows including Everybody Hates Chris, Newsroom and Arrested Development. Crews has been walking a unique line between tough guy and compassionate artist since he was a kid growing up in Michigan, where he lettered in three sports and pursued his passion as a serious artist.

In the next few weeks, Crews celebrates two really big accomplishments. The first is the premiere of his new comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine (airing on Tuesday, September 17 on FOX) and the release of the animated feature, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 (on Sept. 27).

O.C. High School Sports caught up with the 6-foot-2, 245-pound actor to talk about conquering the challenges of pro sports, the art of embracing imperfections, and surviving a city in despair.

O.C. HS Sports: First of all where did you grow up and what high school did you go to?

Terry Crews: I grew up in Flint, Michigan and went to Flint Academy High School – class of 1986. I'm old school (laughs).

OCHSS: Growing up, what were some of your interests & passions?

TC: I was a sports nut. I stayed after school probably three hours every day – from fall, to winter, to spring. I went from football to basketball to track and it started all over again. I loved all of it. I just loved being an athlete and all that it entailed. It really accounts for who I am today and even how I think today.

OCHSS: And you were a talented artist as well, right?

TC: Yes – that's another thing on top of all the sports, I would always be painting and drawing. If I was stuck at home, I was in the basement working on a painting.

I kind of rode this weird line between athlete and artist. It was a little different because most of the athletes were total jocks and most of the artists dressed in black and were kind of considered a little on the fringe. But I hung out with both crowds in my high school. I was with the nerd crowd and with the athletic crowd, so it was really a cool experience.

OCHSS: You weren't pressured to fit in with one certain crowd?

TC: No, I was very fortunate. A lot of my friends weren't interested in fooling around. It was a thing where we all wanted to get somewhere and we all wanted to do big things. In fact, a lot of my classmates have gone on to become very successful in their fields. We all had a goal and it was to make it and to be the best we could be.

OCHSS: Were your parents pushing you in a certain direction or were they supportive in whatever you chose to do?

TC: Well this is the thing – my parents hated sports. I had a dad who was an army guy and he kind of wanted me to go into the military. He was always pushing the military and I just didn't have it in me at the time because sports was just too important to me.

My mother focused more on my grades, but they both loved my artwork and they really pushed me that way. But I knew I couldn't get a full-ride art scholarship. However, I did know that I could get a full-ride football scholarship.

But with me, football was not the end, it was a means of getting out of Flint, Michigan. Because at the time, Flint was going through a tremendous upheaval. The auto industry was going under, the crack epidemic hit really bad and everything was changing. It seemed like the whole city was imploding.

Football, for me, was a way of getting out. You knew you had to escape or you'd be trapped. If you didn't get out and have something else to do you'd be stuck there forever. I had to do something to get out and I said to myself, 'Football – that's my ticket. And I want to ride it as far as I can go.'

OCHSS: Pretty insightful for a young kid to realize that.

TC: If you ever get a chance to watch an old movie called Roger & Me, a documentary by Michael Moore – I lived that whole experience. He filmed that at the exact same time I was in high school.

So, I don't think it took a lot to figure it out because it was just happening. Everybody was moving away, the school's were closing, everyone was talking about big changes and the money wasn't there for different things. It felt like we were in the middle of a collapsing building.

OCHSS: So growing up in that atmosphere, did you have any mentors or coaches who inspired you to stay focused on your goals?

TC: My greatest coach was an assistant coach named Coach Lee Williams. And one day, when I was in the ninth grade, Coach Lee said to me, "Terry Crews, with your athletic ability, there's no way you should not be able to get a scholarship to a division l school." I had never heard anything like that.

My school wasn't a very athletic school. It was more academically oriented, so when he said that, it changed my whole viewpoint. I always knew I would try, but I thought I'd just walk on and hope someone would give me a look. I didn't think I could make it until he said it. And that was all I needed. That was the fuel that took me all the way to the NFL.

OCHSS: Wow, it's amazing how one person, saying the right thing at the right time can influence a kid.

TC: Yep. And the greatest thing happened when I was playing with the Chargers. I flew Coach Lee Williams out to a game. He had just been fired over a dispute with the head coach. We were playing the Kansas City Chiefs and the coaches let him stand on the sidelines with a coach's badge and the whole thing. It was one of my greatest experiences of my life. There he was at an NFL game with coaching credentials and standing right behind me on the sidelines. I just thought, 'Man, life is good.' (laughs). It was the greatest thing ever!

OCHSS: You were drafted by the LA Rams in 1991 – was playing in the NFL everything you dreamed it would be?

TC: It was and it wasn't. What I mean by that is it was just as glorious, just as big, just as unbelievably cool as I imagined. But then on the other hand, it was just as sneaky, just as corrupt and just as wild as I thought it would be too.

What shocked me and what I wasn't prepared for was just how brutal and how unethical some people can be in the NFL. I mean there were some great people, but there were some real snakes too. I was like 'Holy cow!' But it made me a better person and it got me ready for other things (laughs).

OCHSS: So when you retired from football in 1997, what made you decide to get into acting?

TC: Well, I wasn't trying to be an actor at all. With my art background, I was trying to be creative. I wanted to be an animator. I had my portfolio at Disney and different places.

So, acting was a fluke. A friend of mine invited me to an audition – the first audition I ever went on, and I got the job. It was a TV show called Battle Dome and the rest is history. I never stopped acting after that.

OCHSS: Because of your body and build, you've played your share of body guards and brutes. You could have been stereotyped into playing only action-type roles, but you found a comedic niche. How did that come about?

TC: Well, because I'm a nerd (laughs). I told you I hung with both crowds.

I did a movie called Malibu's Most Wanted and even though it was a comedy, I was just playing a sidekick to the main star but I kept doing things that made the director say, "Whoa, he's got something different. He's just not that big guy in the background."

And that actually was the part that led me to getting White Chicks. Another guy on the set recommended me to the Wayan Brothers and one thing turned into another.

OCHSS: You've worked with so many great comics, are there ever times you feel insecure?

TC: Oh yeah, but you learn by failure. You have to resist the temptation of feeling judged and you just have to go for it.

There are times when you try something and nobody laughs and you have to sit in that uncomfortable feeling. And then you say, "You know what? I'm still here. I'm alive." And nobody really cares that much anyway (laughs).

You'll always have that kind of anxiety, but once you realize you can't always be perfect, now you can start over. Now you can grow.

OCHSS: Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for kids out there who might be feeling insecurities about school, social things, sports, or whatever?

TC: The thing that you think is imperfect about you, is the thing that makes you who you are. It separates you from everybody else.

I have a scar on my lip and for years I hated it. But now its become my thing. It's like without it, I'm not me. You can't be perfect, so enjoy your imperfections. I can't stress that enough.

And never let anyone define you. You are the only person who defines you. No one can speak for you. Only you speak for you. You are your only voice.

OCHSS: Great advice!

TC: Well I have five kids and my daughter is 15 and I love her to be just as quirky as she wants to be. They're at that age where they're just figuring things out.

OCHSS: Your new show is called Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It looks super funny. What attracted you to the show?

TC: Andy Samberg. That was the clincher. I've been a fan of his for a long time and I knew we would gel just because of his type of comedy. On top of that, it's from the creators of Parks and Recreations, Dan Goor and Mike Schur, and that's one of my favorite shows on TV. I said to myself, 'Dude this is just a home run all the way.' And then they brought in Andre Braugher and I just said, 'Wow I want to be part of whatever it is they're doing.'

OCHSS: And on top of that, you also have an animated film opening, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2.

TC: I love it! For me to be in this movie and part of this franchise is just the coolest thing ever. Not only did I start out trying to get into animation, the most entertainment I get comes from animated movies. I can't wait until it hits theaters!

OCHSS: It seems like you're always working. When you do get a chance to relax, what do you do?

TC: You know, I relax while I work. It's really weird but my job doesn't feel like work at all. That's why I try to do as much as possible. When I'm on the set, learning lines and playing around, I'm relaxed. It's so amazing.

OCHSS: You seem like you've found the perfect balance between a healthy mind, body and spirit. Do you have a personal motto or life credo you live by that has helped you in your achievements?

TC: It's never really one motto, but I do say this – I want to be a man who mixes strengths and compassion. That's my magic elixir, so to speak. It's great to be strong but strength is nothing without having compassion.

OCHSS: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your insanely busy schedule to share your life stories and offer so many great words of wisdom with us!

TC: You got it! Thanks so much Patty!

Terry Crews Bonus-Round Questions:

OCHSS: What was your favorite Christmas gift as a kid?

TC: A toy drum set.

OCHSS: What kind of music do you listen to while you're working out?

TC: Everything. Alternative, hip-hop, R&B, pop, classical, instrumental – anything that gets me in the day. I don't even know what I'm going to listen to that day, I just turn it on and I'm gone.

OCHSS: If you could be any super hero who would you be?

TC: I would be Major Lazer. I am Major Lazer (laughs). (author's note: I thought Crews was just answering the question hypothetically, but he actually is Major Lazer – check out this video!).

OCHSS: Salty or sweet?

TC: Sweet. I don't play around (laughs).

Our Favorite Terry Crews Moments:

Check out Robin Thicke turning into Crews in a wildly funny clip from BET's "Real Husbands of Hollywood".

Crews goes viral as the visually stimulating and outrageously quirky spokesman for Old Spice.

Terry encourages his fans to check out Heifer International, a non-profit organization that gives gifts of livestock and training to help families all over the world to improve their nutrition and generate income in sustainable ways.

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