Eddie George has spent a lifetime in the spotlight. That would be more than enough for most people. Not Eddie.
Who is Eddie George? It's a simple enough question on its surface. Ohio State fans remember the Heisman Trophy-winning running back as a legend, a man with his name stamped on the upper echelons of the 'Shoe. Tennessee Titans fans recall him as the longtime powerhouse of their offense who propelled them to within one agonizing yard of a Super Bowl victory. But his All-Pro football career was over just five years later, and at age 31, he was faced with that question—if he was no longer a football player, who was he?
He turned to acting to fill the void. This second calling brings him back to Columbus as Billy Flynn, the fast-talking, fast-living lawyer in the acclaimed musical “Chicago,” which runs from Feb. 6–11 at the Palace Theatre. In 2016, he performed the role for eight weeks on Broadway and has been touring off and on since. He also has played Othello and Julius Caesar in Shakespearean productions and Walter Lee in “A Raisin in the Sun” with various theater groups in Nashville. In conversation, he discusses playwrights and poets like James Weldon Johnson, Lorraine Hansberry and Suzan-Lori Parks, as well as the merits of acting teachers like Sanford Meisner and Uta Hagen. He has been acting for as long as he was a college and pro football player combined.
So he's an actor then? Yes, but that's not all. There are his namesake restaurants—Eddie George's Grille 27 at the airport and Grandview Yard. He's teaching a pro sports business class at Ohio State again this semester, and he has held several sports broadcasting jobs over the years. He's a silent partner in Edge, the landscape architecture and urban planning firm he co-founded, which has offices in Columbus, Toledo and Nashville. In the parlance of his newest venture, the Edward George Wealth Management Group, he has diversified his business portfolio.
He and his wife Taj Johnson-George, a singer in the popular R&B group SWV, live in Nashville with their son Eriq. (George's older son Jaire is nearby at Vanderbilt University, where he plays fullback for the football team.) George was relaxing at home with his family when he first talked to Columbus Monthly during a holiday break from the “Chicago” tour. His OSU class was days from commencing and he was prepping for a February trip to LA to audition for a TV pilot when he spoke to us again two weeks later.
So who is Eddie George really? His talents are many, and his ambitions are greater still. One consistent characteristic since Ohio State fans met the hardscrabble Philadelphia native 27 years ago: He has always wanted more. He was a football player then, an 18-year-old with a proclivity for scoring touchdowns, hindered briefly by a problem hanging onto the football.
Your career at Ohio State started off rocky after the freshman year loss to Illinois. By your senior year you were a star, but did you have a chip on your shoulder as you were trying to prove yourself?
Yeah, I fumbled twice against Illinois, and basically I had to work my way back up, to gain the trust of not only my teammates and my coaches but of myself. … So yeah, I had a chip on my shoulder about how I was perceived and what I wanted to accomplish and become as a football player.
Did winning the Heisman Trophy serve as vindication for you?
I'm going to have to say so. I think winning the Heisman—I think it's the coup de grâce of all sports. And it's the pinnacle that every athlete wants to reach, to hoist up that trophy to say, yeah, for at least that year, you were considered the best college football player in the country. And I think it was the exclamation point to a lot of people that doubted my skill set, doubted me as a running back, as an athlete. To get there was sheer determination, God's will and my purpose.
Chris Spielman, another Buckeye great, is currently suing Ohio State in part because players weren't compensated for having their images on banners that hang around the stadium, one of which features you. Do you think players should be paid for marketing and promotions like that?
I don't mind giving to the university, but I think it's only right that we be brought to the table and say, “OK, this is something that we want to do for the stadium in terms of more marketing, but here's also an opportunity for you to be a part of it,” whether that be monetarily, whether that be through various speaking engagements. There's room enough to negotiate something that everybody benefits from it, and I guess from Chris' perspective, and even my perspective, it was done egregiously, and that's not how you do business. And it's just another example of how sometimes universities can take advantage of former athletes and current athletes.
Searching to find what's next after football is a fairly common problem among NFL players. Why is finding that second purpose so difficult?
Well, everybody's different, and you need to think about your life, you know. If there was a timetable on how long you could be a writer and that ends—so what do you do next? Like in the military, once your time is done, it's, “What happens now?” Because football is not—the skills are not transferrable to everyday life, so now you have to redefine yourself, reinvent yourself. You learn a few things or learn a new skill set and start from the bottom and work your way up.
What was that struggle like for you?
It was difficult. Definitely difficult to find what was next. I put so much of my passion and desire and heart and soul into the game of football. I got my degree, I got all those things, but I don't think emotionally that I was ready to make that transition. So it was very difficult, but through faith and my family and the persistence to find what was next, I was able to find a mix of entrepreneurship and entertainment.
What have you found that you really respond to about acting, about being on stage?
The ability to tell stories through a character's eyes, to lose a sense of who I am or allow different parts of me to tell this character and tell the truth in that setting. I've enjoyed it. The stakes are extremely high when you're on the stage. I mean, there's nowhere to hide. It's like the football field.
I wanted to dip my toe into it, and I found I loved telling stories. And I really enjoyed the whole notion of being on stage and having the opportunity to develop a character from what the script tells you to being on stage with the other actors, trusting them. So it was really an opportunity for me to really find myself in the character—I could create a totally different being on stage.
I was just watching the NFL Network's A Football Life documentary on you, and you mentioned that your mother used to take you to theater shows when you were a kid. At the time you didn't necessarily appreciate that, but do you think that planted a seed to grow later in life?
Oh, absolutely. I think I had no idea what it was going to manifest into. [She] used to force me into things I hated doing, but I really thank her for doing that because it exposed me to a lot from a culture standpoint through the arts, and I didn't know that I would gravitate back toward that after my playing days were done. So it was kind of like a lifeline, if you will, for me to explore that side of me.
How much of your success, both on and off the field, do you trace back to your mom's influence?
Oh, a lot of it. My mom was the engine that made everything run. She supported me, not financially, but supported my dreams and believed in me and made some tough decisions for me. And my mom's a warrior. I draw a lot of strength from her, a lot of advice from her when things are tough and I don't think I can accomplish something. I'll look at some of the things that she's gone through in her life to this day to help me move along. So she's been like a tremendous, tremendous role model for me growing up, and even now that I'm a grown man.
You said that acting is a lifeline for you. How so?
Well, it gave me an opportunity to explore a side of myself that I didn't know I had, and to explore other gifts that I didn't know were there, and to develop that and to cultivate that and to see how it's blossoming. It gave me another sense of purpose, another time to want to perform and to express myself, much like how football did for me.
I've heard that you were obsessive about learning to become an actor. Is that just the way you approach things in general? Are you kind of an all-or-nothing personality?
Absolutely. I don't go into anything halfway or try to cut corners on anything, whether it's as an entrepreneur or a father or an actor. I try to dot every i, cross every t. It's very meticulous.
How would you describe your method of acting?
I really don't necessarily, I guess, have a method other than try to tell the truth, just try to get to the core of telling the truth. I don't try to manufacture tears if it's not real, or I try not to cue anything or anticipate anything. I just try to be as natural as I can possibly be. And just letting go, that's kind of my thing, is I interpret what the character's trying to achieve, and then letting go in that, letting it be real in those moments.
Richard Gere played the role of Billy Flynn in the “Chicago” movie. How have you taken that role and made it your own?
Every time I hit the stage, it is new. New discoveries are being made every time I do it. … Once you put the outfit on, it kind of just takes control and takes over you, so I just try to let the character speak through my body, and I try to portray that as best I can, given all the information that's provided within the play. … Theater is very much about being in the moment and allowing you to tell the truth, because you want to get something different from each actor every time you do it.
So you think the truth of who Billy is could change moment to moment or night to night?
Oh yeah, absolutely. And that's with Billy Flynn, that's with Walter Lee, that's with Othello, that's with Julius Caesar, you know, that's with any other character that an actor may portray, is that you are constantly allowing that character to grow and to evolve.
What has been the most challenging part of learning to act over the last 13 years or so?
Initially, it was getting beyond the words. You could deliver the words perfectly but without intention, without knowing where you're coming from, where you're going, what you want and what you want to accomplish—that's a totally different deal. And you've got to do a lot of homework in terms of understanding your character, doing the backstory on the character and kind of making some general assumptions for yourself. So just the words on the paper are just one aspect of it, but then there's a whole development process of creating this human being and allowing this human being to breathe, to live and to use the words that were provided by the writer.
Did you struggle at all learning to sing?
I never thought of singing before, but I took voice lessons to help with the speaking voice, and as a byproduct of it, I developed a singing voice. And it allows me to go on stage and have the courage to go out there and sing in front of people, knowing that I'm not a singer by trade. That's just one of the tools in the toolbox. I'm not going to cut an album. I'm not going to go to a local bar and start singing love ballads and jazz songs. I kind of know what my comfort zone is. But I'm pushing, trying to push beyond that to broaden my horizons and to be open to whatever opportunities are there. I'm not going to cut myself off short of opportunities for the fear of what people might think or how I may crack a note or whatever.
Do you ever get advice or tips from your wife on singing?
All the time. Every day [laughs]. Every time I open my mouth. It kind of gets on my nerves, but I know that she won't let me go out there sounding crazy.
At least you've got that extra built-in layer of critique to help you. Ultimately, do you have any interest in the movies?
Absolutely. I have no qualms about that at all. You know, I start off in theater, and my goal is to be the best actor I could be, and hopefully the challenge can take me to the realm of movies as well. I mean, I have no objection to that at all, one iota. That's kind of the goal is to get to the silver screen, to do movies, to do film, to do television. … So Denzel [Washington], he's a prime example. He does theater and the movies. When he's not working on a movie set, he's on Broadway doing a run of a Broadway play for three or four months. So his skills are never just dormant. Hopefully, I could get to that level where I'm going between Broadway and Hollywood and have an illustrious acting career and doing projects I love to do with people I want to do it with.
What do you hope to get across to audiences with the one-man show you've been developing, “Where Do Warriors Go?”
Just telling them about my life story, you know, humanizing the athlete and showing that we're all warriors, but we're all vulnerable. We all cry, we all have real life issues, and this is what we go through during the life cycle of our playing days [and] after, how people receive us.
I know you're busy with all your projects and businesses, but when you get spare time what do you enjoy doing?
Oh God, I love going to the movies with my kids in the afternoon when they get out of school. I love to deejay. … I like playing music. I really spend time with my family. I work out a lot. But one thing I want to do more of is just travel around the world with my wife a little bit more and have a chance to see some of the great places and landscapes and landmarks throughout the world. And eat some of the best food in the world [laughs]. That's my next venture.
What food are you most excited to try?
I'm more excited to go to Australia than anything else. Shrimp from Australia, that's what I want to try. Or maybe south of France and go to wine country. That's something I'm yearning to try as well.
OK, so I'm giving you a magic wand. What's one thing you change about yourself?
One thing to change about myself is to be more patient.
What do you need more patience in regards to?
Just in anything. Timing—I want things when I want them. If it were up to me, I'd have five Oscars and be sitting on $50 billion [laughs].
Oh, just little goals like that. OK, so where would you like to be in five years?
Five years—alive, healthy, well. You know, would have hosted Saturday Night Live five times. Won a few Tony Awards and maybe ending up being the owner of an NFL team [laughs]. Lofty goals.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever received and who did it come from?
Boy—I would say my acting coach Anna Maria Franzella, who's no longer with us. She always told me to always tell the truth. Always tell the truth in everything that I do, whether it be a speaking engagement, whether it be having a conversation with my son. It comes from a truthful, honest place and that will always take care of itself.
In A Football Life, you said one of the things that you struggled with as you were making your transition from your NFL career was this question of, “Who am I?” What have you discovered? Who are you?
A man constantly evolving. I never stop. I'm always looking to challenge myself. I'm always looking to grow, building a career, now in entertainment and as an entrepreneur in wealth management. I'm never going to be defined as one thing. It's not going to be a football player, it's not going to be an actor; it's going to be a man who constantly pursues greatness in terms of reminding myself of the things that resonate with me at that particular moment. So 40 years from now, it could be something different that I evolve into.