Did James Caan REALLY Play Football At MSU?
It was all over his obituary last week, that James Caan played college football at Michigan State, but in interviews Caan was always truthful about how much of stretch that was.
The Definition Of 'Having Played College Football' Would Be To Win A Varsity Letter
Caan did indeed walk on to the practice field in East Lansing with dreams of being a pro football player, and the intent of making the football team way back in 1956.
However, Caan, who graduated high school at the tender age of 16, may have overshot his goal. The undersized running back was told by the coaches on Duffy Daugherty's staff that it may not be in the best interest of his health to stay on the field with the big boys.
There is no shame in not making that 1956 MSU Spartan team. They were good, they wound up with a 7-2 record, and ranked #9 in the nation.
So Caan did technically 'play football' at Michigan State, but by the standard of having to be on a roster, and win a varsity letter, NO, he did not.
Caan Never Lied About His Limited Playing Time
In his defense, Caan was always was upfront in interviews about how limited his football involvement was at State, saying in one 2004 interview that he was just "a tackling dummy" during his brief tenure on the Michigan State practice field.
When asked what position he played, he did not hesitate: 'Tackling dummy. They sent me home in a box.'
In the book 'They Are Spartans', Caan recalled running into Daugherty years later, 'Here's one of my dummies,' Caan said the legendary coach told him, 'I should be getting ten percent of your salary. I'm the one who convinced you to quit football.'
It's quite possible that a publicist trumped up his brief football role to promote his breakthrough role as halfback Brian Piccolo in the classic TV film "Brian's Song", and Caan, known for loving a practical joke, went along with it, making it seem bigger than it was.
Caan May Have Also Tried And Failed To Make The Swimming Team At MSU
Caan has also been mentioned in obituaries as having tried out for the swim team at MSU after failing at football, although that claim is even more murky than his football career, as he does not show up on any swim team roster in either 1956 or 1957 prior to him leaving East Lansing.
His Wikipedia page says Caan was a member of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, but I could find no verification of that either.
He loved talking about his time in East Lansing and was a big supporter of the Sparty sports teams, so he clearly enjoyed his time there, he just didn't earn an official varsity letter, however, he was given a letter jacket with an honorary letter in 1977, and was very proud of it.
Caan then transferred to Hofstra University in New York, where he settled on what he does best and became an actor.
This is not to say Caan wasn't athletic, he was. Mike Downey, the legendary LA Times sports writer once wrote of Caan:
In his own life, Caan has been a rodeo cowboy, fought bulls, learned karate and, after nine shoulder operations, still works with trainer T.R. Goodman alongside pro athletes. But his hardest task is to sit back and watch (MSU's) first Final Four appearance in 20 years.“I wish I had some Michigan State guys here to watch this thing with me,” Caan says, already anxious, already singing the words to the school’s fight song. Today is his birthday. He knows what he wants.
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