Benjamin Aycrigg says he didn't set out to make a career of stunt work — he was just looking for a physical activity to replace football. • The Riverview native, 22, played defensive end and outside linebacker for Riverview High School and Northwestern College in Iowa, but in 2011, he returned to Florida with no football scholarship and plenty of time to fill. A job at Medieval Times, complete with swordplay and horseback riding, seemed to fit the bill. • "It definitely sparked my interest," Aycrigg said of his role as an apprentice at the Orlando dinner theater. "That's how I fell into stunt work." • In the three years since, Aycrigg has stayed in Orlando, performing as (or, in theme park parlance, "becoming good friends with") a pirate, Disney's Prince Charming and a Durmstrang student at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. • But now the football player-turned-stunt performer has landed a role in "Marvel Universe Live," the superhero bacchanalia that opened at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Thursday and remains in town through Sunday. • In the show, Aycrigg plays Cyclops, the X-Men field general who can emit beams of energy from his eyes. He recently spoke with Times staff writer Victoria Jacobsen about training to be Cyclops, Godzilla and why he doesn't mind being scared on the job.
You've done a lot of work in Florida, but what is it like to be back performing in the Tampa Bay area?
It's cool being in the (Tampa Bay Times) Forum. I used to go and watch the Lightning play there, and now I get to perform there, so it's a pretty wild experience.
What were your family members' reactions when you told them you were going into stunt work?
My parents have always been scared, but they kind of knew it was going to happen. I come from a family of musicians, so this isn't a normal thing. But I feel like my dad knew [I would do something physical] when I started playing football and started playing in the back yard, swinging a sword around all the time. My mom is always scared, but they back me 100 percent. The more they see it, the more skills I acquire, the more comfortable they feel with it. They think I should pursue it as a career because it's something I really love and they love it, too.
Were you into Marvel comics and superheroes when you were a kid?
Not as much, no. But this show has definitely boosted my Marvel fandom. I was more into Godzilla — that was my guy. But ever since I've been on the show, it's been a complete 180. I absolutely love Marvel and have so much respect for the company and franchise.
What's the best part of your role as Cyclops?
In the finale of the show, we come storming out on a Jeep and I get to jump off the Jeep and knock out the alien Chitauri. That small part there is a big rush, so I like doing that.
What's the most physically challenging thing you have to do as Cyclops?
It's just doing the fight choreography in a full costume that has pretty low visibility. It's all stuff I've done before, but all that added extra stuff makes it very challenging. But it's also very rewarding because it's an obstacle to overcome, which is always very fun as a performer.
What's one stunt that you would like to do one day that you haven't had the opportunity to try yet?
I would love to be in a film with a giant battle. I always thought it would be kind of cool to do a WWI scene where you're charging out of a trench and there's explosions going off and guys being launched off air rams. That's just an exciting stunt, and just being involved in such a massive scene would be a really cool thing to be a part of.
Now that you've done both, what's harder: stunt work or football?
In a stunt, you know what's going to happen. If you're in a barroom scene where you need to get your head smashed on a table and smash a glass, you know that's going to happen. And the thought of using your head to smash a glass is kind of terrifying. Even knowing you can do it safely, you know it's going to hurt.
Football, you just know the game's going to happen and you don't really know how you're going to fall, how you're going to get hit, what's going to happen. It's nerve-racking not knowing what's going to happen. You're going to walk away with more bumps and bruises after a game, but in stunts, you know what's going to happen and that's in your head all day. So they're pretty much on the same level.
Have you ever had a stunt go wrong?
Luckily with this show, not yet. But at Pirate's Dinner Adventure, there was a swing and my rope got caught, so when I was going to swing out I got stuck there and was hanging over the set. Luckily, I had another performer swing out and pull me in. But that was one of those experiences where I realized, "Oh wow, if I wasn't hanging on tight enough, I would fall onto a stage that isn't very forgiving." But luckily, with any of the shows, especially this one, it's so safe and secure I haven't had any real broken bones or anything like that so far, so thank the Lord.
Do you get scared or worried before a big stunt?
Definitely. For high falls, for example, you climb up, and the highest I've gone is 50 feet. So you're walking up there and you finally get to the top, and you're looking down at the airbag you're going to fall into. That's definitely terrifying, no matter how experienced you are. Every time you see that, there's a lot of nerves and anxiety. But once you actually do it, there's a massive rush and you just want to do it again. I guess that's why I keep going back to it. I'm scared every time, but I respect it and I know that once I do it, I'll feel so accomplished.
Contact Victoria Jacobsen at email@example.com or (813) 661-2442. Follow @TwitrlessVicky.