Although Burt Reynolds is sure to be remembered on a national scale as one of acting’s leading men in the 1970s, longtime residents will surely remember him for his ties to sports — both in Tampa and across the state.
Reynolds, who died Thursday at age 82, was a star running back at Florida State before a knee injury cut his career short. But it was years later, when the name that was synonymous with one of his most well-known roles became the identity of Tampa Bay’s entry in the fledgling United States Football League in the early 1980s, that he made his indelible mark on Tampa Bay sports.
Reynolds was a minority owner of the now-defunct Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League from 1983-86, the team’s only years of existence. He also was one of the most prominent figures associated with the team.
Named only in part after Reynolds’ role in Smokey and the Bandit, the Bandits were coached by Steve Spurrier and quarterbacked by Tampa native John Reaves, who died in Aug. 2017. The team led the USFL in total attendance and had an average attendance of over 43,000 fans a game.
The Bandits were successful in the USFL, both on the field and in the seats of Tampa Stadium, going 35-19 in three seasons as Reynolds famously watched on from the sideline with fellow celebrities at his side.
Featured on the cover of the Bandits’ 1983 media guide was a head shot of Reynolds, who was smiling and donning a classic 80’s-style Bandits hat and jacket.
Before playing the role of a football player in The Longest Yard, Reynolds was a real-life player and a highly touted recruit out of West Palm Beach. His play earned him a scholarship to play football at FSU in the 1950s, where he would then room and build a lifelong connection with future coach and ESPN broadcaster Lee Corso.
Reynolds rushed for 134 yards on 16 carries his freshman season. A knee injury in the first game of his sophomore year, however, would ultimately cut his career short.
Despite the career-ending injury, Reynolds remained connected to FSU football over the years as he simultaneously rose to fame in Hollywood.
"We have always stayed in touch," Corso told the Associated Press. "It was just two weeks ago that we were talking about the upcoming college football season, and the ‘Noles. Burt, better known as ‘buddy’ to his friends, loved FSU football and no matter how big a star he became, he never forgot his friends from the FSU football family."
Rob Wilson, FSU’s associate athletic director, said in a release Friday that Reynolds would put his arm around former FSU coach Bobby Bowden "like he never wanted to let go."
The release also touched on Reynolds’ inadvertent marketing of the program in the height of his stardom, saying the south Florida native consistently hung FSU pennants at the set of his movies and "constantly sung the praises of the Seminoles."
"He loved Florida State and he loved Florida State football," Bowden told the Tallahassee Democrat on Thursday. "What you saw on film is what you got. That was Burt. He acted as himself. That courage and physical skill. He was a great guy. When he’d come to games, we’d sit in my office and tell jokes. He had a great sense of humor."
Reynolds’ inadvertent marketing of the Seminoles turned direct following the 1980 season after he "decided the Seminoles’ uniforms weren’t flashy enough for television," according to Wilson.
So, to revamp the team’s uniforms, the then 44-year-old Reynolds went to a costume designer friend in Hollywood and designed all-gold pants as well as other tweaks to the Seminoles’ game jersey, according to the release. He then had jerseys made for the team and shipped to Tallahassee, along with a note, "If you like ‘em, wear ‘em."
The Seminoles did.
And as the star is now gone, his fans and friends, from both the world of sports and film, have take to social media to praise and remember Reynolds.