Matt Willig's journey: NFL trenches to Hollywood to working with Jennifer Aniston

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- To commemorate the New York Jets' first game against the Los Angeles Rams since 1992, we decided to seek out a New York-Los Angeles connection.

Say hello to Matt Willig, former football player-turned-actor.

Willig, a 6-foot-8, 315-pound tackle, played for six teams over 14 seasons in the NFL, including three with the Jets (1992-95). He was a backup for most of his career, but claimed a Super Bowl ring as a member of the 1999 St. Louis Rams.

He retired in 2005, returned to his native Los Angeles and got into show business. He has 21 movie credits, including small roles in "We're the Millers" and "Concussion." His next movie, "Keep Watching," opens next month. He also has appeared in 28 TV shows, including "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."

In a phone interview, Willig shared thoughts on his NFL career, his emotional attachment to his role in "Concussion," and a behind-the-scenes story about acting with Jennifer Aniston in "We're the Millers."

What are some of your memories with the Jets?

Matt Willig: The first thing that comes to mind is Dennis Byrd. That was my first year, when he got hurt. Even as I was making the team -- and I was a long shot at best -- he took me around and showed me places where you could live. He was just so freaking open and cool in that respect. I always remembered that.

How did his recent death affect you?

M.W.: When you hear something like that out of the blue, it floods back all the memories from that time and him, especially. To have a tragedy and then a triumph and now this, it really makes you think about life and how fragile it can be. It brought back some smiles, too, because I remember (Jeff) Lageman and Marvin Washington, all those D-lineman I knew, plus (Jeff) Criswell, (Dave) Cadigan and all those guys. It made me re-think all those friendships.

Tell me about your Super Bowl season with the Rams.

M.W.: I didn’t play at all. I always felt a little weird from the outside looking in with that team. I specifically remember Dick Vermeil coming up to me before the Super Bowl game. I wasn’t even dressing. I was in street clothes for the Super Bowl, which was a bummer for me. But he came up and said, "Hey, I want you to know we’re really happy to have you here. You helped the group out, you made us better." That was really cool. That’s something I won't forget. But being part of that, and seeing that "Show" run, it was amazing. People will still be talking about that prolific offense for a long time.

I noticed you're wearing a Super Bowl ring in one of your publicity photos.

M.W.: That was for "Concussion." I don’t bring out my ring very often, but I was talking to a couple of the producers and they said, "You have to bring your ring to the premier." It tied the football world and the acting world together. I don’t wear it very often, but I thought it was an appropriate time to wear it.

In "Concussion," you play Justin Strzelczyk, the former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman who suffered from CTE and was killed in an auto accident. Did that role hit close to home?

M.W.: It came across my radar when they were casting it and it was like, "Wow, this is something I really have to do." You talk about in my wheelhouse. Not only did I fit the role physically, but emotionally, too -- where I'd been, what I'd seen. It was really important for me to be part of it. I think they were really excited to get someone who was in the that world and still could pull off the acting part of it.

Did you know former players with CTE?

M.W.: I was roommates with Junior Seau at Southern Cal and another linebacker who took his life, Scott Ross. I’ve seen it first hand and I've been around it. I've seen guys that are struggling to this day. I consider myself really fortunate to have come out relatively unscathed. It was easy to bring up those emotions while I was working on it. I was able to meet [Strzelczyk's} widow and became friends with her. The bike I rode in the movie was actually his that he rode.

She sent me a boat load of things he wrote. He was a left-brain thinker and he wanted to get into acting. He was a big musician. I learned how to play guitar for the film, a little bit, and I was supposed to sing a song, which ended up getting cut. In a short period of time, I got to know him because of the stuff she sent me.

He would write things he thought, and write poems and write songs. You could see a turn at some point where he started to ramble and not make sense in his writing. I was only in a couple of scenes, but that’s what acting is. You give your best for a short period of time. It was nice to have all those things to lean on.

What was Seau like?

M.W.: It was our freshman year, just coming in out of high school. It didn’t surprise me when I heard about him taking his life only because I knew. I think there are a lot of predetermined factors that go into the severity of CTE and how it affects people. Junior was always an up-and-down guy, always a dual personality. I saw that early on. As high as the highs were, the lows were as low. You thought he had everything going for him, but that’s how deep the depression can get. When you decide to leave a family behind and think that’s the way out, it’s really a tragic, tragic thing.

You played "One Eye," a Mexican drug dealer in "We're the Millers." What was that like?

M.W.: After that movie, I went from, "Hey, aren’t you that guy?" to "Oh, my gosh, you're Matthew Willig." People actually started knowing my name. That changed it for me. People really responded. It was a great movie. It was a lot of fun to be part of, hanging with Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis and really talented people.

So you went from having football teammates like Criswell and Cadigan to Jennifer Aniston in the movies.

M.W.: She was a hell of a lot more pleasing to the eye than looking at Jeff Criswell, I can assure you (laughing).

It was a fun movie to watch. It must have been a fun movie to make.

M.W.: I get that a lot. It really was. My role was a pretty good role and it was placed throughout the making of the the film, so I was around a lot. I got to see a lot of things, watch Jennifer Aniston do her thing. She was very sweet and open and very friendly on the set.

One of the most memorable scenes in the movie was Jennifer Aniston’s dance. What was it like being in that scene?

M.W.: (Laughing) My first scene in the movie was her dance. It was funny because, originally, she was supposed to dance on me. It was one of those things like, "Oh, man, this is going to be amazing." The morning of the shoot, they changed it around. … They’re talking about making another one, so we’ll see what happens.

How did you get into acting?

M.W.: I did a small, B-action movie when I was at Southern Cal. That was my first experience. It started in New York. Jeff Criswell had a Monday night show, a radio show. I was a guest on that for a while. When I got to other teams, I started hosting my own show. I got comfortable talking and doing that whole thing. I did some TV stuff in Carolina and with the 49ers. I got comfortable in front of a camera. Before I retired, I started doing commercials in the offseason. I booked my first audition, which, oddly enough, was a Campbell's soup commercial with Kurt Warner and Terrell Davis.

I got pretty good at this, so I gave it a shot. I started doing it full time when I retired. I've been lucky enough have moderate success at it. I think I'm pretty good at it. It’s rewarding. I would say it has been as rewarding, if not more rewarding than football.

Do you miss football?

M.W.: I miss the hand-to-hand combat, to be honest with you. It was fun being on the sideline last week at the Rams-Carolina game. It was the first game I'd seen since I retired. I wanted to get out there and hit somebody. My palms were getting sweaty just thinking, "Oh, God, I just want to be out there." I do miss that part of it.

Do I wish I had a career that made me a hell of a lot more money and a lot more fame? Yes, but I wouldn't trade it. It's what it was, and it was my path. To have this second career has been a blessing and I don’t take it for granted at all.