For more than forty years, Dennis Quaid has served as Hollywood’s idea of the quintessential American man. He’s pulled a dozen stints playing square-jawed soldiers in everything from The Right Stuff (1983) to Midway (2019). Like most leading men, Quaid has also seen his fair share of sheriffs, detectives, and government agents. He’s even played the president a time or two. But nowhere has Quaid’s utilitarian, denim-and-apple-pie manliness been applied more aptly—or more prolifically—than to the sports movie. 

Quaid’s next project, The Hill, finds the Houston native on that old, familiar playing field. Written by Angelo Pizzo, of Rudy and Hoosiers fame, the film sounds like spiritual kin to both of those movies, again reaching back to mid-century America to tell the inspirational true story of Fort Worth–born pitcher Rickey Hill, who overcame a childhood disability to fulfill his dream of playing professional baseball. According to Deadline, Quaid will star as Hill’s father, a stern Baptist preacher whose instinct to protect his son often gets in the way of supporting him. 

The Hill promises to be a film about persistence, about overcoming the odds, and about finding the best in ourselves. In other words, it’s a sports movie, a genre that Quaid has all but owned since he landed his first credited film role in 1977’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (which, rather presciently, was as a baseball player). By my count, The Hill will mark Quaid’s fourteenth or fifteenth sports movie, depending on whether you want to include the 2004 romantic comedy In Good Company, in which Quaid works for a sports magazine. But even if you don’t, fourteen is a lot. It’s higher than the tally of Kevin Costner, an actor who’s often misattributed as the “King of the Sports Movie.” Granted, Costner’s sports movies tend to outperform Quaid’s (and everyone else’s) at the box office. But Quaid’s ubiquity should count for something, perhaps more. 

Quaid himself has acknowledged an “unspoken” rivalry with Costner, and it’s easy to see why he might feel that way. They both came up in the eighties, occupying a similar niche of idealized white American masculinity. Each has alternated between stalwart, good-guy roles playing suit-clad G-men and plaid-shirted dads just trying to save the family farm. Both of them even moonlight as the frontmen of earnest, country-tinged roots-rock bands (Dennis Quaid and the Sharks; Kevin Costner and Modern West). Yet, although they have often seemed equally, even eerily, matched, there has always been the sense that Quaid stands slightly in Costner’s shadow, the Doc Holliday to Costner’s Wyatt Earp (1994), if you will. 

That’s not entirely fair. Quaid has much better comedic instincts; it’s hard to picture Costner pulling off the cocky flyboy that Quaid plays in 1987’s sci-fi farce Innerspace, for example. Costner does the more convincing Jimmy Stewart. But it’s not for nothing that some have suggested the two actors are near-interchangeable. Particularly when it comes to their sports movies, it almost seems like a simple twist of fate that Costner netted enduring classics like Bull Durham (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989), while Quaid ended up in the mostly forgotten The Rookie (2002).

By dividing the load, Quaid and Costner have covered just about every major American sport on screen: baseball, football, auto racing, cycling. Neither of them has done a hockey, tennis, or volleyball movie yet. (Although, to be fair, would anyone see it if they did?) And somehow, even though Quaid was once named the best celebrity golfer by Golf Digest, only Costner has hit the links on-screen in 1996’s Tin Cup

But Quaid’s also played a surfer and a sport fisherman. He’s done movies about soccer, Toughman competitions, and mixed martial arts. It’s almost like he racks up sports films out of territorial aggression, however friendly or unconscious. After all, he’s admitted in interviews that he wasn’t much of an athlete growing up—not like Costner, anyway, who played for his high-school baseball and basketball teams. Quaid flunked his high-school football tryouts. The coach deemed him too small; all the dominant physical genes had gone to his brother, Randy (which, when combined with Randy’s growing paranoia, would eventually create something truly terrifying). Quaid said he didn’t mind missing out on Friday night lights: “I hate getting hit,” he told ESPN. He joined the drama club instead, and bowled (“I was a really avid bowler when I was a teenager. I had about a 210–220 average,” he said to ESPN).

And therein lies the key difference between Quaid and Costner: Costner wins in his sports movies. His characters may start off as washouts and never-weres, but they eventually train hard, clinch the big game, and prove everyone wrong for doubting them. Quaid’s characters often start out with the expectation—even the burden—of greatness, only to see those ambitions falter. He laid the template for this early in his career with 1979’s Breaking Away, in which Quaid played Mike, the high-school quarterback who knows deep down that he’s already peaked. “I gotta live in this stinkin’ town, and I gotta read in the newspapers about some hotshot kid, new star of the college team,” Mike laments. “Every year, it’s gonna be a new one. Every year it’s never gonna be me.”

In Everybody’s All-American (1988), Quaid’s Gavin Grey makes the leap from wunderkind to NFL professional, but he quickly realizes that he’ll never be truly great. Grey ends up burned-out and bitter, consumed by his glory days. In Any Given Sunday (1999), Quaid’s “Cap” Rooney is a veteran starting quarterback, but his success has taken a huge toll on his health and personal life. At best, Quaid’s athletes are allowed minor triumphs, like that of Jim Morris in The Rookie—winning the big game not as some first step toward stardom, but as a way of satisfying some small piece of himself that’s always hungered for more, however fleetingly. Time and again, Quaid plays characters whose dreams are deferred, outright dashed, or revealed as tangential to finding true fulfillment.  

Yes, Quaid’s sports movies are often formulaic underdog stories, which please viewers on an elemental level. But they often touch on the bitter truths behind those fantasies—the pressures, injuries, and incredible risks that athletes suffer through, only to wind up tossed aside for the next “hotshot kid.” They question the sports-movie myth, even as they remind us of why we’re drawn to it in the first place. 

These days, as professional leagues grapple more openly with issues of exploitation and racial inequality, with concussions and cheating, and with the ethics of playing ball during a pandemic, there’s not much to fantasize about. It makes sense that The Hill’s Angelo Pizzo is once again looking back to an earlier time for inspiration; he’s definitely not alone in wanting to return the sports movie to a simpler past of old-fashioned optimism and rah-rah pride as a brief reprieve from the politicized mess of the present. 

And, really, what better way to bridge that divide than by having Dennis Quaid, that bruised yet determined avatar of the American spirit, play a jaded man who sees only the pain that sports can bring, then becomes convinced anew of their power to elicit the very best in ourselves? Okay, sure: maybe Costner could have played it. But only Quaid, the true king of the sports movie, could put that much skin in the game.