By Jay Busbee
Special to Page 3

We can count on Tom Cruise to save us from the Martians this summer in "War of the Worlds," but can we count on him to hit a clutch three in the NBA Finals? Can he go yard off Pedro or run down Mike Vick? Just how good an athlete is the movie industry's most bankable actor?

In his 20-plus-year career, Cruise -- who turned to acting only after he got cut from his high school wrestling team -- has played everything from a teenage pimp to an immortal vampire. He's shown skill at handling everything from liquor bottles to samurai swords to Penelope Cruz.

Page 3 puts some of his most memorable athletic roles under the microscope to see if he plays as good a game as he acts.

Football player -- "All the Right Moves" (1982)
The story: Stef Djordjevic (Cruise) is an undersized high school cornerback in the dead-end town of Ampipe, Pa. Trying to get out of the Bruce Springsteen song that is his life, Stef pins his hopes on a college scholarship but Ampipe High's dictatorial coach Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson) stands in his way at every turn.

Behind the scenes: Director Michael Chapman was looking for that authentic gray Rust Belt look, so much so that the crew didn't even shoot on sunny days.

SportsCenter moment: The end of Ampipe's showdown with rival Walnut Heights would be a Not Top 10 for the ages. Just a few ticks on the clock. Up by 4, ball on your own goal line. Take a safety, right? Not if you're Ampipe -- coach Nickerson inexplicably calls for a dive up the middle, Ampipe fumbles and Walnut Heights recovers the ball and wins the game.

Memorable line: "You're not god, Nickerson. You're just a typing teacher." -- Stef Djordjevic

The jock verdict: Cruise would get bulldozed by any halfway decent college receiver, but that's kind of the point. His most impressive scoring comes off the field with classic '80s hottie Lea Thompson.

Pool player -- "The Color of Money" (1986)
The story; Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman, reprising his role from "The Hustler") has given up the pool game for the liquor trade. But when he spots Vincent Lauria (Cruise), a smart-aleck pool player with a "sledgehammer break," he sees a chance to get back in the game. Eddie and Vincent begin a con-game tour of America's pool halls, working their way toward the national 9-ball tournament in Atlantic City.

Behind the scenes: Cruise performed all his own trick shots except the one where Vincent jumps two balls to pocket a third. Director Martin Scorsese had confidence that Cruise could have learned the shot, but doing so would have held up production for two days. Pro player Michael Sigel handled the trick instead. Also, one of the most famous computer games ever took its name from Cruise's response when someone asked him what he was carrying in his cue case. He replied, "Doom."

SportsCenter moment: In a dingy pool hall, Vincent blows his hustler cover in style, running the table and -- in one single camera shot -- sinking the final four balls while practicing some amateur aikido techniques with the cue, smoothing his hair, and singing along to Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London."

Memorable line: "Money won is twice as sweet as money earned" -- Fast Eddie says in one of his many lessons to Vincent.

The jock verdict: No CGI at work here. Cruise is competent enough with the stick (or the off-camera production assistants have quick enough hands) that he could actually win a game or two.

NASCAR driver -- "Days of Thunder" (1990)
The story: Cole Trickle (Cruise) is a hotshot street racer with no clue how to handle a NASCAR stock car. Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall), a grizzled old stock-car Yoda, molds Cole into a champion driver. Along the way, Cole violates several dozen laws of physics and NASCAR etiquette but still manages to bag a lovely neurologist (Nicole Kidman).

Behind the scenes: More than 35 Chevy Luminas were wrecked during filming. Remember the scene where Cole and rival Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker) race on the beach, scattering seagulls before them? The filmmakers scattered birdseed to attract the birds and, in the first take, most of the birds were run over.

SportsCenter moment: Pretty much every single death-defying race in the movie. Cole and Rowdy trade enough paint to stock a Home Depot for the first few races, but a dramatic multi-car pileup finally puts both of them in the hospital and Rowdy on ice.

Memorable line: Cole: "The (s.o.b.) just slammed into me!"
Harry: "No, no, he didn't slam into you, he didn't bump you, he didn't nudge you. He rubbed you. And rubbin', son, is racin'."

The jock verdict: Cruise trained at the Skip Barber Racing School in Connecticut, but the film's insurers wouldn't let him do his own stunts. He grimaces behind the wheel and shouts into his mike as realistically as anybody else, though. NASCAR purists are divided on whether the movie helped or harmed their sport, but most agree that Cole's pretty-boy looks presaged Jeff Gordon and other telegenic, media-friendly drivers.

Boxer -- "Far and Away" (1992)
The story: Joseph Donnelly (Cruise) is an Irish tenant farmer and Shannon Christie (Kidman) is the daughter of the landlord who bankrupts Donnelly's family. They head to the New World together, fighting their way through Boston and finally taking part in the 1893 Oklahoma land rush. Along the way, Joseph scrapes up cash by taking on all comers in bare-knuckle bar fights.

Behind the scenes: Cruise took some serious grief for his Irish brogue, which at times made him sound like the Lucky Charms leprechaun, but it was actually more linguistically accurate than Kidman's upper-crust Dublin accent.

SportsCenter moment: The barroom fighting is mostly a toe-to-toe cascade of Andrew Golota-esque kidney punches, head butts, and below-the-belt shots. But Cruise pulls off some sweet "float-like-a-butterfly" footwork before knocking his opponent horizontal four feet off the ground.

Memorable line: "There's a goat over there. Go improve your love life," Donnelly says to one of his brothers.

The jock verdict: Cruise handles himself well enough in the ring. Even if he's not quite Russell Crowe in "Cinderella Man," he's not as bad as Johnny Knoxville in the Butterbean scene of "Jackass" either. He looks like he's pulling his punches a bit, but he gives at least as well as he gets.

Sports agent -- "Jerry Maguire" (1996)
The story: Jerry Maguire (Cruise) is a sports agent who's got it all -- star clients, cash money, and a gorgeous fiancée. But when an injured player's kid curses Jerry for trying to rush his dad back into play, Jerry decides to seek a higher purpose in life and promptly gets fired for it. With loyal assistant Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger), and his lone client, Arizona Cardinals receiver Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Jerry sets about reclaiming both his career and his life.

Behind the scenes: Writer/director Cameron Crowe actually wrote the script to Jerry Maguire for Tom Hanks and Winona Ryder. But Hanks had to pull out, and screen tests showed that Cruise and Ryder looked like brother and sister. So Ryder was out, and Zellweger was in -- but not before Courtney Love, of all people, got some consideration for the Dorothy role.

SportsCenter moment: Rather than accept a mediocre contract offer, Tidwell has decided to play out his contract year and wait for the free-agent bucks. But in a Monday Night Football game against the Cowboys, Tidwell snags a touchdown pass and the Cowboy defense augurs him straight into the ground. Does he lie on the field a suitably long time before stirring? Does he rise to his feet, prance like Deion Sanders, then breakdance to the roar of the crowd? Hey, the line of the movie isn't "Show me the tragedy."

Memorable line: "Show me the money" and "You had me at hello" are all-time classics, ranking No. 25 and No. 52 respectively on the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Movie Quotes. But no line captures the life of the agent better than Jerry's spiel to a prospective client: "I will not rest until I have you holding a Coke, wearing your own shoe, playing a Sega game featuring you while singing your own song in a new commercial starring you, broadcast during the Super Bowl in a game that you are winning, and I will not sleep until that happens."

The jock verdict: Cruise's turn as the agent-with-a-soul is regarded as one of his finest performances -- though some in the sports world still see it as complete fiction. In the Cincinnati Enquirer, Bengals GM Mike Brown observed that, "If they can make Larry Flynt a hero [in The People vs. Larry Flynt case], they can make an agent a hero."

Card player -- "Rain Man" (1987)
The story: Charlie Babbitt (Cruise) is the ultimate '80s lizard -- money-obsessed and materialistic. But after his father's death, Charlie discovers that he has an autistic brother named Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) -- a brother who received the bulk of their father's $3 million estate. Charlie "liberates" Raymond from his Cincinnati institution, intending to use Raymond to claim his share of the fortune, but their journey west changes Charlie in unexpected ways.

Behind the scenes: Hoffman had originally intended to play the part of Charlie and director Barry Levinson considered Jack Nicholson and Bill Murray for the role of Raymond.

SportsCenter moment: When Charlie realizes Raymond has preternatural counting abilities, he puts his older brother to work counting cards in Caesar's Palace and soon the brothers Babbitt have racked up $86,000 in chips. Norman Chad would be proud.

Memorable line: "There's no one in the world who can count into a six-deck shoe," says a Caesar's Palace security guard watching as Raymond does just that.

The jock verdict: It's a stretch to call a card player a jock, but if we go that route, Charlie Babbitt might be the only card player more annoying than Phil Hellmuth. And the whole matching-tieless-charcoal-suits look may not have been the best choice for a couple of card-counters hoping to remain low-profile.