BIG RAPIDS – Actor Jeff Hephner's new role playing a firefighter on NBC's popular drama "Chicago Fire" reminds him of his basketball-playing days at Ferris State University.
"Playing a firefighter on TV is kind of like 'guy summer camp,'" Hephner said. "It reminds me of the locker room atmosphere from my basketball days at Ferris – a lot of hard work, but a lot of screwing around. It is exactly what you expect to happen when you put a dozen grown men in a room together and then add fire."
Hephner, a team captain during the Bulldogs' 1998-99 campaign, will play Jeff Clark, a firefighter assigned to Firehouse 51 after city budget cuts forced downsizing. The series' second season premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 24.
Hephner landed the role on "Chicago Fire" when Starz canceled its political drama "Boss" after two seasons. Hephner starred as Illinois state treasurer and governor-elect Ben Zajac opposite Kelsey Grammer, who won an Emmy for his role as terminally ill Chicago mayor Tom Kane.
Despite his disappointment in the cancellation, Hephner is thrilled with his "Chicago Fire" gig.
"I have gotten to do a lot of really cool stuff in this job – working on 'Boss' and another show I did a while back called 'Easy Money' come to mind, but this has got to be right at the top with them," Hephner said.
He is especially happy to once again be working in the Windy City, where "Boss" also filmed.
"I love working in Chicago and being this close to family in Michigan," said the married father of three children and a new puppy. "We often head to Kalamazoo to my dad's place for the weekends. And, being a Midwest guy, I just prefer working here, so I try to take every opportunity I get to do so."
Since he left Ferris in 1999, the Sand Lake native has worked primarily in television, including starring roles on "Easy Money," "Hellcats," "Mercy" and "The O.C.," and guest-starring roles on "CSI: NY," "Castle," "Private Practice," "NCIS" and "Ghost Whisperer," among others.
He also starred in the 2006 TV movie "The Water is Wide" with Alfre Woodard and Frank Langella. His film career includes a small role in 2002's "Maid in Manhattan" with Jennifer Lopez and the upcoming film "Free Ride," a crime thriller starring Anna Paquin.
While it's been a few years since his Ferris days, Hephner credits his time in Big Rapids as a student-athlete with preparing him "in a lot of different ways" for his career in entertainment.
"Coming from a small town, I met and learned how to interact with people I maybe never would have," said Hephner, who spent two years at Calvin College in Grand Rapids before transferring to Ferris. "Your college years are the time to figure out who and what you want to be, and I got to do that at Ferris.
"And being part of the basketball program – especially as not the most gifted member – solidified my perseverance and persistence. Those are two of the most important attributes needed to survive in the entertainment business."
The 6-3 Hephner appeared in 42 games during his three-year Bulldog playing career. He redshirted during the 1996-97 campaign and was a member of the Bulldogs' 1997-98 Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship team.
"I still follow Ferris basketball, by the way," Hephner said. "I was sad to see Coach (Bill) Sall go north, but am excited about what Coach (Andy) Bronkema is gonna do. He's invited me to play in the alumni game in November, and if my schedule allows, I'm gonna be there."