The first time LaMonica Garrett Discovered the secret to persevering in a competitive field, he was a high school football player with more of an attitude than a work ethic. His family had moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles not long before, and he’d transferred with one of his friends to a high school where he thought his athleticism would earn him more visibility. Instead, his friend got pulled up to the varsity, and Garrett got held back on the JV team.

“It was everybody else’s fault,” he says. “I came in with an ego that I had to check. I wasn’t working hard. I thought my name alone would bring me in.” 

Few actors working in Hollywood today have a first name as mellifluous as Garrett’s—his parents were fans of former Oakland Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica, and Garrett hopes to someday continue the tradition by naming a son after his childhood hero, 49ers quarter-back Joe Montana. But it’s also true that few successful actors have worked as hard, both in workouts and in auditions, to succeed as Garrett has. At age 42, after spending years sculpting his body and starring at a made-for-TV basketball hybrid called Slamball, after working in short films and taking on small roles in TV series and films, Garrett finally caught his biggest break.

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He plays badass good-guy secret service agent Mike Ritter in the hit ABC show Designated Survivor, starring alongside Kiefer Sutherland. And he attributes much of his success to that high school wake-up call, which taught him both humility and accountability—and drove him into the gym.

Garrett’s dad was a semi-pro football player in Chicago. Since Garrett grew up near the 49ers’ former home, Candlestick Park, he has long been drawn to the sport. After he failed to make the varsity at Burbank High School, he started pushing himself in the weight room, building the titanic abs he’s now known for and becoming a standout player on offense. He went to a Los Angeles junior college for a year, where the only spot open was at linebacker, so he hit the gym even harder, bulking up to play the position. And after transferring to NAIA powerhouse Central State in Ohio, Garrett worked out so much that the team’s strength and conditioning coach gave him his own key to the weight room.

“I got there, and the guy in front of me [on the depth chart] was a stud, but I just kept my mouth shut and worked. He got hurt the first game of the year, and I led the team in tackles,” he says. “That’s been my whole life. I’m not going to be outworked. And I’m not going to stop until I get it right.”

Garrett put on 20 or 30 pounds at Central State, grew a few inches, and started thinking about the NFL—his teammate Hugh Douglas had been drafted by the New York Jets in 1995, so Garrett figured pro football was worth a shot. He had a great Pro Day in front of scouts and coaches—“I still remember my numbers: 37-inch vertical leap,” he says—and had a couple of workouts with the Lions and Rams, but it didn’t pan out. Yet Garrett wasn’t done chasing after long-shot dreams: He’d always been interested in acting once his football career was over, so he moved to Los Angeles and told himself he’d keep after it until he succeeded. If actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Hugh Jackman could persevere for years before making it, so could he. “This is it,” he said to himself. “I don’t have a Plan B.”

He took a job driving a FedEx truck to pay for his acting classes, delivering packages to Clint Eastwood’s production company and to the Warner Bros. lot. He observed on the set as shows like ER and Friends were being filmed and thought to himself, “How can I angle to do this?” But he kept coming back to what he’d learned in high school, even as friends (like Isaiah Mustafa, another former football player, best known as the Old Spice guy) began to succeed first: There is no angle except hard work.

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He started playing slamball, a hyper-adrenalized basketball hybrid involving trampolines and forceful dunks, and eventually became the league’s leading scorer. It was an outlet for his athleticism, a reason to stay in shape, but acting was still his driving force. When the TV show One Tree Hill decided to film a slamball-related story line, Garrett begged for an audition. He nailed it, got the part, and landed an agent, and then smaller roles in shows like NCIS and Mike & Molly led to bigger roles in shows like Sons of Anarchy, which led to the Designated Survivor audition.

“We needed someone who could throw Jack Bauer into a car, you know?” says David Guggenheim, the creator of Designated Survivor (which will begin its second season this fall). “But there’s also an emotional core goodness to LaMonica—he’s a protector in this role, so you sort of want that. And I think it’s always great when you get someone who’s clearly been working their ass off and understands some of the struggles, so they appreciate what they’ve got.”

Even now, Garrett isn’t above owning up to his failures. Ask him about one of the terrible auditions he survived amid his ascent, and he has to go back only three or four years to a time he was up for a high-profile role, saw a bunch of recognizable actors in the waiting room, and choked. “I’m like, ‘Man, how am I even here?’ ” he says. “I just forgot everything I studied. I just kept blacking out on the lines. I tried it once more, blacked out again, and then the next time I blacked out I just said, ‘Hey, guys, I’m sorry for wasting your time,’ and walked out of there.”

But Garrett had learned long ago how to move on from a bad day, and how to endure in the fickle worlds of both sports and Hollywood. His remedy remains the same as it’s been since high school: He hits the gym, another one of those places where there are no angles beyond hard work.

“To me, working out, yoga—it’s my therapy,” he says. “That’s how I wake up in the morning and keep myself grounded.”