If his life had turned out differently, we all might know Dean Cain as an NFL player, not an actor. The California-bred star, who famously played Clark Kent for four seasons of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, spent his formative years training to become a professional athlete. “When you’re in the NFL, of course, you want to continue,” Dean, who spent a year with the Buffalo Bills before an injury forced his early retirement, exclusively told Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “It was a bummer, but at least I got there.”

Acting seemed a natural second choice. Not only were Dean’s parents in the business — his dad is a director and his mother, an actress — but he also famously dated Brooke Shields when they were both students at Princeton University. “She’s one of my favorite people in the world,” he said.

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Dean has worked consistently since his days on Lois & Clark, but being a single dad to his son Christopher (with his ex-girlfriend Samantha Torres) has been his greatest priority. “I feel like my career is just starting in a way, because for [more than] 18 years I’ve been raising my son,” he explained. “I coached his teams, rarely missed a game and wouldn’t take the starring role in any TV series — I’d only do ensembles in LA or movies for two weeks or less where I could take him with me. My number-one priority in this entire world has always been to be a father.” Scroll down to read our exclusive Q&A interview with Dean!

So, Dean, you spent Super Bowl Sunday hosting Kitten Bowl IV. Was it fun?

Sure. So we kind of go crazy, people adopt cats and it’s great fun! These are all little kittens that need to be adopted. We work with the Hallmark Channel and North Shore Animal League America — they have a shelter pet adoption event for every Kitten Bowl. Rodney Peete, who’s a very good friend and a former NFL player, as am I — we do color commentary and give you back stories on some of the players.

Commentary should have come easy to you thanks to your history with the NFL.

I was only [with the Buffalo Bills] for a short time. I got injured as a rookie and had to find something else to do, but I played football forever. It was a huge part of my life and self-image for 13 years. The first sport I played was basketball at around 7. Some kid kept guarding me, so I threw him to the ground. My dad said, “I bet he’d be a good football player.” It’s the truth!

You landed the role of Clark Kent at 27. Do you ever hear, “Oh, there’s Superman” when you walk outside your house?

I live in Malibu, I grew up there, and there are 70 people more famous than I’ll ever be within a mile radius. So no, I don’t get that at all. I hear it on the street sometimes.

You’ve always been viewed as him. Has that ever bothered you?

Why would that bother me? I’ve often said that I’ve been called worse. I’ve done 150-something movies since then, I’ve got four coming out right now, and I don’t worry about that at all. It gets tough when you’re playing sports, though, because when somebody intercepts your pass or knocks you down, it’s, ‘Hey, get out of here Superman!’

What’s your favorite role?

Clark Kent/Superman because that was the role that put me on the map. It was a fantastic experience and a great honor.

What made you want to be an actor?

I didn’t know that 100 percent. I grew up on film sets and was doing film stuff since I was 5. It was kind of fun, we had a good time, but it wasn’t a big deal. An agent saw [my 1984 film] The Stone Boy and said, “I think you should skip going to Princeton and start being an actor.” I thought that was the most ridiculous, hysterical thing I’d ever heard. I’m glad I made the choice [to go to college] because I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world.

You dated Brooke Shields there.

She’s an amazing woman and would certainly be a lifelong friend. We occasionally speak, and it’s like we haven’t been apart for two days.

How’s your love life nowadays?

I’ve been in love a number of times, and I hope to be married and the whole shebang at some point in the future, but I want to be with the right person. It’d probably be a person that would stick if I were to get married at 52.

Has dating been a struggle in any way?

Dating in Hollywood’s always been a struggle. Not that it’s hard to get a date but it’s hard to want to go on a second date.

What do you look for?

Obviously, you have to have a physical attraction. Kindness is a huge, huge trait I look for, and intelligence is an absolute must.

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Well, you look great — you lost 35 pounds!

When you’re injured it’s hard to be able to exercise. I have arthritis, I’ve had some other issues and I’ve had six surgeries. As a former athlete, you get used to that and work through it.

Was it hard to be a single dad?

Since I had full custody of my son and raised him myself, I couldn’t afford to be absent. There were times I had to miss a few things that he did and it was awful. But those are things you sometimes have to do.

How did raising your son change you?

What’s so wonderful about it is you’re no longer the most important person in the world, so you learn patience, sacrifice, unconditional love. It was the hardest job I’ve ever done but certainly the greatest.

What’s he up to now?

He’s 18 and going to college in August at a beautiful school. I’m excited for him.

And what’s up next for you??

I have a movie coming out [now, The Challenger Disaster], one coming out on Valentine’s Day [2050], and there’s a documentary that I’m executive-producing called Hate Among Us, which deals with the rise of anti-Semitism worldwide.

Do you have a bucket list?

No. I still feel like my biggest and best things are yet to come. My mantra is “Just try to say yes to as many things as I can.”

For more on Dean Cain, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!