updated 05/24/2005 AT 4:00 PM ET
•originally published 05/26/2005 AT 6:00 AM ET
Hometown: St. Louis
Current gig: Playing a prisoner in The Longest Yard, a remake of the 1974 Burt Reynolds comedy. The update costars Reynolds, Chris Rock and Adam Sandler
He’s a sports fanatic
The role of a football-playing prisoner in The Longest Yard was perfect for Nelly. “I’m a really big football fan,” he says. “I love the Rams – my hometown team. I’m always at the games whenever I’m in town and I holla at the guys as much as possible.”
The rapper, born Cornell Haynes Jr., played football in high school, but says, “I was a little guy and I stopped growing – and I saw everyone else still growing. So I didn’t think football would work out for me.”
He has a big heart
In 2001, Nelly established the 4Sho4Kids Foundation to help St. Louis-area children born addicted to drugs or with developmental disabilities (his aunt, Chalena Mack, runs it). “I wasn’t always as privileged as I am to this day, so I know what it’s like not to really have a lot,” he says. “Giving is the way. It’s important to look out for others.”
And in 2003, he launched Jes Us 4 Jackie, a campaign to raise bone-marrow donation awareness and find a donor for his half-sister and stylist, Jackie Donahue, who was battling leukemia. “You use whatever you’ve got,” he told PEOPLE that year. “If I was a contractor, I could build her a hospital. The biggest thing I have is the publicity.” Sadly, Donahue died in March at age 31.
He’s a family man
Nelly’s parents, mom Rhoda Mack and dad Cornell Haynes Sr., an ex-Air Force sergeant, split in 1983, but the rapper remains tight with his mother. When his music career began taking off, “I called her and said, ‘You don’t have to work anymore,’” he says.
He’s also a devoted dad to Chanelle, 11, and Tre, 6 (he won’t reveal who their mom is). “Kids change your life in so many ways,” he says. “You learn to come off not just as a parent but as a friend, and that’s what children need.”
Before making his major-film debut in The Longest Yard (he also appeared in the 2001 independent movie Snipes), Nelly scored as a rapper. His first album, 2001’s Country Grammar, sold 8 million copies, and 2002’s Nellyville sold 6 million. And his simultaneously released 2004 albums, Sweat and Suit (which featured collaborators ranging from Tim McGraw to R&B singer Jaheim), were both multiplatinum sellers.
But he’s not stopping there. He’s created a sportswear line, Vokal, and lent his name to an energy drink called Pimp Juice. “It’s about my world now,” he says. “It’s about watching your dreams come true.”