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Jason Woodmansee can’t separate Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) from Heath Shuler (quarterback, Washington Redskins). And he doesn’t think anybody else should, either.
Woodmansee has started a blog, stopshuler.com, that looks back with anger, and plenty of chuckles, at Shuler’s Redskins tenure. Shuler, who over the years turned down several recruiting pitches to run for Congress as a Republican, is now running as a Democrat to represent the 11th District of his native North Carolina. The site argues that Shuler’s play at quarterback last time he was in D.C. should disqualify him from any return engagement here.
“In January, I started seeing all these articles that Shuler was running for Congress,” says Woodmansee, a Washington expat now living in Southern California. “It was one of those ‘You gotta be kidding me!’ things. The last couple years, with the return of Joe Gibbs and the team’s success, as Skins fans we’ve all been remembering, ‘Yeah, this is kind of how a team’s supposed to work!’ But now this. I felt like something had to be done.”
The Shuler era, football-wise, really does seem to be over. Center Cory Raymer, the last Redskin who played with Shuler, was cut over the weekend. Shuler never turned out to be Troy Aikman in burgundy and gold. But Norv Turner had gotten everybody’s hopes up to an unrealistic level after the Redskins used the third pick in the 1994 draft to take Shuler, an ex–Tennessee Volunteers star. If you compare the ’90s Skins to the executive branch during Hurricane Katrina, then Shuler was Brownie: the original fall guy but not the top stooge.
In hindsight, we know the actual nincompoop was Turner, a guy who had taken or otherwise received credit for the accomplishments of every Cowboy save John Wayne when Jack Kent Cooke hired him away from his post as Dallas’ offensive coordinator in 1994. Shuler ended up being just the first of a gaggle of quarterbacks who gagged in Turner’s mess of a system. Turner left after seven horrendous years and cemented his feeble legacy during subsequent stops in Miami and Oakland.
But Woodmansee, who became a hardcore Skins fan when he enrolled at George Washington University in 1989, isn’t one to let bygones be bygones. He tells his blog’s readers that he intends the site to be “a kind of group therapy for Redskins fans.”
“We all have painful memories of the Shuler era, and this is a place to share them,” he writes.
This isn’t the first time Woodman-see has used the Internet to purge his bitterness and have fun doing it. He discovered the Net’s potential for catharsis in the mid-’90s, when he began working on a string of sites that trashed such icons as the Dallas Cowboys, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Marion Barry. (His Barry slam, an Internet-only takeoff on Cigar Aficionado magazine called Crack Aficionado, was profiled in the Washington City Paper in 1999 [“For the Finicky Pipe Dreamer,” Artifacts, 6/25].)
The Web experience ended up being more than avocational. His current day job is as an Internet marketer for a sporting-goods company, and part of his workload is running a blog about golf. That position took him away from D.C., but he still has family in the area and follows the Skins fervently. Woodmansee says the current anti-Shuler venture brings him closer to his old hometown and the team he loves.
“I definitely miss the city,” he says. “One thing I learned there: You can’t actually vote in D.C. All you can do is complain on the Internet. So that’s what I’m doing.”
Until now, Woodmansee has kept silent about his role in stopshuler.com, though the site was mentioned on various blogs when it launched in January. Adding to the mystery, the contact telephone number listed for the site at Internet domain-name registries is the number for the White House switchboard.
The attention the site received right off the bat made Woodmansee realize that he’d soon have to step forward and claim it as his brainchild.
“I know people are eventually going to get around to accusing me of being part of the Republican dirty-tricks machine,” he says. “I’m not part of it. I’ve got no dog in this fight. I’ve never even been to his district. This is about football, not politics. But Washington itself is an intersection of Redskins and politics. I’m an Internet guy, so this is what I do. I try to find these little things that are interesting intersections of culture and comedy, jump on them, and move on. Heck, this is going to be over one way or another in November, so it’s a cause to take up for 10 or 11 months and have some fun.”
The site itself provides the best evidence that Woodmansee probably isn’t in cahoots with the “Republican dirty-tricks machine.” It’s almost as brutal to Shuler’s opponents as it is to Shuler.
Shuler’s likely adversary in the general election, Republican mainstay Charles Taylor, is described in stopshuler.com as “your standard, run of the mill, crooked politician.”
“He takes money from Indian tribes and Jack Abramoff; might have gotten illegal loans; and maybe didn’t pay all of his taxes,” the site reads, with links to news stories to support the uncomplimentary language. “(A side note—one of the reasons he won’t return any of the money Abramoff gave him is because he has already spent it. We love this guy).”
But stopshuler.com digs further into Taylor’s background, revealing a huge upside: “[H]e came to Congress in 1991. What happened in 1991? The Redskins won the Super Bowl, that’s what. That’s good enough to get our endorsement.”
Woodmansee describes himself as a registered Democrat. But, not surprisingly, Republicans assume he’s one of their own.
“I think if you read it, you’ll see this isn’t a serious political site,” he says. “If we can actually sway the election in any way—well, that doesn’t say a whole lot for the people who live in that district. As soon as the site went up, I was getting e-mails from all these Republicans saying, ‘Hey, check into [Shuler’s] Wonderlic score!’”
Ahh, the Wonderlic score. A big part of the negative myth built up about Shuler during his failed stay with the Redskins held that he’d registered a record-low score on the Wonderlic exam, the intelligence test given to prospective draft picks at NFL scouting combines. Just as we now know the bogusness of Turner’s image as an offensive genius, Shuler has proven over time that he ain’t the dolt that he was portrayed as when the Redskins gave up on him and gave him away to New Orleans in 1997.
Shuler parlayed the more than $9 million he made (if not earned) as a Redskin into even more dollars by buying up land in Knoxville, Tenn., the site of his college heroics, and becoming a successful businessman with an eponymous real-estate operation.
But the Wonderlic legend lives on. A columnist for FoxSports.com resurrected the tale just three weeks ago, spurred by rumors of Texas quarterback Vince Young’s own Wonderlic woes. Shuler, from his campaign headquarters in North Carolina, says that on the advice of his agent, he didn’t take the test seriously.
Shuler’s not surprised that folks are taking shots at him that date back to his football days.
“That’s just people who paid for tickets to watch football,” he says. “That’s part of life. I certainly wish I could have played better for them. It’s just been that many years.”
The tough times he had here seem to have steeled Shuler for whatever will be thrown his way on the campaign trail. He answers any and all questions about his Skins stint with a charming amount of honesty and, usually, some embarrassed laughs.
He says that he was flattered to be courted by the Republicans but drops any hint of humor when asked why all the other rich athletes sign on with the GOP.
“They forgot where they came from,” he says. “I want to help people. I want people back where I came from to have things I had.”
He sounds like an old-school lefty when he discusses the fallout from cuts in the school budget caused by the No Child Left Behind Act, including the elimination of school nurses in his district.
“Teachers are administering insulin shots to our children,” he says.
And though he says there’s no mileage in reflecting on his play as a Redskin in the middle of a campaign, Shuler admits that some sense of redemption could come with another shot in D.C.
“I don’t mean to shortcut the NFL,” he says, “but that was entertainment, and this affects people’s lives when you’re talking about the decisions made in Congress.”
Recent polls have Shuler down by 7 points, just as he was so often as the Skins’ quarterback. But, he points out, he’s trending upward against Taylor.
Whether or not Shuler’s run lands him back in D.C., other ex-Redskin quarterbacks are warned on Woodmansee’s site not to follow in his footsteps.
“If Jeff Bleeping George runs for Congress,” promises a posting on the site, “we will stand against him, too.”—Dave McKenna