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Local power brokers want Heath Shuler back in D.C. And not because the Redskins have had so much darn trouble beating Dallas since he left town.
The GOP has a game plan for the ex-quarterback: a run for U.S. Congress. Whether he ever takes the oath of office or not, Skins fans should find the mere fact that a Shuler candidacy is being considered bizarre enough.
Not that finding former athletes on the right side of the aisle on Capitol Hill is an oddity: Ex-ballers J.C. Watts, Steve Largent, and Jim Bunning are the most prominent of the bunch. And were Mr. Shuler to actually come back to Washington, he wouldn’t even be the first Redskin alum to take it to the House: Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) was a tight end here during the 1960 and 1961 seasons.
But neither Osborne nor any of his fellow ex-jocks ever engendered the enmity around these parts that Shuler did. At least not before taking office.
Shuler’s folks named him after a character in The Big Valley. The show’s title could also describe their boy’s first stint in Washington.
For those who’ve blacked out the Shuler era: He was drafted with the third pick in the 1994 NFL draft, in Norv Turner’s first season as Skins coach. The team hadn’t used a first-round pick on a quarterback since 1961the last year that the Skins had such a prime spot in the draft.
The new kid in town’s relationship with the Skins got off to a sorry start. On the advice of his agent, Shuler, then just 22 years old, held out for more money. He finally accepted a $19.25 million contract, the richest in team history, two weeks into training camp.
Shuler’s play never justified the draft position or the dough. Under Turner, a guy who somehow is still hailed as a builder of quarterbacks, Shuler’s gridiron talents never seemed obvious. He even once declared that NFL footballs were “slippery.”
This week, at least, one highlight in Shuler’s sad tenure in D.C. should be remembered. Sunday’s dismal 20-14 defeat at FedEx Field to the Cowboys means that Washington hasn’t beaten its top rival at home in four years. It’s been six years since the Skins won in Irving. But on Dec. 3, 1995, in Dallas, in the middle of a 6-10 campaign, Shuler did quarterback the Skins to a 24-17 win against the overdog Cowboys, who went on to win the Super Bowl that season.
In 1996, Shuler made it on the field for just one play, when he botched a handoff to Leslie Shepherd on a reverse against the 49ers. The muff cost the team 14 yards.
The Skins gave Shuler away to New Orleans after that season for what in football terms amounts to a couple of beignetsa fifth-round draft choice in the 1997 draft and a third-rounder the following year. The Redskins eventually used the picks on safety Jamel Williams and running back Skip Hicks, both busts. Shuler surely didn’t go to his new football home as a po’ boy: By the time of the trade, he’d raked in $9.1 million from the Redskins, or about $700,000 for each of the 13 touchdowns he’d thrown as a Redskin. Washington never made the playoffs with him on the roster.
Around these parts, Shuler’s name is still mud among football fans. He gets blamed for the yearslong run of crumminess in which the team is now mired at least as often as Norv Turner, the real culprit.
But even so, a campaign to draft Heath for Congress kicked off this fall, after Van Hilleary, a popular Republican from Tennessee, announced that he was abdicating his 4th District seat to run in the state’s upcoming gubernatorial race.
Hilleary’s district includes Knoxville, home of the University of Tennessee, which was the site of Shuler’s greatest athletic glories. Somebody at the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) thought that Shuler would be a fine replacement rep. The NRCC is chaired by Rep. Tom Davis, who represents Northern Virginia and saw enough of Shuler’s Redskin career to know better. But Davis didn’t pooh-pooh the ploy.
“Our job is to find electable people to fill empty seats or go after vulnerable Democrats,” an NRCC spokesman says.
In defense of the NRCC’s campaign: Even though many Washingtonians wouldn’t even vote Shuler in as a water boy, he’s still eminently electable back in eastern Tennessee. There, everybody remembers him not as the Redskins goat but as the guy who led UT to victory in big bowl games and finished second in the 1993 Heisman voting (to Florida State’s Charlie Ward). To those who wear the orange and sing “Rocky Top,” Shuler’s subsequent pro floppage is irrelevant.
After leaving the NFL, Shuler returned to Knoxville and rebuilt his high profile there. He became part of the UT football broadcasting team and opened up Heath Shuler Real Estate, which he quickly built into the largest independent firm in the region. (One sign of how Shuler feels about his Redskins career: On his business’s Web site, you see a photo of him wearing a New Orleans Saints uniform. There’s no reference to his Skins career.) He also re-enrolled at his alma mater to complete his undergraduate studies. He’ll get a degree in psychology this month.
Heath already has Republican bona fides. Hilleary, it turns out, is a pal. This past weekend, Shuler hosted a party for the man who would be governor at his Smokin’ G Rancha plot of land outside of Knoxville that he purchased with the signing bonus he got from the Skins. Attendees paid $125 apiece to eat barbecue and watch their beloved Volunteers topple the Florida Gators on TV, raising more than $30,000 for the Hilleary campaign.
During Hilleary’s time on Capitol Hill, the conservative four-term congressman took on issues including supporting a constitutional amendment against flag burning and keeping the Boy Scouts free of homosexuals. According to Carolyn Denny, spokesperson for Hilleary’s gubernatorial campaign, her boss and Shuler “share many of the same views and values.” It helps that the 4th District is heavily RepublicanGeorge W. Bush beat native son Al Gore by 11 points there.
Along with being conservative and connected, Shuler is shockingly young. For suffering Skins fans, it seems like decades since he played here. But he’s only 29 years oldthe same age as Chris Weinke, rookie quarterback of the Carolina Panthers. (The minimum age to serve in Congress is 25.)
The move to draft Shuler had early momentum. After his name surfaced on political tip sheets as a potential candidate for Hilleary’s seat, staffers at the outgoing congressman’s office were told to expect that Shuler would be visiting Capitol Hill to meet and greet the types of politicos a young candidate could use in a campaign. But that exploratory trip never came off.
Shuler, who didn’t return phone calls for this story, doesn’t have to declare his intentions officially until February. But according to Hilleary staffers, the party host implied at the weekend fundraiser that he would resist the draft to serve and tend to business and family matters in Knoxville.
Here’s hoping he sticks with that decision. A guy who found NFL footballs too slippery might run into real problems trying to pass legislation. Dave McKenna