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Heath Shuler still follows the Redskins. He watched the Lions game from the living room of his eastern Tennessee home and enjoyed seeing his old friend Gus Frerotte perform well against the coach who gave up on both of them. Shuler never got his chance for redemption.
“I was happy that it panned out so well for Gus,” Shuler tells me. “He’s a good friend, and it was nice to see that happen to him. It would have been nice to have that happen to me, but…”
It’s not going to. And Shuler knows it. This summer, doctors told Shuler that his left foot, the one on which he dislocated all five toes and ruptured some ligaments on one play during the 1997 season, will never be right again. So he walked away from football. With the help of a cane.
For somebody who has been in the local consciousness for what seems a lifetime, Shuler is still very young—he’s only 27. (Amazing trivia: Florida State QB Chris Weinke is the same age. And he’s got a year of college eligibility left.) He lives on a 700-acre spread on the outskirts of Knoxville now, along with a new wife and assorted barnyard animals. He bought the farm with the signing bonus from his original Redskins contract. His grandfather always told him that land was the best investment, and throughout his NFL career he continued buying up properties in and around the city where he had gone to college, where he’s still thought of as a marvelous quarterback.
He figured he’d miss football, having spent every fall since he was 5 in shoulder pads. So to help decompress, he bought a satellite TV package that brings every NFL game into his living room.
Alas, the service has only made him miss it more.
“Every Sunday, I watch and wish I was out there,” he says. “Then I get up and try to walk to the fridge, and the pain comes, and I understand everything very clearly.”
But if Shuler’s foot isn’t in working order, his head sure seems to be. His stint with Washington started badly—he missed a couple weeks of training camp before signing a $19 million deal—and went downhill from there. Even today, three years after his departure from D.C., Shuler remains Exhibit A in any argument about the failures of the Charley Casserly-Norv Turner era. Callers to local sports radio stations continue to use his name in vain. So you couldn’t blame Shuler if he bore some emotional battle scars from his days here.
Yet when asked to reflect on those turbulent times, Shuler obliges without a pause. And without any bitterness. As it turns out, Shuler prefers to recall his ride with the Redskins as if it were a wild field trip he took as a kid.
“I had no clue when I first got there. No clue at all,” he laughs. “Then Norv tells me on my first day, ‘Starting today, you’re the leader here! You may be young, but from now on, you’ve got to act like you’re 40 years old!’ But I was 21! And I’m looking around at guys like Monte Coleman, and I’m thinking, ‘I was 5 when that guy came into the league, and I’m supposed to be his leader?’ And the thing was, all of us were too naive. Norv was a rookie coach, so he’s trying to learn his own job, and when we start losing, and he’s getting all sorts of flak, he’s got his own problems he has to deal with. So it was mainly me and Gus Frerotte, who was a rookie just like me, teaching each other the game. We were all flying blind.”
Frerotte at least was getting advice from Sonny Jurgensen, who sided with the underdog seventh-rounder from Tulsa in the Gus-vs.-Heath QB controversy. The fans sided with Gus, too. But Shuler insists that he and Frerotte never turned their competition into a rivalry. Shuler wasn’t always awful: He led the Skins to a 24-17 road win over Dallas near the end of the 1995 season, a year they went on to win the Super Bowl (“That’s the only football memory from Washington I still have, really,” he says. “It seems like forever since I was there”), but his bad days outnumbered his good days the way his interceptions outnumbered his touchdowns.
Shuler’s last play as a Redskin came against the 49ers on Nov. 23, 1996, when he came in for one down after Gus Frerotte was shaken up. The crowd booed horribly when Shuler trotted onto the field—and booed even more when seconds later he botched the handoff to Leslie Shepherd on a reverse and lost 14 yards. It was the only snap Shuler took all year. A month after the season ended, Shuler agreed to void his Redskins contract to facilitate a trade. Casserly gave his former bonus baby away to New Orleans for a pair of late-round picks just before the 1997 draft.
Shuler had health problems throughout his two years with the Saints, but he learned how to be a leader there. He played in pain often enough to convince teammates to vote him their captain. In his last two starts of the 1997 season, against the Seahawks and Raiders, Shuler played with the dislocated toes. The Saints won both games.
He never suited up again. The rehabilitation from his postseason foot surgery kept Shuler on the Saints’ injured reserve list for the entire 1998 season, after which they cut him. Shuler attempted a comeback with the Raiders this season but re-injured the foot and was released in June. He quit the game. Currently, he has only 10 percent use of the foot, but doctors tell him he might be able to jog again someday.
Even before his body gave out, Shuler had been planning for his post-football career, by buying up all those properties. He’s now the CEO of Heath Shuler Real Estate LLC, a full-service firm based in Knoxville. Contacts and goodwill he built up at the University of Tennessee have helped turn his company into the largest independent real estate firm in eastern Tennessee, with more than 100 agents and several developments under his watch.
Shuler attends all the Tennessee games, and for the most part, he enjoys sitting in the grandstands with all the other civilians. But he says when the fans around him start booing the players or coaches, it really upsets him. “Fans don’t always know as much about the game as they think they do,” he says. “And that drives me nuts.”
He keeps up with the Redskins by television. Along with Frerotte, he still counts several of his former teammates as friends—Cory Raymer, Brian Mitchell, Tre Johnson, Michael Westbrook—but Shuler says he has no relationship with Turner. He knows things aren’t going well here for the coach, and, while he may have rooted for Frerotte in last Sunday’s encounter, he didn’t root against Turner or the Skins and says he doesn’t enjoy seeing Turner twist in the wind.
“I’m sure it’s bad right now. I’ve been in Norv’s shoes before, when it seems like your job and your life are on the edge,” he says. “I remember those days. That isn’t easy to take, but I’ve been watching him, and it seems like he’s doing a good job of handling it, really.”
Should things continue to go south for the Skins, however, Shuler is finally at a point in his life when he can help his old coach out.
“If Norv needs his house listed,” Shuler says, “I can take care of that.”—Dave McKenna