Ray Schoenke doesn’t mind that Marylanders are generally unaware that he used to play for the Washington Redskins. He does wish, though, that a few more residents knew that he’s running for governor.
Schoenke announced in January that he was taking on Parris Glendening for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
From 1966 to 1975, Schoenke was a lineman for the Skins. Even in a politically correct blue blazer and slacks, he looks a lot like a former football player. (Take away some of the gray hairs, and you could even leave off the “former.”) Twenty-two years removed from the game and now 56, Schoenke is still stout enough to wear a Super Bowl ring without looking foolish. If you’ve ever seen one of those baubles, you know that’s plenty stout. Were the governor’s race a football game, Schoenke would pancake
like a scrawny
It’s not a football game. It’s politics, and in this arena Glendening is the cagey all-pro veteran, and Schoenke is a low-regarded free agent, hungry as hell but unknown, just hoping to catch somebody’s eye. Recent polls show Glendening, who’s riding high on a national economic boom and some of the biggest budget surpluses in state history, is a favorite by several touchdowns over his closest rival within the party. And Schoenke isn’t even the closest rival. (Pro-gambling’s Eileen Rehrmann is.)
But polls be damned. Schoenke’s already sunk $2 million of his own money into the campaign, and last week he sold the insurance business he’d been running for more than two decades as a sign that he’s, as they say, in it to win it.
“I’ve got a lonely climb ahead,” Schoenke laughs. “There aren’t many people on this bandwagon.”
Yet, anyway. He’s got ’til Sept. 15 to bring ’em on board.
When he was an athlete, Schoenke didn’t hide his political leanings. His feelings about the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War and its lack of progress in civil rights matters led him to found a group called Athletes for McGovern in 1971. Schoenke at the time played under George Allen, an outspoken conservative and a good enough pal of Nixon’s to allow the president to draw up a play the Skins used in the Super Bowl. Eventually, 400 professional jocks, and a precious few fellow Skins, signed on with Schoenke in support of Nixon’s underdog foe.
“When George McGovern lost, as bad as he lost, all these guys were coming up to me in practice and saying, ‘Please, please, don’t tell anybody I was with you, man!’ That was embarrassing,” Schoenke recalls. “But I really believed in the man.”
Head coaches held a lot more power over their charges back then, making Schoenke’s activism that much more gutsy. It also so rankled Allen that during the 1972 presidential campaign the father of the former Virginia governor cited the player’s political views in questioning his loyalty to country and team. Nixon’s unmasking validated Schoenke’s activism, and Allen eventually apologized to Schoenke and even invited McGovern out to dinner and to Redskins games as part of that apology. McGovern, who is now an ambassador to the U.N. and living in Rome, became fast friends with the coach and attended his memorial service at the Touchdown Club a few years back.
In his first run for public office, Schoenke looks to be in line for a McGovernlike debacle. For one thing, he’s all but running away from his burgundy-and-gold past. Other than the big ring and his God-given enormity, there are few hints about his illustrious athletic record. (Schoenke got a game ball after an upset win over the Cowboys in 1971; for an offensive lineman, that’s beyond illustrious.) The only Redskin relic in his Germantown campaign office is a small framed picture of him taken at the team’s former training camp in Carlisle, Pa.
The George Allen teams garnered the most rabid fan following in Skins history, so Schoenke’s decision to downplay his playing days comes as surprising. In politics, popularity is pretty much the whole idea. But, maybe because he’s a rookie, Schoenke won’t change, insisting that to start playing up his playing career now would be too disingenuous for words.
“I don’t mean to underestimate the pull the Redskins have with their fans. I know the team is an institution around here, and that means you could carry around your scrapbook forever,” Schoenke says. “A lot of guys do carry it around; I choose not to live in the past. When I retired from football, I never looked back. I can’t start now.”
Schoenke’s enthusiasm for life after the whistle blows is understandablehe’s made gobs of money hustling insurance.
Although he mentions his prowess as a businessman in his pitch on the campaign trial, the current crop of television ads for Schoenke’s campaign make no mention of his sporting life. In fact, the Schoenke platform could be construed as anti-football, since the TV spots relentlessly attack Glendening for making “stupid stadium deals,” including his allowing state funds to be used for the Redskins’ new Landover home, Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.
The idea that public funds are going toward the Skins’ cheesy in-state dwellingwhich the candidate calls “the Ikea Stadium”makes Schoenke uneasy. But as much as anything it was Glendening’s role in bringing the Cleveland Browns to Maryland and getting the Baltimore Ravens their new digs in Camden Yards that convinced Schoenke to sign up for September’s Democratic primary.
“The fact that the Redskins stadium is making money for the team already is all you need to know about why I feel that public monies shouldn’t be used for stadiums,” Schoenke says. “But at least most of the money for that came from Jack Kent Cooke. What Parris Glendening did to get the Browns here was just embarrassing. He gave away Maryland’s money. Now, people are finally admitting that the [Ravens’] stadium is going to cost even more than Glendening said it would, and won’t provide anywhere near as many jobs as he said it would. Surprise, surprise.”
Schoenke goes back a good ways with Ravens owner Art Modell. Before coming to Washington in the 1966 season, Schoenke was briefly with the Browns. But Modell, the one-time Browns owner, cut the then-24-year-old Schoenke and told him he wouldn’t be receiving a dime of the $15,000 contract that Schoenke had thought was guaranteed. The Redskins rescued Schoenke from unemployment, and he stuck around D.C. for 10 years.
He goes back with Glendening, too: Schoenke helped the governor raise funds during the campaign that put him in office four years ago, and he served on a gun violence commission under the current administration. Schoenke now says he’s not very proud of those résumé lines.
Rather than nag the governor about his shortcomings, he wants to replace him. For that to happen, Schoenke will have to convince voters to ignore certain things, like the fact that unemployment and crime are down, and economic numbers are all way up, since Glendening took office. When pressedand only when pressedSchoenke might break into football-speak to describe the pep talk he thinks Marylanders need to hear.
“I’d tell them that the team isn’t really winning,” Schoenke says. “I’d say we’re grinding along OK, but we’ve got a lot of all-pros on the team, so we should be doing a whole lot better. We’ve got better players than the other team, but we’re not making the playoffs. Basically, I’d tell them to fire the coach. I’d tell them to hire Ray Schoenke.”Dave McKenna