- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 30, 2006

WAYNESVILLE, N.C. — Heath Shuler, though no longer a pro quarterback, doesn’t shy from changing the play.

Mr. Shuler, a Democrat running for Congress here in North Carolina’s 11th District, navigates his white Ford pickup through a driving rainstorm on a recent Friday morning en route to tour a local business. Heading down Main Street from his campaign headquarters, though, he realizes he is going the wrong way.

So Mr. Shuler call an audible and turns the truck around. His deputy campaign manager and communications director, Andrew Whelan, riding shotgun in the front seat, gets on the cell phone to seek directions.

Mr. Shuler pulls up minutes later at the sprawling complex of Haywood Vocational Opportunities, a not-for-profit company that trains workers with disabilities and manufactures medical and hospital supplies, among other products.

It is the start of another day on the campaign trail for Mr. Shuler, a trail he hopes leads him back to Washington, back to where his pro football career began and quickly fizzled out.

“Being a quarterback is certainly an important job,” he says. “But you know what? It has nothing to do with getting children health care.”

Taken by the Redskins with the third pick in the 1994 NFL draft as a junior from the University of Tennessee, Heath Shuler was supposed to be the strong-armed, limber-legged quarterback who would rescue a franchise that had fallen on hard times since the departure of head coach Joe Gibbs two years earlier.

As Redskins fans sadly note, nothing like that remotely happened.

Mr. Shuler, 34, is expected to easily defeat Michael Morgan in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Mr. Morgan is an avowed liberal who, among other causes, supports the legalization of marijuana. He was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the 1980s and served six years in prison, although he consistently has proclaimed his innocence.

A primary win officially would begin Mr. Shuler’s uphill attempt to unseat Rep. Charles H. Taylor, the eight-term Republican incumbent, in November and go on to represent the state’s westernmost congressional district, which includes Asheville.

But politics isn’t the reason Mr. Shuler’s name has featured in the news lately. It is an annual rite of spring to dust him off as an example of how NFL teams, despite painstaking, exhaustive preparation, can make mistakes in the draft. Mentions of his name usually are accompanied by the word “bust.”

Short NFL career

Installed as the Redskins’ first rookie starter at quarterback in 33 years, Mr. Shuler played in 11 games in ‘94, seven games the next year and one the following season before he was released and picked up by New Orleans. He managed one season with the Saints and that was it, his career prematurely ended by injuries and what some described as a failure to grasp the intricacies of the position.

None of that matters now. Among Mr. Shuler’s current concerns are employment, fiscal responsibility, the environment and what he calls the “corruption” of power.

Still, there is always someone to ask him what went wrong. He expects this, and he comes prepared.

“Obviously, I didn’t play as well as I would have liked to have played,” he says. “I think there were a lot of components to it.”

Mr. Shuler lists those components as a young, rebuilding team; a rookie head coach, Norv Turner; and his own shortcomings as a raw, untested player who perhaps was given too much to handle, too soon.

“We were all extremely young in what we were experiencing when it came to playing the game,” he says. “Everyone was going through difficulties.”

But he expresses no regrets (“I gave 100 percent, body, soul and work, of what I could possibly give”) and professes his enduring love for the Redskins. He dropped by Redskin Park last spring for the first time since he left, to visit the few friends that remain.

The Redskins long had been Mr. Shuler’s team. Growing up in Bryson City, N.C., he heaved footballs in the back yard, imagining himself as Joe Theismann.

“It was a childhood dream to play for the Washington Redskins,” he says.

Now he pursues a different dream. He lives here in Waynesville, not far from his hometown, with his wife, Nikol, and two children, Navy and Island. (Hardly a hippie, Mr. Shuler says he and Nikol simply found the names appealing.)

He insists he read no newspapers and watched no television when he played for Washington, but he did hear the boos on Sundays. Even today, many fans refuse to either forgive or forget.

A blog, www.stopshuler.com, is dedicated to trashing him nearly 10 years after he left. It proclaims, “We simply are Redskins fans, and we love the city of Washington. And frankly, both are better off since Heath left town, and we don’t want him back.”

Stops and photo ops

Mr. Shuler says his experience in the District toughened his hide for what was to come. Until about a year ago, though, he had no idea his life would come to this — traversing in the rain a portion of the Great Smoky Mountains through the 11th District, an expanse that includes 15 counties in the western part of the state.

This day he will tour the Haywood factory, endure a grilling by reporters, meet with a local sheriff and attend a ribbon-cutting at a remodeled resort, where he will sign many autographs and where a brochure publicizing the event calls him a “senatorial candidate.” He also will do a lot of driving.

It is a day of listening, taking notes, answering questions, meeting and greeting and giving a brief speech. Typical campaign stuff. Except for the autographs.

He won’t eat lunch until 4 p.m., two cheeseburgers with everything, including cole slaw, at Na-Ber’s, a straight-from-the-‘50s drive-in where his father, Joe Benny Shuler, used to eat and where Heath’s picture hung before they painted the place.

As he leaves, Mr. Shuler is spotted by a woman at the wheel of a Lexus SUV. He has forgotten her name, but gives no sign of it. Flashing his ever-present smile, he charms and chats her up.

He gets recognized a lot, and why not? He was the classic hometown hero, the golden-armed quarterback performing under Friday-night lights who led Swain County High School to three state championships. He helped fill the stadium’s 8,000 seats, which is more than four times larger than Bryson City’s population.

Then it was off to Tennessee, close by in Knoxville, where he played in front of 100,000 at Neyland Stadium and made All-American. Among the programs he turned down as a recruit was the University of Florida, then coached by Steve Spurrier.

Later, Mr. Spurrier became head coach of the Redskins and had pretty much the same lack of success as Mr. Shuler. Now Mr. Spurrier is the head coach at the University of South Carolina. The two have become friends, sharing phone conversations during which they laughed about life in the District. Sometimes, all you can do is laugh.

College fans welcomed back Mr. Spurrier with open arms, and the folks at home likewise do not hold Mr. Shuler’s pro career against him. He remains the local legend who made good at UT.

Yvette Carringer, a bank manager who has dropped by the ribbon-cutting and votes Republican, is asked what she knows about the candidate. “Not a thing,” she replies, “other than I grew up watching him play football. But that’s the extent of it.”

Mr. Shuler hopes to inform the voters of his views and appeal to what he calls his fellow “mountain folks” as the campaign continues. But right now, being known for his football career is not a bad thing. Spending countless hours on the phone asking for money, which he finds distasteful, he has raised nearly $800,000.

They know him

“I think he’s got a good chance to win,” says state Sen. John Snow, a Democrat from the far western portion of North Carolina. “He’s got a lot of name recognition.”

So did Bill Bradley, Steve Largent, Jim Bunning, J.C. Watts, Tom Osborne and other athletes and coaches who successfully ventured into politics. Largely because of his name, Mr. Shuler, who runs a thriving real estate business with his brother, Benji, in Knoxville, was asked by Republicans to run for Congress in Tennessee before he returned to North Carolina in 2003.

One reason was his somewhat conservative views. Also, he had contributed to a Republican friend’s political campaign.

Back in his home state, Mr. Shuler complained about the pollution befouling the mountains, read and heard about the proliferation of methamphetamine labs and noticed that jobs were leaving the district. Finally, a friend told him to do something about it. That is, run for office.

He began to consider the idea. He visited Washington to meet with the likes of Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But he would not commit. Former President Bill Clinton called. Even that didn’t do it. He decided to run only when Nikol gave her blessing.

Mr. Shuler is criticized by Republicans for what they see as an identity crisis.

“He seems to have a little bit of difficulty in deciding whether he’s a Republican or Democrat,” says Bill Peaslee, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party. “He seems to walk both sides of the fence. Voters of the 11th District seem to support someone who they know and who knows what party he belongs to.”

Tackling an incumbent

That someone is the incumbent, Mr. Taylor, a wealthy bank owner who wins re-election despite the fact that the district is home to more registered Democrats than Republicans. Mr. Taylor also has been controversial, surviving charges of fraudulent bank loans as well as nonpayment of taxes on a farm.

The Shuler campaign did cartwheels last week at the news that Mr. Taylor, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the Interior Department, is the lone congressman to oppose funding for a memorial in Pennsylvania to the passengers and crew of Flight 93 who died September 11 while trying to stop their hijackers. Mr. Taylor says he is opposed only to the estimated cost, which he says far exceeds early projections.

Mr. Shuler bristles when he is asked about voters not knowing whether he is a Republican or a Democrat.

“Sour grapes,” he says. “My dad is a Democrat, I’m a Democrat. The Republicans asked me to run for Congress; they must have thought I was a good person. And now they want me to say that I’m not qualified. The most important thing is that I’m a Democrat, and it’s time for a change in Congress. Someone needs to go there and make these changes and be a leader.”

Mr. Shuler describes himself as a “traditional” Democrat. Some Democrats, however, are uneasy that he is pro-life, an opponent of homosexual “marriage” and a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association.

“I’m an outdoorsman, an avid hunter, and I want to protect our Second Amendment,” he says. “Does it make me more moderate if I also say I want to protect Social Security?”

Mr. Shuler says he is conflicted about the war in Iraq, but expresses the need for a “game plan” there. He is against abortion, he says, except in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. But he is not so much concerned with national issues as he is with the issues that hit close to home — jobs, drugs, education, gas prices.

“I want to do something to help the community,” he says.

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