- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2001

Seven summers ago, he was the handsome, 6-foot-2, 221-pound future of the Washington Redskins. Today, nearly four years since his last NFL game, he can no longer run. But despite a lack of feeling in the toes of his left foot because of the injury that effectively ended his disastrous NFL career, Heath Shuler is a happy man.

Shuler lives outside of Knoxville, where he starred for the Tennessee Volunteers in 1992 and 1993. In UT country, Shuler is still a hero, the quarterback whose exploits once were celebrated in song. Shuler and his brother, Benjy, started a real estate company in 1998. Now among the fastest-growing realtors in the Southeast, the firm has more than 200 employees.

Shuler's cattle ranch often has 500 head in residence en route to being sold to dealers. Shuler also co-hosts a television show after Tennessee games, as well as what he termed a "Football 101" show on Sundays during the season. But the marketing major's focus, other than his family, is PMR, a medical software company which markets electronic medical identification cards to consumer groups, doctors and hospitals.

"I do miss football the camaraderie, the competition but that's over with," said Shuler, who will turn 30 on New Year's Eve. "I can walk, but my left toes don't move. I struggle to play 18 holes of golf, and I can't run. But I have a beautiful, loving wife [college sweetheart Nikole], a healthy 10-week-old son [Navy], my brother and parents live nearby and I'm the president of a successful company. I really can't complain."

There were plenty of complaints about Shuler's performance during his injury-speckled four NFL seasons. In 29 games (22 starts), Shuler threw 33 interceptions and just 15 touchdowns. His quarterback rating was an abysmal 54.3. That certainly wasn't the kind of production Norv Turner envisioned when the first-year coach took over the aging Redskins in 1994 and chose Shuler (rather than eventual Super Bowl MVP Trent Dilfer) as the quarterback around whom he was going to rebuild the franchise.

"No question, I should have played better, but we had a first-time head coach, a first-time NFL quarterbacks coach [Cam Cameron] and no veteran quarterbacks [John Friesz had started 23 games for San Diego and Gus Frerotte was a rookie] whose experience I could draw from," Shuler said. "I was the youngest player on the team for two years. I was uptight. My mentality was to be aggressive, real fired up. That was fine in college where if all else failed, I could run over a linebacker. That didn't work in the NFL."

Shuler, the third pick in the draft (after defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, now a Redskin, and halfback Marshall Faulk), held out for two weeks before agreeing to an eight-year, $19.25 million contract that included a $500,000 signing bonus.

Turner unwisely gave Shuler his first start in Week 5 against two-time Super Bowl champion Dallas. The rookie completed just 11 of 30 passes for 96 yards and collided with halfback Reggie Brooks on a botched handoff in a 34-7 loss.

Shuler sprained an ankle two weeks later while tossing five interceptions in a loss to Arizona. That opened the door for seventh-rounder Frerotte, who ended Washington's five-game losing streak the next week at Indianapolis. Shuler reclaimed the job in Week 12 and began 1995 as the unquestioned starter. But after he separated his shoulder in the opener against the Cardinals, Frerotte took over and remained the starter for the next 10 games. Shuler got back in the lineup in Week 12 but ceded the job to Frerotte again three weeks later after breaking a finger.

Turner put the starting job up for grabs in the summer of 1996. Neither man played well in preseason, and the coach ultimately went with the more experienced underdog. Shuler would play just one more snap as a Redskin, a yardage-losing end-around to Leslie Shepherd after Frerotte was briefly shaken up against San Francisco.

"Three days before Norv picked Gus, he told me not to worry, that everything would be OK," Shuler said. "I took that to mean I was going to be the starter, so when Norv picked Gus that really bothered me. I know now that things happen. I don't blame Norv. But I wish I could have been in a situation where I could have just played and kept developing, but the Redskins felt they had to seize the moment, and I hadn't played well at times."

Shuler was traded to New Orleans the following spring for two draft choices (who turned out to be halfback Skip Hicks and safety Jamel Williams, both of whom are now also ex-Redskins). He started nine games for the Saints before suffering the devastating foot injury when he was crunched by Oakland's massive defensive tackle, Chester McGlockton. After two operations and a year where he couldn't even try to do anything athletic, Shuler attempted a comeback with the Raiders in 1999, but the foot wouldn't cooperate.

"I loved playing for [Saints coach] Mike Ditka," Shuler said. "I didn't have the hassles or the controversy that I had had in Washington. I was the guy. I was having a great time [but playing miserably]. Then I heard a loud pop when Chester hit me. The doctor told me I was done for the day, but I told him to tape it up and I went back in. Turns out I had severed ligaments and crushed all the sesamoid bones."

One aborted comeback later, Shuler was an ex-NFL quarterback at 27. When his two fellow 1994 draftees, Dilfer and Frerotte, squared off in the Baltimore-Denver playoff game last January, Shuler could only watch on television and wonder "what if?" thoughts.

For the most part, though, Shuler is appreciative of his NFL experiences even the tough times in Washington where his holdout prompted boos before he even played a down.

"I really grew up after I left Washington, but I learned so much from what happened there," said Shuler, a lifelong success until he became a Redskin. "Now if a hospital decides not to buy our product, I don't get frustrated. It just makes me want to try that much harder."

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