cover_story (2006-49)

Consider the football hero. Metro Pulse did, 13 years ago when then-staff writer Lee Gardner wrote that: “There are few things in the American psyche more mightily mythic… Anyone can fix him in the mind’s eye: the handsome, decent All-American boy who’s able to leap tall tacklers in a single bound on the way to the goal line….”

That was the lead-in to a feature story on Heath Shuler. The time was at the giddy dawn of Phillip Fulmer’s reign as head football coach at the University of Tennessee. And Shuler was a broad-shouldered Messiah in cleats to a veritable nation of Big Orange fanatics hungry to see their UT Volunteers rise from the ranks of the respectable also-rans to real contenders on the brutal playing field of big-time college football.

For those of you who weren’t here or just don’t remember that atavistic PP (that’s Pre-Peyton) period of Tennessee football, Shuler was the closest thing to football-player-as-rock-star UT fans had experienced in the modern era. This kid was the total package’s total package, a big-league talent with a big-league body at the tender age of 19, the legs of a running back and the howitzer arm of John Elway, not to mention an honest-to-God aw-shucks humble demeanor, and the kind of endearingly rugged good looks that made women swoon and men not even feel bad about it. And then there was his legend, already writ large on great stone tablets over in Bryson City, N.C. (pop. 1,200), where he led the Swain County Maroon Devils to three consecutive state Class A championships in his three years as starting QB.

Even Manning, who would eventually rewrite the record books en route to becoming one of the most revered football players in Tennessee history, needed time to build the sort of gleaming invulnerable celebrity status Shuler enjoyed from almost the first day he set foot on campus.

But there’s another side to the Shuler legacy, a rank unpleasant side stemming from his years in the National Football League, particularly his oft-rancorous tenure with the Washington Redskins. That’s the side best remembered by people like Jason Woodmansee, a D.C. expatriate now living in San Diego who recently garnered some national attention through his Internet campaign in opposition to Shuler’s successful bid for the 11th district U.S. congressional seat in western North Carolina. Woodmansee’s site was a quasi-serious but mostly parodic effort based solely on the notion that Shuler’s last stint in Washington was too dismal to give him a second chance in D.C., even if the playing field has changed.

“He was the kind of player who when his name comes up, you get this bad feeling in the pit of your stomach, an awful memory of those dark, dark days,” says Woodmansee, who needless to say is a diehard Redskins fan. “If you’re a quarterback in the National Football League, the last thing in the world you want is for your name to be used in the same sentence as Heath Shuler’s. Unless it’s a sentence like, ‘Unlike Heath Shuler….’”

Of course, Woodmansee’s website was all in good fun—Ho-ho! A big joke!—except that it wasn’t, really. Because questions about Shuler’s mental acuity have dogged him ever since those grim years in a Redskins uniform, when he threw more than twice as many interceptions as touchdown passes, this after coming into the league having a scored a dismal 16 on the Wonderlic, a so-called intelligence test administered to all of the college prospects who enter the NFL’s annual draft. Shuler’s congressional opponent, Republican incumbent Charles Taylor, a leprous old crook who milked his legislative agency for personal gain for eight long terms over in Western N.C., described Shuler as “an agreeable, unqualified young man that’ll be used like a horse over in Congress. He’ll never know what he’s voting on.”

This was said shortly after Shuler beat him like a gong on Nov. 7—garnering 56 percent of the vote—so one might easily dismiss it as the bitter bitching of a sour old ward heeler freshly yanked from the public teat. But it nonetheless raises a fair question: Which Heath Shuler will show up in Washington? The cool-hand Golden Boy who UT offensive coordinator and former mentor David Cutcliffe describes as “a natural at almost everything he does”? Or the infamous first-round draft bust who Woodmansee describes as having “failed miserably at the only job he was trained to do in college”?

“You’ll need some luck getting hold of Heath right now,” Fulmer warned when approached about the subject of Shuler’s candidacy. And he was right, in that we were never able to track down the Congressman-elect in time to speak on the record for this story. But Fulmer himself held forth, recalling that, “Everything Heath has done since I’ve know him has been around being a leader. The position he played, the persona he had, the courses he took, the goals he had, the decisions he made. He’s a great competitor, a great communicator, a great team player, a great leader.

“He had never mentioned politics per se, but I wasn’t surprised by his candidacy,” Fulmer continued. “You just knew that he was going to be wealthy, and that he was going to be successful at whatever he did.”

Cutcliffe sums up his first impression of the talented young UT quarterback aspirant from Hicktown N.C. with one word: “Character.”

“Here was a really good person with unbelievable personal discipline at a young age,” Cutcliffe continues. Both coaches recall all of the oft-repeated stories about Shuler’s fiber and fortitude, how he started his own car-washing enterprise during the summer before his sophomore year in high school, or how he swore off carbonated soft drinks in 5th grade, a pledge he has supposedly kept inviolate to this day.

There are other stories, too, about his physical prowess, how he once nailed the goalpost at Neyland Stadium with a pass, 70 yards on a frozen rope, on a dare. Or the time, during his first-ever football practice at UT, he winged a ball so hard that it whumped off the helmet of an intended receiver and summarily deflated.

He parlayed that potent mixture of grit, courage and uncanny physical talent into some memorable heroics during his two years as starting quarterback at UT. There was the Georgia game in 1992, a glorious, nationally televised 34-31 upset win on the road, in which Shuler won MVP honors for accumulating 233 yards (81 of them rushing) and scoring two touchdowns. Or the season-ending Hall of Fame Bowl victory over Boston College that same year, in which he made Stooges of the Eagles secondary with 245 yards on 18 of 23 passing, hitting on two touchdowns through the air and scoring another two on the ground.

And there was practically the entire 1993 season, his junior year, when he connected on nearly 65 percent of his passes and threw for a then-school record 25 touchdowns en route to a second-place finish in the Heisman trophy balloting, trailing only Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward, who had a season so statistically huge as to defy comprehension.

Small wonder, then, with Tennessee on the verge of a national championship-contending season in 1994 with the Heisman favorite starting at QB, that UT fans were crestfallen when Shuler announced he was leaving school a year early to turn pro, foregoing his senior year for a certain first-round selection in the ’94 NFL draft, and riches untold. It was as if we had been forsaken by that beautiful high school girlfriend, the one who was way out of our league, who one day packed her bags, gave us a last sad kiss on the cheek and then blithely departed for another life in some distant college town.

But a grim and inexorable chain of events were soon set in motion, events that would cast a deadening pall over Shuler’s quest for pro football superstardom. He was a first-round draft choice alright—taken third overall, by the Washington Redskins—but even that was marginally disappointing, given that many scouts had projected him as the first or second pick.

Then there was the holdout, an ill-advised stonewalling move for more cash probably engineered by his agent Tom Condon, which resulted in a then-astounding $19 million, eight-year deal, but which also forced Shuler to miss two weeks of training camp. And it set him at odds, from the word go, with everybody in the entire city of Washington, especially head coach Norv Turner, the alleged mastermind who had guided the Dallas Cowboys as offensive coordinator to Superbowl victories with Troy Aikman.

Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon in August of ’94 wrote an opinion at the outset of Shuler’s NFL career that would prove prophetic in, oh, so many ways: “Here’s my bottom line on Heath Shuler, the $19 million kid… He’d better be all that. He damn well better be pure, sweet butter from Day 1. Honeymoon? The honeymoon period’s been waived… The thing about being paid like The Man is that at some point—like the moment the ink dries—you’re going to have to be The Man.”

Even more presciently, Wilbon observed that “Shuler isn’t joining a Super Bowl-caliber team. He’s not joining a playoff-caliber team… He’s joining a team that could be 3-13. He’s going to get sacked, he’s going to misread coverages, he’s going to freak when he sees Seth Joyner coming to rip his tongue out. He’s going to throw interceptions, he’s going to run when he should pass and pass when he should run.… He’s going to find his confidence shot to hell and at times he’ll feel totally overwhelmed.”

All of those things came to pass, and Shuler remained forever in the doghouse, with both Redskins fans and with Turner himself. He went 4-13 as a starter, eventually losing his job to Gus Frerotte, an unheralded seventh-round draft choice out of Tulsa, and departed for the New Orleans Saints—a.k.a. “Quarterback Hell”—in 1997.

The Saints were in even worse straits than the Redskins when Shuler flew into town for a rebuilding project under the auspices of the nascently un-retired head coach Mike Ditka, whose glory days as a skipper were by then but a wistful memory in the broken hearts of Chicago Bears fans still unable to let go of 1985.

Shuler was suffering through another statistically wretched season (2 touchdown passes versus 14 interceptions for a Saints squad that would finish 6 and 10) when, in the 11th week of the season, Oakland Raider nose tackle Chester McGlockton, one of those Stonehenge-monolith defensive linemen who scarcely moves once he has settled his mammoth frame into position for the first play of the game, toppled and crashed on Shuler’s left foot, splintering bones and shredding ligaments and leaving all five toes hanging mangled and limp from their sockets. Ditka, who’d seen that kind of hideous human wreckage before, warned his 26-year-old quarterback that the gig was up: “You’ll never play football again.”

And he was nearly right; Shuler scarcely played another meaningful snap, retiring for good in 1999 when doctors told him another surgery might leave him hobbling on a cane for the rest of his days, never mind scrambling for sweet life in the shadow of the McGlocktons of the world on the treacherous stage of a professional football field.

There was a bright side; unlike so many naïve young greedhead jocks, Shuler, the right-living son of a Bryson City mailman, hadn’t squandered the millions he made in uniform on hookers and houses and drugs. He came back to Knoxville with his wife, Nikol, started a family, and fired up a real estate company, Heath Shuler Realty, that would become one of the largest independent firms in East Tennessee.

When Shuler returned to Washington, D.C. for a visit in spring of 2005 for the first time since his ignominious departure after the 1996 football season, the notion that he might run for Congress was bouncing around inside his head like a mad scrum for an onside kick in a kinghell driving rain. Maybe he was moved by what he had seen of the political world—both the formal, parliamentary kind undertaken in the great halls of nation’s Capitol, and the ruthless, high-stakes variety that took place in the locker rooms and at the arbitration tables of the National Football League. Or maybe he was motivated by his having moved back to Waynesville, N.C. in 2003, not far from Bryson City, where unemployment and festering poverty were rampant with the mountain folk among whom he had come of age.

Whatever the case, he left the city still uncertain of his future, chiefly because he found himself unable to put the past to rest by revisiting Redskins headquarters. He told a New York Times reporter that, “It was overwhelming. I didn’t know how people would perceive me. Was I still going to be the guy who didn’t live up to expectations? I didn’t want to reopen old wounds.”

He returned home to Waynesville. Then a surprise phone call and an impromptu pep talk from former President Bill Clinton helped him purge the malingering spirits of pro football failure. Shuler revisited D.C. in July, drove straight to Redskins Park and ended up in a long chat with current head coach Joe Gibbs, a fellow North Carolinian and a kindred spirit, to whom he related his plan to run for the 11th District seat of the House of Representatives.

Shuler’s political stance had been a matter of no little speculation ever since he moved back to Knoxville at the end of his football career. He was known to associate with candidates on both sides of the political fence, including East Tennessee paleo-conservatives Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary, both of whom he had backed in different races. At one time, state Republicans approached him about running for office in Tennessee.

But Shuler ultimately cast his lot with the Democratic party, the party to which his father belonged, perhaps motivated by solid blue-collar notions of social justice that were imbedded in the fabric of his upbringing. In response to a question about his political leanings, Shuler once told a reporter that, “My grandmother always taught me to help people who can’t help themselves.”

He’s seemingly aligned himself with that coalition of southern Democrats known as the Blue Dog Democrats, old-guard Demos with various conservative-to-moderate leanings in the mold of San Nunn or LBJ. Shuler, a Baptist who has always been unafraid to voice his staunch Christian beliefs, is socially conservative, pro-life, an opponent of gay marriage.

When he announced his candidacy, “Some of the more progressive people in the party were deflated a little by his stand on some social issues,” says Jon Elliston, editor of the Mountain Xpress , the alternative weekly out of Asheville, N.C. “Most Democrats, though, were so earnest about ousting incumbent Charles Taylor, that even the more liberal ones were willing to hold their nose. They vastly preferred getting Taylor out of Washington.”

Some have even argued that Shuler—who will reportedly back liberal Californian Nancy Pelosi for House Majority Leader in 2007—is his own special brand of backwater progressive. To be sure, he talks a hard line on most environmental issues; he says he wants to make North Carolina a center for alternative energy production, and has vigorously opposed commercial encroachment on state and national park territories in Carolina, as well as sale of public lands.

He also proposes to either “fully fund or repeal” the controversial No Child Left Behind Act of 2001; his stances on other issues of economic fairness earned him the endorsement of both the Western North Carolina Central Labor Council and the North Carolina AFL-CIO.

“Lots of environmentalists were really revved up on him,” says Shuler campaign volunteer Jennifer Rennicks, who also happens to work for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “He’s impassioned when he talks about environmental issues, really speaking from the heart.”

And for a neophyte politician, he’s apparently been a fast learner. There are some rough edges, to be sure. Says Elliston, “I think he is sometimes at pains not to offend anyone on either side of the spectrum. You’d ask him about the war in Iraq, for instance, and he’d say, ‘Well, what we’re doing isn’t working. We have to figure out a way to win.’ What that means, to this day I still don’t know.”

But many observers have noted that he seems to be gradually evolving into a more pointed critic of the Bush administration’s criminally ham-fisted plundering in the Middle East. Elliston concedes that Shuler became noticeably more adept over time: “He definitely got more effective as the race wore on. He started out kind of rough-hewn, but his stump speech got better and better.”

Which brings us back to the question of Shuler’s competence. Is he a diamond in the rough, a born leader and able champion of the Appalachian working poor, the man whom his former coaches describe as “a natural at almost everything he does”? Or is he the bumbling corn-fed pro quarterback with the 16 Wonderlic who read defenses about well as most of us read ancient Aramaic texts? Blogger Woodmansee, a Democrat himself, is only half kidding when he frets that Shuler’s return to Washington could lead to “his stench of failure rubbing off” on the rest of the city; his primarily football-rooted attacks notwithstanding, he has described Shuler as “an empty suit.”

There’s hope, though, that Shuler will return to the winning ways he displayed as a Bryson City high school hero, and again as the square-jawed, steely-nerved gamebreaker for the University of Tennessee. Shuler supporters point to the SEC All-Academic honors he earned with a 3.11 GPA during his junior year at UT, and his high school car-wash enterprise, and to the hugely successful real estate firm, which he built with his football earnings and which still bears his name. And to the many dozens of football games he won not just with his amazing physical endowments, but with the sort of cool-headed instinct for precision and grace under pressure which successful quarterbacks at any level must possess.

There’s a school of thinking, too, perhaps not entirely misguided, that Shuler didn’t get a fair shake in the NFL, particularly in Washington, where new head coach Norv Turner never panned out as the offensive genius he was hailed as coming off his stint in Dallas. “In hindsight, we know the actual nincompoop was Turner,” wrote Dave McKenna in the Washington City Paper , “a guy who had taken credit for the accomplishments of every Cowboy save John Wayne when Jack Kent Cooke hired him away from his post as Dallas’ offensive coordinator in 1994. Shuler ended up being just the first of a gaggle of quarterbacks who gagged in Turner’s mess of a system. Turner left after seven horrendous years and cemented his feeble legacy during subsequent stops in Miami and Oakland.”

And the Wonderlic? One might well argue that its correlation with either on- or off-the-field success, or even with what we might call tangible smarts, is tenuous at best. A fellow by the name of Dan Marino reportedly scored a 14 on the Wonderlic back in 1983, two points lower than Shuler. More recently, former University of Oregon quarterback Akili Smith, late of the Cincinnati Bengals, scored an impressive 37, yet still managed to bomb out of the NFL, even though he possessed a wondrously tight, beautiful spiral the likes of which many pro scouts had never beheld.

Even Shuler’s worst critic—other than perhaps Charles Taylor, who will soon sulk into retirement, living out the remainder of his miserable days in the enormous Carolina mansion he built with the fortune he earned via shady bank deals and legislative graft—has some good things to say about the man he perceives as the ruin of Redskin football in the 1990s. Toward the end of the 11th District congressional race, Woodmansee actually managed to land an in-person interview with The Candidate, and like everyone who’s ever met notorious nice-guy Shuler, he couldn’t help but be a little charmed. (Though he maintains that “Shuler’s in a state of denial about his professional football career. He genuinely thinks he was a victim of circumstance.”)

“I was surprised that he gave me an interview,” says Woodmansee. “To his credit, it was very comfortable, and he didn’t use too much politicians’ doublespeak. Now that he’s gotten over this hurdle, he looks to be in a good spot politically. I think he has serious potential as a politician, leveraging his failed playing career.”

But sometimes failure is a matter of perspective. And a certain sector of Western Carolina mountain folk and University of Tennessee Volunteer fans will always remember Heath Shuler not as a failure, but as a football hero, an Atlasean manchild who effortlessly bore our dreams of glory on his broad shoulders, and slew gridiron dragons with but a stroke of his mighty golden arm.