Seeking a 2nd Term in Washington
Saturday, October 8, 2005
WAYNESVILLE, N.C. -- One day last spring, Heath Shuler stopped by Redskins Park and chatted about his future with Coach Joe Gibbs. Shuler had plenty of ideas about how he'd fit in as quarterback with Gibbs's offensive schemes.
"I wish I could have had a chance to play for Coach Gibbs; I know I could have done well in his offense," he said.
But Shuler, 33, wasn't seeking to return to the team he played for from 1994 to '96. Instead, he told Gibbs, a fellow native of North Carolina whose NASCAR racing team is based in Huntersville, what he planned to announce a few months later -- that he hopes to represent the 11th District of North Carolina in the House starting in January 2007.
As a player, Shuler was a huge disappointment to the Redskins. The team's No. 1 draft pick out of Tennessee in 1994 and third pick overall, Shuler was an instinctive quarterback who had difficulty adjusting to then-coach Norv Turner's complicated offensive system. After a long training camp holdout his rookie season, he was beaten out for the job by seventh-round pick Gus Frerotte and eventually was let go after three rocky seasons, one of the biggest draft disasters in team history.
Shuler spent two years as a back-up with the New Orleans Saints, but an injured left foot that needed two major surgeries and is still not completely right forced Shuler out of the game. After failing a physical in Oakland before the 1999 season, Shuler moved back to Knoxville with his wife, Nikol, and started a real estate development business with his brother, Benjie, that now has more than 200 employees, including their mother.
He said he often was approached by Republicans to run for Congress in the state in which he was an all-American quarterback at the University of Tennessee. But Shuler always turned them down, focusing on starting a family and a business.
He was raised in Swain County in western North Carolina, where his father, a postal worker, had always voted Democratic. Shuler considered himself a Democrat, as well, and while the political entreaties from the Republicans were flattering, he thought it wasn't the right time, or the right party.
In 2003, Shuler and Nikol, a Waynesville native, moved back to western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains to raise their family in the sort of rural environment they had experienced. Shuler was born on New Year's Eve 1971 and lived in a house on Toot Hollow Road in Bryson City, attending Swain County High School with a graduating class of 88.
"Our school motto was, 'Our Best, and Then Some,' " recalled Shuler, an honor student in high school and a member of the SEC's all-academic team in college. "My teachers and my coaches always stressed the importance of being responsible, of having character and trying to instill character in others. You had responsibilities, and you were expected to act responsibly. It's something that's always stayed with me."
Early in 2004, Shuler was talking to Randy Flack, an old friend from back home, and the subject got around to all the changes taking place in the region -- factory closings, jobs being lost to overseas outsourcing, a proliferation of methamphetamine labs and the rise of drug addiction and alcoholism.
"I think I finally said to him, 'Well, somebody's got to do something about it,' " Shuler said. "Randy laughed and said, 'Well, what are you going to do about it?' We kicked around a few ideas. I have a foundation, but it's hard to deal with so many different things. He asked me if I'd ever thought about running for public office and I said, 'I'm no politician.' Then he said, 'I can't imagine anyone being better at it because you'd be doing it for all the right reasons.'
"After the 2004 election, I told Randy I'd like to look into it because I really could see a need here. Just for an example, we'd had a major flood a while back, and there were still people who weren't living in their own homes. Then I started to speak to several people about maybe getting more involved, and the overwhelming majority of them said I ought to run for Congress."