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."
Shuler started to do his homework, including several visits to Washington to meet political operatives and elected officials, including Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"I wanted to see if there was any interest, and some of them were also encouraging me to run," he said. "One night before we went to bed, my wife asked me if I was enjoying talking to all those people and I said yes, and I liked the idea of being able to help. That's when she said, 'I can't think of anyone I know who'd be more right for this job.' The way I look at it, the time I'd put into it would ultimately help our own kids, and all the kids of the district."
While he was still making up his mind, Shuler got a call from former president Bill Clinton, who also urged him to run.
"He reminded me that we both were in Washington at the same time in the '90s," Shuler said. "He said to me, 'There were days you took the heat off me on the front page of The Washington Post.' The position of being president and the number one quarterback for the Redskins in Washington are both pretty important. We laughed about who got the most heat, and then he told me he appreciated how I had handled myself back then, that I always had a smile on my face even when things were going badly. He encouraged me to go after it and run."
The DCCC was wooing him to oppose the district's longtime incumbent, Charles Taylor, an eight-term Republican. Taylor has been under intense scrutiny in recent years for possible ethical lapses, including allegedly not paying taxes on a tree farm he owned and for possible illegal loans approved by a North Carolina bank where he is chairman of the board.
Before he faces Taylor, Shuler must win a primary election May 2 against Asheville businessman Michael Morgan, who once served a stretch in federal prison for voluntary manslaughter and also is running on a platform that includes legalization of marijuana and allowing local farmers to grow it as a cash crop in place of tobacco.
President Bush carried the 11th District with 57 percent of the vote in 2004, but Shuler is popular, has name recognition and a somewhat conservative philosophy.
"I think he's symbolic of what you can do growing up in a small rural county in North Carolina and how far you can go," State Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Meek told the Asheville Citizen-Times in July. "The DCCC is very committed to the 11th District, and they feel like it's a District that's winnable, and we agree."
At the moment, Shuler is trying to drum up financial support for his campaign. He and Nikol and their children, Navy 4, and Island 1, live in what he has described as his "dream house" at the base of a mountain, with a stream across the road that feeds a well-stocked fishing pond. An avid outdoorsman, Shuler also raises Labrador hunting dogs in a kennel behind the barn, with a litter of seven pups recently born.
His brother is running the real estate business in Knoxville while Shuler goes dawn to dusk meeting potential donors and voters in a district that covers 15 counties.
His campaign staff consists of Flack, finance chairman Annie Wuerth and 26-year-old Drew Lieberman, a native Californian who attended Vanderbilt and worked for the DCCC in Washington before signing up to manage Shuler's campaign. Headquarters are on the second floor of a Victorian mansion at the far end of Waynesville's main street, a three-mile drive from Shuler's home.
Asked about the issues that most concern him, Shuler rattles off a laundry list of talking points that begins with more funds for education -- "supporting our teachers and giving the kids what they need to excel." He wants to attract more businesses and jobs to the area. He recalled a woman he had known for years telling him about the job she lost when a local furniture factory closed. She told him she had gone back to school to study to be a mortician "because she said it was one job that could never go overseas."
He would like to see health care reform that would benefit more children and senior citizens so that "you don't have to choose between medicine or having a meal. I want to protect Social Security for our seniors and our future seniors. And we've got to save this environment. We are so blessed here with these mountains, it's one of the most beautiful places in the United States. We need to find alternative energy sources to lessen the smog so we can still see the mountains and the trees are able to grow."
Shuler has no qualms about using his football fame to advance his political career. He still works out regularly and looks as if he could play four quarters, but his left foot makes even golf difficult because he has trouble keeping his balance. His biggest athletic thrill in the last few years? Playing in a charity softball game and being walked intentionally.
But politics is his game right now. Shuler has never met Taylor and says his campaign will be issue-oriented, not personal. He also vows that if elected, he'll try to avoid partisan politics and simply do what's best for the folks back home.
"Some people have to pay to get their names out there," he said. "Where it's really helped me is that people actually know me. I've always been a part of this community, and people know who I am and what I stand for. They know me as a human being, not as a political figure or as a football player.
"Football gave me a work ethic and responsibility and the dedication you need to play at that level. I could influence people's lives through football, but what an impact I can have on this district. I just know I can do a great job for them. Partisan politics is not what I'm about. I want people to respect me for doing the right thing first."