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“Forget about it, it’s over with. The play’s changing in 40 seconds.”
Stacy Palmer-Barton, Rep. Jon Runyan’s chief of staff, had come into the New Jersey Republican’s office upset about a mistake that had been made. She found her boss spouting sports terms when she wanted legislative answers.
“What do you mean?” she asked, confused.
But his cryptic reference to “changing plays” had more relevance to policymaking than Palmer-Barton realized. Runyan, the 6-foot-7-inch former offensive lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles, knew from his 14 years of playing professional football that it doesn’t help to dwell on the things you’ve done wrong.
“There’s a play clock on the wall,” he told her. “We’ve got to admit [our mistake], correct it and move on. Otherwise, we’re not going to be very effective.”
Play clocks and playbooks, teamwork and time management, the stamina to walk miles through the Capitol complex: All of these necessities for Members of Congress are skills that Runyan and Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), the two current Members who once played professional football, cultivated during their previous careers.
Congress seems to attract folks with connections to football. Rep. Norm Dicks (D), who played for the University of Washington, currently represents Washington’s 6th district, and former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), son of Hall of Fame inductee and then-Los Angeles Rams coach George Allen, is running for Senate again in 2012.
Perhaps that’s because although a touchdown might not mean the same thing in Congress as it does on Lincoln Financial Field, where the Eagles play, Runyan and Shuler said the two occupations are remarkably similar. At the foundation of both professional football and Congress is an emphasis on teamwork.
Despite whatever differences might exist on both sides of the aisle, Shuler, who was quarterback for the Washington Redskins and the New Orleans Saints, said a love of the country binds all Members of Congress together into a team.
“Democrats, Republicans — at the end of the day we’re all on the same team. We’re all Americans,” he said.
As in football, differences can get the best of the players. Runyan said he’s seen divisions arise and impede progress in Congress the same way they used to on the field. “I’ve seen the breakdowns, the segregations, the people being individuals,” he said. But in Congress and during the game, “there are sacrifices that you take for the betterment of the team.”
One of those sacrifices is time. With practices lasting morning until night, hours spent in the film room going over plays and hectic travel schedules, the NFL is more than a full-time job. The time commitment required of Members of Congress is similar, but the days are decidedly less focused.
“I’m coming from my past career where everything is so structured and disciplined, where this, sometimes your schedule will change four times in a day,” Runyan said.
And because Members’ days are so busy and apt to change, time with the “team” often can be pushed to the back burner.
“In the NFL, when something had to be done at 10 o’clock, that means you were there 10 minutes till,” Shuler said. “Here, it may be 10:45 before everyone gets here and they’re prepared to work, and then they leave at 10:55.”
Despite their hectic schedules, lawmakers are expected to spend their own time reading up on current issues and legislative reports. Runyan said he spends time each week icing his injured knee — one of the reasons he no longer plays — and catching up on his reading.
He sees the Constitution as his playbook, something that needs to be studied each week to play the game successfully.
“Every single week you pick it up and you study it,” he said. “How is it going to apply to this piece of legislation? How is this play going to apply to this defensive front you’re running against?”
And, as Shuler explains it, if you call the wrong play, it can hurt you on the field and at the ballot box.
“Not getting the right call, in both instances, can cost you,” he said. “You vote wrong, you get ousted, and if you don’t make the right call in football, or the right play, then you get ousted — the difference being just going home and a guy 300 pounds sending you home.”
That studying, though, is nothing new for the former NFL players. Shuler said he used to spend hours analyzing game film, focusing on what he could do better during the next game. And the stereotype that football players are just mindless athletes is something Runyan said he’s encountered and tried to dispel.
“I don’t think most people realize the amount of brainpower it takes to play football,” he said. “It is very technical, and it is very strategic. There’s a lot of planning that goes into it.”
Playing in the NFL also prepared these Members for negative attention.
Although nobody’s heckling from the House Gallery, lawmakers are subject to constant criticism in the same way a professional football player is. Runyan said his experience with public backlash during his football career prepared both him and his family for Congress.
“The negative aspect that people are trying to drive home and demean you and break you down, that’s in both” Congress and the NFL, Runyan said. “You’re constantly getting attacked.”
But the ridicule, the long hours and the hard work don’t make the time in Congress any less worthwhile than the time in the NFL. Asked what his favorite moments in both careers are, Shuler named his team’s 1995 win against the Dallas Cowboys, one of the Redskins’ biggest rivals, and getting sworn in by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
But the sentiment that made each memory so sweet was the same.
“You set your mind to do something, and you can do it,” Shuler said.