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Late Nights, Early Sweat Sessions for Congressional Football Game Players

Dold runs a play during an early morning congressional football practice. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

When the sun set on Oct. 20, the House Republican Conference was huddling on who might be the next speaker. When it rose the next day, 15 lawmakers huddled around Washington Redskins alumnus Ken Harvey, trying to figure out their offense for the 2015 Congressional Football Game for Charity.  

"Over the last several weeks we've had some late nights, but everybody is pretty enthused to get out here early in the morning," said the congressional team captain, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., in a post-practice interview. "We're getting out here before it's even light outside. You know, we start stretching and we get into a good practice." Their opponents, The Guards, only get one rehearsal before they step onto the field at Watkins Recreation Center on Capitol Hill. Due to the 24/7 nature of policing — and perhaps confidence in their game-winning skills — the Capitol Police planned only one practice.  

But the congressional Mean Machine team will have had six weeks of early morning practice under its belt by game day.  

Under a cotton candy sunrise, Denham and his colleagues ran passing drills on Oct. 21 with quarterback Rep. Robert J. Dold. The Illinois Republican developed his throwing arm in high school and college, playing Division III football at Denison University.  

For Dold and the others, practice for the Oct. 28 contest against Capitol Police is about bonding, camaraderie and the chance to work up a sweat with NFL alumni. "It's always fun to throw to John Booty," Dold said, of the former Philadelphia Eagle, who coaches alongside Harvey.  

But out-hustling Capitol Police and winning the biennial "Longest Yard" game is a long shot. Congress eked out an overtime win in 2009, after losing the inaugural game in 2007. In 2011 and 2013, the cops dominated.  

"Too much — that's what they'll bring to the table," joked freshman Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., who said he's playing backup quarterback for Dole.  

Dold's favorite receivers include Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, D-Mass.; fellow co-captain Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn.; and Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Mich., who has "got great hands for a guy his size."  

At practice, the pigskin slipped through the fingers of Reps. Jason Smith, R-Mo., and Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C. (According to sideline observers, Mulvaney's strength is defense.)  

"It's pretty interesting; you see these Congress members — they're like little kids," Harvey said, adding that he respects the work ethic he sees on the National Mall practices. "Three mornings a week for them to get here at 7 a.m., it says a lot about the character of the guys that are doing it."  

In the post-practice huddle, Harvey warned the team it needed to pick up its tempo. Congress' current pace is "like a tenth" of what Capitol Police will bring to the game, he added.  

And a pro tip for the members from the coach who took a blow to the face during a drill: "Do not hit me anymore," Harvey warned.  

But "having the opportunity to throw a few elbows to some colleagues" is one of the best parts of football practice for Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif. That, and talking smack.  

The target is often Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., whom Aguilar calls "a wild man."  

"Wheels, Chuck, wheels," members yelled during warmups.  

Fleischmann also dished it out. "Got 'em," he hollered after attempting to sack Dold with one hand.  

One member who could give lawmakers an edge: Arizona Republican Rep. Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel. The freshman, one of two women on Congress' roster, was recruited by chance.  

"There are a number of members that run up and down the Mall every morning," Denham said. "Some we encourage to come out, others, like [South Dakota Republican Sen.] John Thune continues to avoid us. But we chatter it up quite a bit when they're running by, and actually a few of them have come out to play with us. Martha McSally's one of them."

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