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Player/Coach Shuler Takes Over Mean Machine

Everyone already knows about Rep. Heath Shuler’s (D-N.C.) prowess as a quarterback, but as a football coach he’s proving to be either a master strategist or, perhaps, a little too honest for his own good.

Consider Shuler’s recent assessment of the chance his bipartisan team of Members has of beating the Capitol Police flag football squad in tonight’s Longest Yard Football Classic, taking place at 7:30 p.m. at Eastern High School.

“They’ve got all the talent and all the speed and the size and the strength and we’re just hoping we can stay in the ballgame with them,” Shuler said. “We don’t want it to be a blowout.”

While some players might view that statement as lacking the optimism one might expect going into a big game, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) is convinced that Shuler’s strategy is to lure the cops into a false sense of security.

“Heath is from the mountains of North Carolina, you know. They hunt possums up there and sometimes [possums] play dead, so tell the police they better watch out,” said Shuster, who is helping organize the charity game that raises money for the families of Capitol Police officers who have died in the line of duty.

Burt Reynolds afficionados likely recognize the name of the game, which comes from his film in which a team of inmates calling themselves the Mean Machine play football against guards’ semipro squad. Fittingly, the Capitol Police plays the guards’ role and the Members are the Mean Machine.

Along with his at yet untested coaching skills, Shuler, a former standout quarterback at the University of Tennessee who was selected third in the 1994 NFL draft by the Washington Redskins, also brings his powerful arm to the quarterback position for the Member team, but the Congressman said his mobility likely will be slowed tonight by a lingering foot injury.

It’s unknown if that injury report is just another tactic on Shuler’s part (“Don’t be surprised if Shuler takes off down the sidelines with the ball,” Shuster said) but what is known is that Shuler also has brought a heightened level of excitement to the Members’ team, which was burned by the Capitol Police by a score of 35-7 in last year’s contest after fighting the cops to a 14-14 tie in the inaugural game in 2005. (After tonight’s contest, the game will become a biennial event.)

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), a veteran of several Congressional athletic teams who will be playing wide receiver, said it’s been an honor to even practice with a man who finished second in balloting for the 1993 Heisman Trophy.

“It is an unbelievable feeling to go down 10 or 12 [yards] and when you turn the ball hits you in the gut. … It’s exhilarating,” said Wamp, who added that he and Shuler, with his collegiate roots, form the “Tennessee tandem.”

“This very well could be their year,” acknowledged James Davis, the Capitol Police K-9 officer who is coaching the police squad this year. “They’ve got a professional quarterback.”

Davis said he and his colleagues on the force started hearing jabs from Members excited about the possibility of Shuler playing almost immediately after the Congressman won his House seat in November. One came from Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), who has been a part of the Longest Yard tradition since its beginning.

The day after the elections, Davis said he saw Renzi on Capitol Hill. Although the Republicans had lost the House, Renzi seemed to take some solace in the football talent that the elections brought to Congress.

“He said, ‘Hey, Jim, how you doing? … You saw who got elected yesterday, didn’t you?’” Davis recalled.

But as unlikely as it may sound for a flag football team made up of politicians, Shuler comes into tonight’s contest with big shoes to fill. He takes over coaching duties from former Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.), a Hall of Fame college football coach. Before being elected to Congress, Osborne racked up a 255-49-3 record and three national championships in 25 seasons at the University of Nebraska.

He went 0-1-1 in Congressional flag football before making an unsuccessful gubernatorial run in 2006.

In recent weeks, some of the Members have noted differences in planning and preparation under their new coach.

“Shuler’s plays are more complicated than Osborne’s plays,” Wamp said. “Osborne dumbed it down as low as he could so that we would all understand, but Shuler is still thinking like he’s in an offensive set for the Redskins. So I don’t know if we can stay with him intellectually. If all of a sudden I run a route and the ball goes the other way you’ll know that Heath made it too complicated.”

But while the officers might have some added respect for their competition — who in addition to Shuler now suit up freshman Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), a member of Florida State University’s 1989 Sugar Bowl championship team — they don’t plan on letting the Members run or pass all over them.

“Obviously, we’re sworn to protect them and protect the legislative branch of Congress, and the people who visit the Capitol complex,” said Davis, who might hit the gridiron himself as a wideout. “But it is very, very competitive.”

Officers have spent the past month practicing on the softball fields off South Capitol Street. About 20 officers from the different divisions on the force are taking part this year.

There are potential standouts, and many of the players on the current squad are returners.

Officers Ron Potter and Mark Herbert are expected to once again alternate at QB, while Ron Russ is expected to be a star wide receiver.

On the defensive side of the ball, Officer Larry Bell should keep the Members on their toes. Lawmakers might walk the halls of Congress during the day, but when they hit the field come game time, that doesn’t matter.

“They’re just regular guys at that point,” Davis said.

But the game also creates unity between the opposing teams, Davis said. Not only do Members and officers get to bond away from the Congressional campus, they also are playing for something bigger than football.

“To be able to raise money for the fallen officers’ families is obviously very, very important,” Davis said. “And I think it’s important to all the officers playing.”

Many of them were not around when Officers Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson were killed while on duty in the Capitol in 1998, Davis noted. The fund also benefits the family of Officer Christopher Eney, who died during a training accident in 1984.

So the game provides a positive way to help the department remember those officers.

“Even though you are competing with these guys for football,” Davis said, “you understand there’s a bigger purpose there.”

And the Members are in complete agreement with the cops on that point.

“The only prediction I’ll make on the score is we’re going to raise money for the [Capitol Police memorial] fund and that’s what it’s all about,” Shuster said. “The bottom line is that the Capitol Police will win in the end and that’s what it’s all about.”