Rep. Heath Shuler’s return to the gridiron Monday might not have been the spectacular comeback his teammates had hoped for — he threw two interceptions, after all — but the North Carolina Democrat didn’t seem to mind.
“It’s kind of like being in the backyard, playing with your friends,” Shuler said of the Longest Yard Football Classic, in which the Members-only “Mean Machine” was shut out, 28-0, by the “Guards” (a roster of Capitol Police officers).
“They sacrifice every day to keep us safe,” Shuler added. “It’s great to have this camaraderie.”
Indeed, the atmosphere was one of friendship, as Members, officers and even a few former National Football League players hugged, laughed and took time to raise more than $30,000 for the Capitol Police Memorial Fund. The money supports the families of Officers Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson, who were killed while on duty in 1998, and Officer Christopher Eney, who died in a training accident in 1984.
To date, more than $100,000 has been raised for the fund, according to Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), one of the game’s original organizers. Some of that money can now be given as scholarships for the children of the fallen officers, Renzi said.
“We want to thank all those guards that keep us safe and keep us healthy,” Renzi told officers after the game. “And every so often, kick our butts.”
Although the Capitol Police defeated the Members’ team for the second year in a row, they were gracious about their win. Officer Jim Davis, who coached the Guards, even handed out plaques to some of the Members as a thank-you for their participation in the event.
Families of the fallen officers, Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse and House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood also were on hand for the event, which drew a crowd of several hundred people and even a camera crew from Comcast Sports.
“I’m very proud of both the groups,” Livingood said. “It means that people care. … It means an awful lot to the Capitol Police. They seldom get any thanks.”
The mood on both sidelines was pretty lighthearted. Children ran amid the cops and Members, playing their own game of flag football, including 7-year-old Mitchell Potter and his brother, 5-year-old Reston.
As their father, Guard Ron Potter, played quarterback, the two acted as cheerleaders, yelling support for good passes. Guards on the sidelines yelled directions at their teammates, some with a tinge of revenge (“Make him pay for it!”) and some inside jokes (“Omaha! Omaha!”).
On the Member side, former NFL players John Booty and Ken Harvey were among the professionals giving direction (“Safeties, play deep”) and a little bit of encouragement (“We need somebody to step up and lead! Come on, let’s go!”)
Meanwhile, a slew of Members made fun of the athletic habits of Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), who frequently could be spotted with a cigarette in hand during the matchup.
Although the final score might look like a blowout, much of the early part of the game was competitive. After Potter — a veteran at quarterback for the Guards — threw a 24-yard pass to receiver Scott Schneider for a touchdown, the Mean Machine defense honed in, giving the offense a chance to put points on the board.
And, for most of the first half, the team had a number of chances to do just that. Shuler hit Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) for several completions and managed to move the ball down the field several times. But the Mean Machine never made it into the end zone, and Potter hit receiver Ron Russ for another touchdown in the final seconds of the first half.
With newfound confidence, the Mean Machine looked to mount another drive at the start of the third quarter — but was quickly shut down when Guard Christian Bockman intercepted a Shuler pass and ran it in for a touchdown on the third play of the half.
“That was lucky,” Bockman said after the play. “That was hard.”
The Guards took control thereafter. Their defense managed to stop the Mean Machine’s passing prowess by upping their coverage of Flake, and Guard Larry Bell intercepted a Shuler pass in the fourth quarter. Potter, who alternated at quarterback with Officer Mark Herbert, ran a quarterback keep to score a touchdown in the final minutes of the game.
Despite their win, the Guards expressed surprise at the Mean Machine’s preparation — and determination.
At one point in the first half, Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) dove headfirst into the dirt to successfully break up a throw to Russ. Graves simply rolled over and stood up.
“Man, he did a face plant and just sat right back up!” Bockman exclaimed. “That’s tough.”
Members weren’t all that surprised they had been shut out. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said he was happy his team managed to stay in the game for most of the first half.
“They’re fast,” said Shuster, another longtime Longest Yard supporter. “They’re stronger. Younger. Smarter.”
Shuler, who was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy as a quarterback for the University of Tennessee, had nothing but praise for the officers, who managed to play the entire game without turning the ball over.
“They’re a very fast, very young team,” he said. “You could tell they all had played [before]. But they were just having fun, just like us.”
Booty, who now serves on the board of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the NFL retired players association, couldn’t hide his excitement throughout the matchup. During timeouts, he often ran to coach the Mean Machine defense and jumped into the air after big plays.
As the minutes of the game would down, Booty and Harvey both jumped in for the final plays.
That proved exciting for the Guards, who got the chance to say they played — and beat — a team made up of multiple NFLers. Still, the officers were modest.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it,” said K-9 Officer Tim Purnell. “It’s nice that we can break down some of these walls with the people that we guard everyday.”