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Ex-NFL Stars Hope to Boost Members’ Fortunes

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a recent weekday, just minutes past sunrise, and Members of Congress, dressed in sweats, T-shirts and cleats, release their stress through a tumble game of flag football.

Passers-by don’t know that this clan of middle-aged men chasing one another around the National Mall during the wee hours of the morning are the leaders of our nation, coached by former NFL players John Booty and Ken Harvey.

And this is not horseplay. The early morning practices are preparation for this year’s Longest Yard Football Classic, an event started in 2005 where former NFL players team up with Members of Congress to give the Capitol Police a run for their money on the gridiron. Proceeds from the game go largely to a fund for the families of slain Capitol Police officers, a fact that sometimes gets lost in the excitement of the competition.

“Ultimately the goal, as much as we like the cameras, the ultimate goal is for the charities,— said Harvey, a former Washington Redskins linebacker. “Sometimes in the midst of the play it gets forgotten, but it’s for the Capitol Hill Police Memorial fund.—

This year’s game has attracted greater NFL participation than previous contests. In addition to Booty, a former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back, and Harvey serving as co-captains of the Congressional team, other former NFLers who plan to play include Don Malloy (Detroit Lions), Ed Lee (Lions), Kenny Jenkins (Redskins) and Cliff Russell (Denver Broncos). Others, including Charles Mann (Redskins), will be on hand as spectators.

Celebrity involvement is an important component of any charitable event. They “bring more people out to watch the game,— Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) said. With “the celebrities such as John and Ken and the rest of the guys that are playing, you’re going … to draw more attention to the game, and plus we needed to have an advantage over the Capitol Hill police.—

After losing 28-0 in 2007, the Members need the help. Shuler, himself a former NFL player and Heisman trophy finalist, said the former players are superior athletes who bring an added advantage over the physically fit police squad. Harvey said that the former players will give the team a little edge when it comes to speed on the field.

Harvey and Booty’s strategy for success this year is to be more involved in offense and defense than the former players have been in the past. They’ve insisted on more practice time with the Members. The extra practice time has allowed the co-captains to examine the types of players they have to work with and teach them how to run professional plays.

Shuler said having retired NFL players as coaches brings an accountability factor to the game.

“It’s one thing for another Member of Congress to say, ‘Hey, we are going to have practice,’ but when Ken Harvey and John Booty are holding you accountable, you are going to make sure you show up,— he said.

The coaches implemented penalties for latecomers at practices this year. Members who showed up late were required to do pushups. Even Harvey had to drop and give 20 for his late show and violation of his own rule.

But all in all, everyone was laughing, joking and having fun at the practices.

“We are big kids,— Booty said, “and it’s a stress release for everyone to get out there and yell and hoopla and get excited, bring back the childhood days for a great cause.—

Booty and Harvey kept Members on their toes and alert at practice by implementing a team-building exercise where each player lays on his stomach face down while a teammate quickly and carefully steps over each player without stepping on him.

“You have to trust someone who is coming over you with cleats,— Harvey said. “You have to trust them enough, that even if they are tired, to say that I care about you enough I’m going to step over you.—

It’s an intense workout.

“This is a long day for the Congress Members because they are out at 7 in the morning,— Harvey said. “My biggest fear is to see them on TV [later] falling asleep.—

But the Members’ coaches are feeling confident heading into the game.

“We are going to beat the stuffing out of these guys,— Booty said. “I’ve been hearing [the police have] been talking a little trash themselves.—

“We are going to give the best performance humanly possible,— Harvey said. “As long as the Capitol Hill Police leave their guns on the side, we are good to go.—

But Shuler said the players will not forget the entertainment value of the game.

“It will definitely be entertaining whether Members such as myself trip and fall over their own two feet or whatever happens,— he said. “Members of Congress are very competitive and so they are going to give it their all.—

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