It’s never just a game, no matter the level of the competition.
The playmaking abilities fall somewhere between Pop Warner and junior varsity at the Congressional Football Game, a two-hand touch contest (because flag football proved to be too violent) between lawmakers and the Capitol Police. The NFL this is not — although a few retired pros do bolster the representatives’ ranks.
But sports don’t need to be played at the highest level to still have meaning, or for emotions to run high.
That’ll be especially true at this year’s charity game, following the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, which injured at least 134 police officers and killed one, Brian Sicknick, and another attack on Friday, which killed Officer William Evans. The game raises money for three charities, including the Capitol Police Memorial Fund.
“You bring in what the Capitol Police did for all of us who were in the chamber on Jan. 6, and what we saw they did outside the chamber and on the Capitol grounds — it is going to be a very special event,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, an Illinois Republican and members’ team co-captain, who, like everyone interviewed for this story, spoke to CQ Roll Call before the April 2 incident.
The game has always had a commemorative quality to it, said Jim Davis (no relation), a retired Capitol Police officer who has played in every game and now helps organize it. The matchup began after the on-duty deaths of Officer Jacob “J.J.” Chestnut and Detective John Gibson in 1998. Davis had worked with Chestnut until transferring to the canine unit just before those shootings.
“For me, the game every single year has great significance,” he said. “This year, for the younger guys that are playing, they’re probably going to have a greater understanding of the meaning behind the game, because it’s something that until you’ve gone through that, you don’t really understand.”
The 1998 shootings were the first fatal attacks on Capitol Police officers, and the last until this year.
It took a few years to get the game going before the first kickoff in 2004. I asked Jim Davis if part of the delay was making sure injuring a congressman isn’t a fireable offense for Capitol Police.
“The first game, trust me, if that was the case, there would have been a couple of us fired because [Rep. Bill] Shuster got half of the ear ripped off the first game,” he said. “There [were] a couple of guys that had pretty serious injuries — a torn ACL and whatnot.”
That didn’t deter Shuster, who retired from Congress in 2019, from becoming one of the game’s biggest boosters. The way Rep. Davis tells it, joining the team was almost a quid pro quo for getting a seat on Chairman Shuster’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
“Bill Shuster is the guy that got me involved in this, and then he told me all the stories about how he almost lost an ear,” Rep. Davis said. “Now, I mean, I couldn't imagine him any uglier. But I guess if he didn't have an ear, he would be uglier than he is now.”
Rep. Davis is unsparing and ecumenical with his trash talking. The game is still months away — usually held in September, this year it’ll be delayed until Nov. 3 so as to not overlap with the similarly postponed Congressional Baseball Game — but Davis is already workshopping slights in much the same way SEC coaches draw up new passing plays in the offseason.
He directs most at the cops (“If you want to be the best, you gotta beat the best, [and] we got the trophy”), but has plenty left for his own side (to Rep. Colin Allred, who sat out the last game with a muscle strain: “I know you purportedly played in the NFL — I haven’t Googled that yet, so I don’t know for sure”), and even himself (“I’ve never run fast enough to pull a hamstring”). And after I fumbled recording our first Zoom interview, Davis dished some my way.
“I called my team yesterday. I’m like, ‘Is this erroneously scheduled?’” he said at the start of our second Zoom call. “And then I read the notes: Oh, no, Jim doesn’t know how to hit record.”
Rodney isn’t the only Davis talking smack — Jim Davis points out that the game is played on a shortened field, to give the congressmen and retired NFLers, whose natural athletic gifts are no match for what the vulgarity of time does to us all, a chance of keeping up with the speedier and (mostly) younger cops. That’ll be true again this year, when it’s played on Audi Field, a soccer stadium without goalposts.
I asked Rep. Davis for personal highlights, hoping he’d do some bragging to go along with all the ragging. Instead, he talked about halftime at the 2017 game, when Officers Crystal Griner and David Bailey were honored four months after the 2017 shooting at an early morning practice for the GOP’s congressional baseball team that left Rep. Steve Scalise hospitalized. Davis, who was at the practice, credits both with saving his life.
“I saw their bravery on June 14 of 2017 when a crazy gunman came to our practice and tried to kill me and my friends,” he said. “To be able to play the game against David Bailey — the guy that allowed me, in a football sense, to follow him off the field after he provided some defense, some cover fire, for a lot of us — that is so special for me.”
Davis added that he was thrilled to see Griner on the sidelines, if a bit disappointed to hear her rooting for the other team. “She saved all our lives, and I figured that would earn [us] a little bit of compassion, but she showed where her true loyalties were,” he said.
It should surprise no one that the kind of people who put themselves through campaigns to keep their jobs every two years are naturally competitive. Finding a few constructive outlets for that can help them remember the other party isn’t actually their enemy, said Rep. Jimmy Panetta, the team’s other co-captain.
The California Democrat compared today’s polarized political atmosphere to the days when his father, Leon Panetta, was a congressman.
“Back then it was easier to be bipartisan,” since members would still spend many weekends socializing in D.C. instead of rushing back to their districts, Panetta said. “This is a job that’s based on relationships, and unfortunately, as we’re seeing these days, there are a lack of opportunities to build those.”
The coronavirus has put the kibosh on most face-to-face interactions in Congress, which began the year on an inauspicious foot.
“I think we can all admit that politically, as of this date, the nerves are still a little raw as to the events of Jan. 6,” said Panetta.
For those charged with protecting Congress, that day will loom as large as June 14, 2017, or July 24, 1998. Jim Davis, who retired from the force five years ago and now handles security for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, watched on TV as his friends fought to keep the Capitol secure.
“It was absolutely heartbreaking,” he said.
Davis likened it to what he saw in combat during his 32 years in the Marine Corps and Army Reserve. To see that, “in your own country — let alone the United States Capitol, the symbol of democracy worldwide, and a place that you worked 21 years of your life to protect yourself — to see something like that unfold was just an incredible feeling of helplessness.”
After the police finally managed to repel the rioters, Rep. Davis, as ranking member on the House Administration Committee, inspected the damage they had caused. “I walked into the Rotunda, and I looked to my left and I see big Harry Dunn, just sitting on a bench, exhausted,” he said.
Dunn, 6’7” and built like an offensive lineman, is an 11-year veteran of the force and a familiar face on the congressional gridiron. Dunn stood up, and Davis immediately went over to embrace him.
“When I gave him a hug, he was all worried, ‘You know I got tear gas residue on me.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t care,’” said Davis. “That’s what this football game could do, because it builds relationships.”
For a moment, Davis is somber and quiet. But only a moment.
“One thing that you will notice in the next game — if you pay close attention, because he’s good at hiding it — Harry also hugs me and holds me when I’m trying to rush a quarterback, because he can’t play fair,” said Davis.
It might strike some as odd that, even amid recounting the horrors of Jan. 6 and the still recent memories of the 2017 shooting, the players are still busting each other’s chops in the press. But that’s the entire point of sports. They’re a welcome distraction from the worries of this world, whether they be workaday or existential.
Congress is a big place. For lawmakers, you’re one of 535; for Capitol Police, one of 2,300. It’s easy to see someone as just another uniform, or just another suit.
“The level of camaraderie — not only between the members of Congress and the Capitol Police, but the entire group of people that have come together to make the event happen — is just extraordinary,” said Jim Davis.
A little trash talking is a sign that even in a world beset by a pandemic, at a workplace that was besieged by a mob, where nothing seems like it once did, there’s some normalcy again: Rodney Davis will talk trash, and Jim Davis will talk it right back.