ANALYSIS — With the NFL playoffs underway, one Senate candidate is trying to leverage his professional football career into a primary victory over an incumbent. But there’s a question about the Super Bowl victory on his résumé.
“I’m no squish career politician. I’m a former all-SEC Razorback. A defensive end, who sacked Tim Tebow,” Arkansas Republican Jake Bequette said in his introductory video back in July. “[I’m] a Patriot. Who played with Tom Brady. And won a Super Bowl.” The corresponding photo in the video shows Bequette in a suit kissing the Vince Lombardi Trophy and wearing a Super Bowl ring.
The video left out the fact that he’s challenging Sen. John Boozman in the Republican primary, and that he wasn’t on the field that championship season with New England.
“What he didn’t mention was that he didn’t play in the Super Bowl — or even a single playoff game,” sports columnist LZ Granderson wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “The 2014 season in which the Patriots won the championship, Bequette was on the practice squad and he didn’t play a single snap.”
Each NFL team has up to 16 players on a practice squad who can be promoted to the main roster to replace injured players or players needing leave for other reasons.
“Practice squad players are considered a full member of the team. He was on the team. That’s something to be proud of,” Rep. Colin Allred said in an interview before the current season started. The Texas Democrat played three and a half seasons in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans, and spent time on their practice squad. “The question is, are you embellishing your role on the team? Are you trying to mislead voters on your NFL career and experience?” Allred added.
No games in championship year
Bequette played three games for the New England Patriots in 2012 and five games for them in 2013, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, but didn’t play in a game the following season that culminated in the Patriots winning Super Bowl XLIX.
So does that mean he “won” the Super Bowl? And what is the relationship between the practice squad and the players on the field?
Would Allred say he won a Super Bowl if he had been in Bequette’s cleats? “I wouldn’t say that if I was on the practice squad,” the congressman answered.
Reaction from other former NFL front office staff and a Super Bowl-winning player about Bequette’s characterization is mixed. The Bequette campaign didn’t respond to multiple interview requests.
“It’s not an outrageous claim,” said public affairs strategist Jonathan Grella, who was director of communications for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a top aide to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. “The practice squad is a legit part of the team. They train, practice, prepare, travel and go through the paces with the rest. They can get elevated to the active roster at a moment’s notice.”
“As long as he got a ring and didn’t say he played in the Super Bowl, no beef,” Grella added.
“He’s not technically lying, but it is definitely a bit of a stretch to say a practice squad player ‘won a Super Bowl,’” according to one former staff member for a Super Bowl-winning team who requested anonymity because he’s not involved in politics. “It would’ve made a lot more sense to say he was part of a Super Bowl-winning team.”
The Bequette campaign has used the “part of a Super Bowl-winning team” characterization in at least one news release (in July) and has referred to the candidate as a “NFL Super Bowl Champion.”
Practice squad gets rings
“Making it to the Super Bowl is like building a mountain one layer of paint at a time. Everything adds up,” said a former Super Bowl-winning player, who declined to go on the record because he’s not involved in politics.
“Practice squad guys get rings. He was a part of it even though he wasn’t on the field,” said the player, who was sympathetic to the unique challenge practice squad players face as part of a team. “There’s a whole lot more anxiety. You have to be ready because you’re getting moved up and down [to the active roster] frequently. You have to have the right attitude of a guy who will grind and work.”
Bequette faces a new challenge against Boozman. Local Republicans believe Bequette, who served in the Army in Iraq after his time in the NFL, has a bright future but point to the difficulty of this particular race.
Boozman ended September with $2.8 million in available campaign ends — compared with $353,000 for Bequette. And, more importantly, the senator has former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, making it more difficult for Bequette to paint Boozman as out of step with today’s GOP.
Of course, the race isn’t over. The Republican primary isn’t until May 24, and could extend to June 21 if there’s a runoff. Bequette still has time to convince national conservative outside groups (that are usually involved in challenges to incumbents) to get behind him in the race and help him gain some traction. And stranger things have happened. Bequette’s Patriots were one yard away from losing the Super Bowl to the Seattle Seahawks, and everyone knows how that turned out.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.