Like a lot of boys, Rodney Davis grew up dreaming of playing in the NFL.
“Unfortunately, no one wanted me to be a professional football player, let alone a major college football player, or even a midsize college football player,” he said.
Instead, Davis wound up in Congress, representing central Illinois since 2013.
The closest he’s gotten to his childhood dream has been the annual Congressional Football Game, which will kick off again this Wednesday night at Audi Field. The two-hand touch matchup pits a bipartisan team of lawmakers against the Capitol Police, along with a few former pros who help fill out the legislators’ ranks.
Davis calls his time in the House the honor of his life, but he didn’t realize just how special it was until a few years ago when someone — he can’t remember exactly who — compared it to the NFL. “He said, ‘You realize when you look at sheer numbers, it’s easier to play in the NFL than to be a member of the U.S. House of Representatives?’” Davis recalled.
It’s true. More than 25,000 men have played in the NFL or one of its predecessor leagues since football first went pro in 1920. There have been fewer than 13,000 members of Congress since it first convened on March 4, 1789.
Fewer still have co-captained the congressional side in the football game like Davis has. But this year will be his last. The victim of a redistricting process that combined his district with another Republican’s, Davis lost a primary battle against Rep. Mary Miller over the summer.
Davis would rather talk trash than wax poetic about the game. When asked what will be running through his head as he steps on the field one last time, Davis takes aim at the other team.
“That if David Bailey beats me off the line, I’m gonna forearm shiver him and knock him down,” he said, referring to one of the cops who saved his life five years ago when a gunman opened fire on a GOP practice for the Congressional Baseball Game.
That tongue-in-cheek competitiveness has made Davis a player favorite on the football field. “I’m not sure what it’s going to be like, not seeing him on the sideline,” said Capitol Police K-9 technician and linebacker Larry Bell. “He’s a good trash talker. I’m going to miss that.”
Bell, who has played in every game since 2013, said he’ll save his trash talking for between downs, unlike Davis. “It doesn’t even stop off the field — whenever he sees you, on the street or wherever, he gets after it, all the time,” he said.
Republicans like Davis are a dying breed. The former congressional staffer-turned-politician came to Washington to fix the institution, not burn it down. It’s why he pestered then-Speaker John Boehner to give him a third committee assignment: House Administration. (“He turns around, and — in a typical John Boehner way — goes, ‘That’s a good f—--- idea,’” Davis said.)
It’s why he joined the so-called “fix Congress” committee, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.
It’s also why Davis is a fixture on the informal congressional fun-and-games circuit. Besides football, he was the GOP baseball team’s longtime backstop. And the only reason he missed watching the Congressional Softball Game last week was because he was busy losing in the “Press vs. Politicians” Spelling Bee (“Who spells ‘scuzzball’ with two Zs?” Davis lamented).
While these events are nominally fundraisers for good causes — the football game raised hundreds of thousands of dollars last year for the Capitol Police Memorial Fund — they’re really the kind of lighthearted traditions that help lawmakers see members of the other party as colleagues, rather than political opponents.
Not that Davis, a congenital jester, will admit as much when put on the spot.
“The printable answer is, ‘Oh, I have such respect for the institution,’” he said when asked why he’s so keen on the congressional extracurriculars. “But the real answer is: It’s fun. I like to have fun and everyone who knows me knows that.”
“I’ve tried to bring a little bit of humor into a sometimes humorless institution on a regular basis,” Davis said. “And as our leadership team will tell you, maybe even in some inappropriate times.”
The House will need more of that kind of lightheartedness next year to counter partisan tensions, Davis said, especially if Republicans retake the chamber as expected. “It’s going to get worse because, in split government, this is going to be a very major oversight agenda. You’re not going to pass a lot of major bills,” he said.
Davis believes lawmakers can still move important legislation, if they’re willing to put in the work to find common ground with their colleagues. “When somebody tells you here in Congress that they don’t have a voice, then that’s their fault,” he said. “My biggest surprise was that I thought this place was a lot more strategic than it is.”
Davis isn’t sure what’s next. After initially ruling out another run for office shortly after his primary defeat, Davis now says he’ll never say “never” again. “Who knows? I mean, during the football game, I might be auditioning for an internship with the Capitol Police,” he said.