Sunday, February 07, 2010

GOP Bets on Super Bowl Vets in 2010

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Jon Runyan expected to be in Miami right now, getting ready to play in another Super Bowl, but instead he’s in New Jersey preparing to challenge an incumbent Member of Congress.

After a dozen years in the National Football League and off-season knee surgery last year, Runyan looked like he was trading in his shoulder pads for politics. But in November, the offensive lineman put his Congressional ambitions on hold to take one more run at a championship ring. He signed mid-season with the San Diego Chargers, a popular pick to make this year’s Super Bowl.

“That was more than half the decision. You’re not just going to play out six weeks [of the regular season],” Runyan explained in a recent phone interview. “It just didn’t work out that way,” Runyan added, talking about the Chargers’ stunning 17-14 loss to the underdog New York Jets in the divisional round of the playoffs.

If the Chargers had made it, this year would have been Runyan’s third Super Bowl appearance.

In 2000, Runyan’s teammate Kevin Dyson came up a yard short of the goal line on the last play of Super Bowl XXXIV as the Tennessee Titans lost to the St. Louis Rams. “I’ll always remember that last play,” said Runyan. “That snapshot will always be in my head.” Five years later, Runyan played in Super Bowl XXXIX with the Philadelphia Eagles, but they lost 24-21 to the New England Patriots.

Now the 6-foot-7-inch, 330-pound Pro Bowler is stepping onto a new playing field.

Runyan (R), 36, is gearing up to take on freshman Rep. John Adler (D) in New Jersey’s 3rd District and should officially announce his candidacy in the next couple of weeks. But even before he jumped into the race, Democrats wasted little time flinging mud at Runyan.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee attacked Runyan for keeping four donkeys on some of his property in order to decrease his tax liability by claiming an agricultural use. But don’t expect a guy who started 190 consecutive games in the trenches of the NFL to rattle easily.

“You’re living your life under a microscope,” explained Runyan, comparing life as an NFL player to becoming a Congressional candidate. “You’ve got to put in the long hours and hard work to be prepared.”

During his decision-making process, Runyan relied on former New York Giants wide receiver Phil McConkey for advice. McConkey ran for Congress in 1990 in New Jersey’s 12th district, but he lost in the GOP primary to Dick Zimmer, who won the open seat in the general election.

Four years earlier, McConkey caught a touchdown pass off the fingertips of teammate Mark Bavaro to help lead the Giants to a 39-20 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI. Even though McConkey lost his race, he might be able to advise Runyan on how to convince New York Giants fans in New Jersey’s 3rd that it’s OK to vote for a former Eagles player.

Runyan isn’t the only Super Bowl veteran hitting the campaign trail this year.

Former tight end Clint Didier spent some great years in Washington, D.C., winning a pair of Super Bowls with the Redskins in the 1980s, but now he’s running for the U.S. Senate to tackle bigger government. “Our government is way too big and outreached its responsibilities,” Didier said in an interview this week.

Didier played on the Redskins’ championship team that defeated the Miami Dolphins, 27-17, in Super Bowl XVII in 1983. A year later, he was the Redskins’ leading receiver when they lost Super Bowl XVIII to the Los Angeles Raiders, 38-9. Didier got one more Super Bowl shot, and he made the most of it.

The night before Super Bowl XXII in 1988, Didier had a dream that the Redskins would come from behind and that he would catch a touchdown pass. The next day, the team did just that.

Didier’s touchdown catch capped a Super Bowl record 35-point second quarter for the Redskins, on their way to a 42-10 win over the Denver Broncos. “I think the good Lord just wanted to calm me down so I didn’t drop that pass,” laughed Didier about the dream.

After he retired in 1990, Didier moved back to the state of Washington, bought a farm north of Pasco and raised his family. Now he feels “called to serve this country.” Unlike Runyan, Didier’s bid is much more of a long shot. The 50-year-old Republican is not even guaranteed the GOP nomination to take on Sen. Patty Murray (D) in November.

Former Minnesota Vikings running back Jim Lindsey (R) is a potential candidate for the U.S. Senate in Arkansas. Lindsey, 65, played in Super Bowl IV when his Vikings and their Purple People Eaters defense lost to the Kansas City Chiefs, 23-7. But he might get the most political traction from playing on the 1964 national championship football team at the University of Arkansas.

Lindsey, who now owns a large real estate company, is still deciding whether to join an increasingly crowded GOP field of candidates who want the right to take on Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D), who has become one of the most vulnerable Senators in the country.

Republicans almost added yet another Super Bowl veteran to their list of candidates, but Mike Minter declined to challenge Rep. Larry Kissell (D) in North Carolina’s 8th district. The former defensive back for the Carolina Panthers equaled a career high in tackles and played part of Super Bowl XXXVIII on a broken foot, but his team lost to the Patriots, 32-29.

Former tight end Jay Riemersma, who played football with Runyan and the University of Michigan, is running in Michigan’s 2nd district. He’s just one of four Republicans vying to replace Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R), who is running for governor. But Riemersma joined the Buffalo Bills after the team’s string of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.

Former Bills quarterback Jack Kemp served in Congress for almost two decades, representing upstate New York as a Republican. He fell one game short of playing in Super Bowl I when his team lost to the Chiefs in the AFL Championship game in 1966.

Former Oklahoma Rep. Steve Largent (R), the Hall of Fame wide receiver and arguably Congress’ most famous former NFL player along with Kemp, never played in a Super Bowl in his time with the Seattle Seahawks.

There is a clear link between former football players running for office and the Republican Party, from former Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts to 2006 gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann (Pa.). North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler (D) looks like the exception rather than the rule.

Of course, the GOP is pleased with this, even if it hasn’t always proved to be a winning combination.

“They understand the importance of executing the blocking and tackling of political campaigns,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Ken Spain, “Hard work and discipline are hallmark Republican values that also happen to make for good professional football players.”

This story first appeared on and on February 6, 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.