10 NFL Players Who Went from Pigskin to Politics

Thomas Galicia@thomasgaliciaFeatured Columnist IVMay 24, 2012

10 NFL Players Who Went from Pigskin to Politics

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    An election year is upon us, and right now we have our two major party candidates in Democrat incumbent President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor and Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

    So what does this have to do with football? Nothing. We know Obama is a die-hard Chicago Bears fan, while Romney is a New England Patriots fan who despite his friendship with Jets owner Woody Johnson and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross didn't want Peyton Manning signing with the Dolphins or Jets because he wanted to "keep him away from New England."

    In an unrelated story, Bears vs. Patriots just happens to be my preseason Super Bowl prediction.

    However this story is about neither Romney nor Obama. They never played the game, they're just fans.

    Instead I'll discuss some NFL players who made the jump from the world of football into the world of politics.

    The NFL has produced many politicians on both sides of the aisle. Even the family members of NFL figures have gone on to become prominent politicians, such as former Virginia Governor George Allen, the son of former Rams and Redskins coach George Allen.

    Even a former President had a chance at an NFL career. President Gerald Ford was a standout player at Michigan who played in the 1935 Collegiate All-Star game against the NFL Champion Chicago Bears. He would turn down contract offers from the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions to go to Yale Law School.

    Here's a look at the most prominent NFL players to make an impact in the sometimes much more physical (and always much dirtier) world of politics.

Byron "Whizzer" White

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    Byron "Whizzer" White was one of the most prolific NFL running backs despite only playing in the NFL for such a short time—yet his biggest impact would come well after his NFL career was over.

    White was an All-American running back at the University of Colorado who was drafted with the fourth pick in the first round by the Pittsburgh Pirates (now the Steelers). In his rookie season with the Pirates, White would lead the league in rushing with 567 yards on 152 attempts and four touchdowns, while also passing for 393 yards and two touchdowns.

    He was the highest-paid player in the NFL at that time, and according to A Tribute to Byron White written by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in the Yale Law Journal in 2003, Steelers owner Art Rooney had this to say about White: "Of all the athletes I have known in my lifetime, I'd have to say Whizzer White came as close to anyone to giving 100 percent of himself when he was in competition."

    After his rookie season, White would take the year off to study at Oxford before returning to the NFL with the Detroit Lions in 1940. While studying at Oxford in 1939, White would meet John F. Kennedy while both were on vacation. Pay attention to this, as the link between White and Kennedy only began here.

    In his two seasons in Detroit, White would again become one of the most prolific rushers in the NFL—in his first season he would again win the rushing title with 514 yards and five touchdowns while passing for 461 yards. His second and final season in Detroit wouldn't be as prolific, as White rushed for 240 yards and two touchdowns, but he also passed for 338 yards and two touchdowns.

    White was also a proficient kick returner in 1941 as he returned 19 punts for 262 yards as well as returning 11 kickoffs for 285 yards.

    But White's career would come to an end after the 1941 season due to World War II. White would serve in the Navy as an intelligence officer in the Pacific Theater at the time. One of his missions as an intelligence officer was to interview the crew and write the intelligence report of the sinking of Naval ship PT-109—a crew that included one John F. Kennedy.

    After World War II, White decided to end his NFL career and instead pursue a law degree from Yale Law School, graduating in 1946. He would return to his hometown of Denver, CO to practice law until 1960, when his good friend John F. Kennedy would summon him to campaign on his behalf during the 1960 Presidential Election. White campaigned using his celebrity as an NFL player and was the Chair of Kennedy's campaign in Colorado.

    Upon Kennedy's election, White would then become the Deputy Attorney General, working under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Then in 1962, after a vacancy came up in the Supreme Court, Kennedy nominated White for the seat. According to President Kennedy at the time: "He has excelled at everything. And I know that he will excel on the highest court in the land."

    White would serve in the Supreme Court until his retirement in 1993. The Byron "Whizzer" White award is now given out by the NFLPA to honor charity work done by a player.

Heath Shuler

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    One of the few NFL rules I used to live by went like this: high draft pick plus prolonged holdout equals future NFL bust. Heath Shuler is definitely an embodiment of this rule as he held out of Redskins training camp for 13 days prior to his rookie season before signing an eight-year, $19.25 million contract—which at the time was the highest contract ever signed by a rookie.

    Of course Shuler missing that much training camp led to him struggling as a starter for the Redskins before being supplanted by Gus Frerotte, whom the Redskins also drafted in 1994. However, unlike Shuler, Frerotte was a seventh-rounder and not a first-round "savior." His struggles even led to an article here on Bleacher Report by contributor Kevin Craft called "The Curse of Heath Shuler"—which even had a sequel.

    The Redskins would trade Shuler to the New Orleans Saints in 1996 for a fifth-round pick in in 1997 and a third-round pick in 1998. During his two seasons with the Saints, Shuler suffered a serious foot injury and wound up never living up to the hype he generated when he was drafted by the Redskins. He retired from the NFL in 1998 after attempting to play for the Oakland Raiders.

    Upon retiring, Shuler moved back to Tennessee where he became a real estate professional. In 2003 he moved to Waynesville, North Carolina, which was just one step toward getting him back to Washington.

    His second stint in Washington was much more successful. Shuler became a Congressman in the House of Representatives in 2007 after a successful campaign in 2006. Shuler became one of two Democrats to unseat a Republican incumbent in the South. Since becoming a Congressman, Shuler has become a prominent leader among moderate and conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats in Congress, even challenging Nancy Pelosi for the role of House Minority Leader after the Republicans regained the House in 2010.

    However Shuler's stint representing North Carolina's 11th district will come to an end when the new congress takes over in 2013. Shuler has decided not to seek reelection in 2012.

    Don't expect Shuler to leave the political realm for long though. Shuler is only 40 years old, still very young in the world of politics. In 2009 his name was floated as a possible Democrat candidate for the United States Senate seat against incumbent Republican Richard Burr, and it's possible that Shuler could be back in Washington as a Senator sometime in the future.

Lynn Swann

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    When you think of Lynn Swann, many things come to mind as a football fan. You think of his four Super Bowl rings, three Pro Bowl appearances, a Super Bowl MVP in Super Bowl X, an array some of the greatest catches not just in the 70's, but of all-time (including this Super Bowl X gem) as well as his support of social conservative issues such as the pro-life cause and gun-ownership rights.

    Wait, what?

    Lynn Swann hasn't held an elected office yet, but he does have his aspirations. In 2006, Swann ran against then-incumbent Pennsylvania Governor (and Eagles Fan and analyst on Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia) Ed Rendell. 

    Swann mainly focused on property tax reform during the election and hoped to capitalize on Rendell's low approval ratings outside of his native Philadelphia.

    However, Rendell held the advantages of being the incumbent as well as a wide gap in fundraising. Unlike his four Super Bowl appearances with Pittsburgh, Swann found himself on the losing end as Rendell was reelected with 60 percent of the vote.

    In 2008, Swann stated that he had considered running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, but he wound up not filing for the election. He did endorse John McCain for President in 2008.

    Swann was also appointed as Chairman to the United States President's Council on Physical Fitness by President George W. Bush in 2002—a role he served in until 2005.

Alan Page

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    He is dignified, accomplished, and someone who has managed to excel in two fields. But saying that would still be selling Alan Page short.

    Page played 15 seasons in the NFL, the majority of them with the Minnesota Vikings. In that time, he went to the Super Bowl four times with the Vikings, won the 1971 NFL MVP award, was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection, a six-time NFL All-Pro, 1970 NFL Defensive Player of The Year and a Hall of Famer.

    That was only the first 35 years of his extraordinary life.

    After football, Page would go on to become a successful lawyer. In fact, he matriculated at the University of Minnesota Law School, earning his J.D. in 1978. After graduating from law school, he spent his offseason working at a law firm in Minnesota.

    His work with the NFLPA at the time would also prepare him for his future job, as he served as a player representative from 1970-1974 and again from 1976-77. From 1972-1975, he served as a member of the NFLPA Association Executive Committee.

    Page would then be appointed as a Special Assistant Attorney General in Minnesota in 1985, followed by a permanent appointment to Assistant Attorney General.

    In 1992, Alan Page was elected as an associate Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court, becoming the first African-American to hold the position. He has held the position since then, and in his 1998 reelection became the largest vote-getter in the history of Minnesota politics.

Sam Wyche

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    Forgive me, Clevelanders, if I offend any of you with this video. Sorry, but to this day I still find it hilarious. If you choose, feel free to replace "Cleveland" with my hometown of Miami and let the laughter ensue.

    This speech to Bengals fans might not have given many the impression that Bengals coach Sam Wyche would one day have a career in politics; however, that's exactly what came to pass.

    Wyche's NFL career numbers as a head coach weren't what you would call extraordinary. While coaching the Bengals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he amassed an 84-107 record. However, he also led the Bengals to two AFC Central titles and an appearance in Super Bowl XXIII, and helped build what would become a vaunted Buccaneers defense by drafting Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch.

    After leaving coaching in 1995 when he was relieved of his duties with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Wyche returned to become the Buffalo Bills quarterbacks coach in 2004. He's also had stints in the broadcasting realm, working for NBC, CBS and, more recently, the Westwood One radio network. This despite the fact that in 2000 his left vocal cord was ruptured during a biopsy on his lymph nodes.

    In 2008, Wyche won a seat on the Pickens County, South Carolina council as a Republican. In 2009 he considered running for the a seat in the United States House of Representatives.

    Wyche was one of the most innovative and entertaining coaches in the NFL, and if the video shows anything, he'd be just as entertaining in a filibuster.

Steve Largent

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    Steve Largent is one of the most accomplished wide receivers in NFL history.

    The seven-time Pro Bowler and eight-time NFL All-Pro receiver at one point held virtually every receiving record in the NFL and became the first Seahawk to have his number retired. He's also a member of the NFL's all-1980s team.

    After an NFL career like that, most players either sit back and enjoy retirement, or become talking heads on TV.

    But Largent instead decided to serve in Congress. In 1994, Largent ran for Oklahoma's first district in the House of Representatives as a Republican. He won that election, garnering 63 percent of the vote in the predominantly Republican district, which includes Tulsa. In fact, Largent won every election while serving as a representative with at least 62 percent of the vote. 

    Largent left Congress to run for Governor of Oklahoma in 2002. However, despite being tabbed at the front-runner, he would lose to Brad Henry by less than one percent of the vote—partly due to the fact that some voters in Oklahoma took issue with Largent's opposition to cockfighting (think about that for just a second in this post-Michael Vick world).

    In another NFL-related note, former Dallas Cowboys and Oklahoma Sooners head coach Barry Switzer endorsed Henry in his gubernatorial campaign.

    Largent has since moved to the non-profit sector, serving as CEO of CITA-The Wireless Association, which is an industry trade group that lobbies on behalf of the wireless communication industry and has been instrumental in making texting while driving illegal.

Craig James

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    Many of you know Craig James as a college football analyst at ESPN whose son was caught in a controversy that lead to the dismissal of Coach Mike Leach from his post as Head Coach at Texas Tech.

    However, James had a brief NFL run where he made a huge mark.

    He was the leading rusher for the New England Patriots in 1985 when he rushed for 1,227 yards and lead the Patriots to Super Bowl XX. James was the last white NFL running back to rush for more than 1,000 yards until 2010 when Peyton Hillis reached that mark.

    James would retire from the NFL in 1988 after rushing for 2,469 yards and 11 touchdowns along with 819 yards receiving and two touchdown catches.

    After his NFL career, James became a prominent College Football analyst with ESPN until December 2011, when he quit ESPN to concentrate on his new goal of taking the United States Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Kay Bailey Hutchison.

    James' campaign is still ongoing, and according to a recent poll by People Calling People, James ranks fourth in the race with a mere five percent. While he has the most name recognition—which is usually a big advantage—one issue against him is his apparent unlikeability. According to the Houston Chronicle

    James has a slightly higher name ID than Cruz—30 percent to 29 percent—but most people who know him don’t like him. He has an 11 percent positive rating and 19 percent negative. Among fans of his alma mater, SMU, he is liked by 23 percent and disliked by 29 percent. He does particularly poorly among Texas Tech fans: 14 percent positive and 26 percent negative.

    Many college football fans are nodding in agreement, especially Texas Tech fans, who still haven't quite forgiven James for his involvement in the firing of popular head coach Mike Leach. In fact, according to a poll in the Dallas Morning News, Mike Leach would lead Craig James in a hypothetical senate race—by a margin of 95 percent to five percent.

    However James can count on this: if he can somehow get past the Republican field to claim the nomination, he would be a heavy favorite over any Democrat in the running. James does have a solid record as a fiscal and social conservative, which certainly helps in a state as socially conservative as Texas.

Jon Runyan

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    Jon Runyan will go down in NFL history for many things.

    He was the last active NFL player to play for the Houston Oilers—who drafted him in the fourth round in 1996. He was also an NFL All-Pro selection in 1999, a Pro Bowler in 2002 and was named to the Philadelphia Eagles 75th anniversary team.

    Runyan also started in 190 consecutive regular season games while also starting in 18 consecutive playoff games during that same stretch. Looking at his pro resume, Runyan is more than deserving of his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame once he reaches eligibility in 2015.

    However, while waiting for his call to Canton, Runyan decided to run as a Republican for the House of Representatives in 2010. Runyon beat out Democrat incumbent John Adler to represent New Jersey's third district. While in the House, Runyan has mainly been a hard-line fiscal conservative who has voted along Republican party lines.

Peter Boulware

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    One of the most imposing forces on an imposing defense, Peter Boulware showed opposing offenses he meant business while playing for the Baltimore Ravens from 1997-2005.

    During that time, Boulware was the Defensive Rookie of the Year, a four-time Pro Bowler, an NFL All-Pro and a Super Bowl champion.

    After retiring in 1997, Boulware hoped to find similar success in politics.

    Running as a Republican, Boulware announced his candidacy for the State House of Representatives in Florida not long after retiring from the NFL in 2007. In the election held in 2008, Boulware lost to Democrat Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda by a mere 430 votes. However soon after, then-Florida Governor Charlie Crist appointed Boulware to the Florida Board of Education.

    At age 37, Boulware has plenty of time in front of him to make his mark in the political realm. If his NFL career is any indication, he will have a major impact.

Jack Kemp

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    One of the players with the biggest impact in both the worlds of football and politics is the late Jack Kemp.

    Kemp was originally drafted in the 17th round of the 1957 draft by the Detroit Lions, but was cut by the team prior to the season. He would serve on the taxi squads for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1957 and the New York Giants in 1958. After that, Kemp served a year as a private in the United States Army Reserves, but would play one game in the CFL for the Calgary Stampeders.

    His big break in pro football came in 1960, when he signed with the nascent AFL's Los Angeles Chargers.

    In his first year with the Chargers, Kemp lead them to a 10-4 record, an AFL Western Division championship and a berth in the first ever AFL Championship game. However the Chargers would lose to the Houston Oilers.

    His second and final year with the Chargers—a season in which they moved to San Diego—Kemp again led the Chargers to the AFL Championship game after a 12-2 season. Once again, the Oilers kept San Diego from a league championship.

    In 1962, Kemp suffered a broken middle finger two games into the season. Chargers coach Sid Gillman placed Kemp on the waiver wire in order to hide him. This strategy would backfire on the Chargers though, as the Bills wound up claiming him.

    In Buffalo, Kemp became a legend. He led the Bills to two consecutive AFL Championships in 1964 and 1965. He was also named the 1965 AFL MVP.

    He ended his football career in 1969 as the AFL's all-time leader in passing attempts, completions and yards.

    Kemp would make his first real foray into politics in 1970 when he was elected to the House of Representatives representing a district that always included parts of Buffalo, NY through repeated redistricting. However, prior to his election and during his NFL career, Kemp was a volunteer for Barry Goldwater's 1964 Presidential bid and Ronald Reagan's successful 1966 bid for Governor of California.

    Kemp left the House of Representatives in 1989 to serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President George H.W. Bush after an unsuccessful Presidential bid in 1988. In 1996, Republican nominee Bob Dole named Kemp as his running mate in his unsuccessful bid against President Bill Clinton.

    Kemp acknowledged how his NFL career helped prepare him for the world of politics in this 1996 New York Times article published after he was named the Vice-Presidential nominee: "Pro football gave me a good sense of perspective to enter politics. I'd already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded and hung in effigy.''