As our 2016 election is coming to a close, let’s take the time to reflect on a few 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 world of politics.
Byron “Whizzer” White
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. 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.
White’s football 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
He ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate in Texas in 2012,but was defeated in the first round of the Republican primary. James is a self-described conservative and states that government intervention in business and health care are his main concerns. He founded a political group called Texans for a Better America.
American politician who was the U.S. Representative for New Jersey’s 3rd congressional district from 2011 to 2015. He is a member of the Republican Party.
In 2012 Runyan was re-elected, defeating attorney Shelley Adler, the widow of John Adler. Adler had defeated Jason Sansone for the Democratic nomination. Runyan won 54% of the vote, to Adler’s 45%.
As of June 2012, Runyan had sponsored 15 pieces of legislation. He votes with his party 92% of the time. Key votes he supported include the payroll tax cut, the Balanced budget amendment, defunding of National Public Radio, and the Republican budget plan.
In June 2013, Runyan was one of the sponsors to pass an amendment to H.R. 2217, the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2014, which increased the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grants, and the Assistance to Firefighter Grants (FIRE) by $2.5 million each.
2014 Runyan announced that he would not seek re-election, after expressing frustration with his fellow Republicans over the government shutdown.
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.
One of the players with the biggest impact in both the worlds of football and politics is the late Jack Kemp.
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.”