Sunday, February 1, 2004

Gridiron a practice field for politicians

Next time someone talks about an issue as a political football, check their record. They might have gridiron experience.

More than 130 million fans in the United States today will watch Super Bowl XXXVIII, easily making it the biggest single spectator event of the year. But the sport of politics, another favorite American pastime, shares a number of similarities with the game of football.

As we are seeing with those wanting the Democratic presidential nomination, anyone seeking political office huddles with their teammates. They have to decide upon a game plan and be deft enough to change if the plan isn't working. Quarterbacks must be able to read defenses and interpret information to give their teams an advantage. Coaches, like politicians, must make strategic decisions based on information gleaned from their opponents' past performances and tendencies.

Click here to see our top choices for athletes turned elected officials. How would you rank them? Who would you add? Read our list, then add your comments.

Who did we leave out? Tell us who your favorite football player-turned-politician is, and why, in 100 words or less. Also, what current gridiron star would make a good elected official? Send responses to Pigskin Pols, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, OH, 45202. E-mail: letters@enquirer.com or fax (513) 768-8610.

And, of course, both politicians and football players can be hated or loved, and they will experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

So it's no surprise that a number of former football stars have made successful political leaders and public servants after their careers ended. Skills and experiences they learned and had on the football field were useful later on.

Jack Kemp, the former Buffalo Bills quarterback who became secretary of Housing and Urban Development and sought the Republican nomination for president, once wrote: "Of course, football is not for everyone, but everyone who participates in football can learn a great deal about themselves, about life and about getting along with people of other races, religions and nationalities.

"Besides, we need more places for our country and our communities to help build the leaders of tomorrow, and with the proper structure in place, the football gridirons are outstanding training grounds for doing just that."

Former Kansas City Chiefs kicker Nick Lowery is now a commentator for the Chiefs and heads his own foundation, but he actually had a political career of sorts before his football career began, as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill.

He said perseverance and maturity are two important skills he learned that can translate into the political realm. Lowery was cut 11 times by eight NFL teams before making the Chiefs' roster in 1980. He played for 16 years after that, the final three with the New York Jets. In 1993, he received the (Supreme Court Associate Justice) Byron R. "Whizzer" White Award, the NFL Players Association's highest humanitarian award, for his work on and off the field.

"Every year in every training camp, there are some players, usually several players, that have more talent than anyone else on the team that get cut," Lowery said. Often, the reason they were cut was immaturity. "They had not learned to deal with failure."

Ironically, Lowery was also the neighbor of White for 40 years, growing up in suburban Washington, D.C. It was White, who was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy at the University of Colorado in 1937, who inspired Lowery to think about "how to use the remarkable blessing of a pro football career to inspire others to make a difference in their communities," Lowery wrote in USA Today when White died in 2002.

Former Bengals Pro Bowl linebacker Jim LeClair (1972-1981), became a small-town mayor in 2002. He is the chief government executive of Mayville, N.D., which has about 2,000 citizens. He said being mayor is a lot like being a coach, because his job includes working with people whose opinions often differ and getting them accomplish a common goal.

"I don't know if being the mayor of a small town is as strategic as being on the championship football team, but it's all part of the process. You make plans, then you recruit people for the right jobs and give them progress deadlines," LeClair said. "The key is keep people on the same track and keeping them excited."

One of the best ever at doing just that was the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan. Known as "the great communicator" in politics, Reagan made a name for himself as an actor. One of his most important movies was the 1940 classic, Knute Rockne, All American, in which Reagan played the role of Notre Dame football legend George Gipp, earning the nickname "the Gipper." Some probably believe Reagan went to Notre Dame. He did not. But before achieving fictitious football stardom on big screen, Reagan played football from 1928-1932 at tiny Eureka College near Peoria, Ill.

Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell was a ferocious tackler as a linebacker for Xavier University, and was recruited by the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL, but his greatest success has come in politics. Politics, like football, requires resilience and tenacity, he said.

"In politics, like football, if you can't take a hit, bounce back, refocus and re-engage, it's going to be a long afternoon. In both activities, it is difficult to gauge the fight in an opponent until you pop him a good one and look into his eyes," Blackwell said. "My most enjoyable football weekends were spent defeating opponents who believed their own hubris and underestimated the fight in my teams. In politics, like football, leaders and winners prefer the risk of defeat to the security of the sidelines. Both endeavors are mind games and full-engagement sports."


Byron McCauley is Associate Editor of the Editorial Page. Email him at bmccauley@enquirer.com. Call him at (513) 768-8610.

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