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Political football: Mixing sports and politics

November was always their season, built around football afternoons. Lynn Swann and Heath Shuler now face a challenge far more confounding than double coverage in the secondary.
/ Source: The Associated Press

November was always their season, built around football afternoons. Lynn Swann and Heath Shuler now face a challenge far more confounding than double coverage in the secondary.

Swann, a Hall of Fame receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is running for governor of Pennsylvania. Shuler, a star quarterback at Tennessee who never cut it in the NFL, is trying to win a congressional seat in North Carolina.

They're the most prominent sports figures-turned-politicians before voters Tuesday in a bid to win office for the first time.

Swann's song
Swann has been nothing but a winner in football. He played in two Rose Bowls and won a national title at Southern California. Then came those great Steeler teams of the 1970s - with his artful, fluid moves going deep - and four Super Bowl crowns.

The 54-year-old Republican now talks about making "one more catch," but with the clock running down - and all football metaphors exhausted - victory appears out of reach.

He is running against Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell. For months, Swann has trailed by double digits in the polls, in a state where football is serious business. Even some GOP politicians are going for Rendell.

Swann is trying to draw on his celebrity buzz against an opponent well schooled in politics, and he's not about to run from his football past.

"You played nine years, won four Super Bowls, and I'm in the Hall of Fame," he says. "Why would you ever run from that?"

Mountain values
Shuler was a Heisman Trophy runner-up and the third pick in the 1994 NFL draft. He lasted four seasons in the NFL with Washington and New Orleans. It never worked out in the pros: inexperience, injury, little playing time.

He commands attention these days, with control of the House of Representatives at stake and Shuler's race closely watched. The 34-year-old Democrat is trying to unseat Rep. Charles Taylor, an eight-term Republican incumbent, in a contest considered a tossup.

Shuler, born in the rural hills in western North Carolina, preaches "mountain values." He opposes abortion, supports gun rights and environmentalism and says the administration has lost its way on Iraq. In Taylor, he faces a rival with deep pockets and loyal constituents.

Sports Fan-antics
Shuler, like any politician, has strong critics. The Web site, however, has less to do with politics than implacable football rage. It simply wants - demands - that Shuler be kept out of Washington and therefore away from the Redskins.

"The media should not refer to Shuler as a 'former NFL quarterback' any more than they refer to Michael Jordan as a 'former professional baseball player.'" the site says. "Why describe him as something he completely failed at?"

Sports ticker
Jim Ryun, the track great who once held the world record in the mile, is seeking a sixth term in Congress, and the Kansas Republican is in a tighter contest than expected. Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning, the Hall of Fame pitcher, is not up for re-election until 2010. Tom Osborne, the former Nebraska congressman and longtime Cornhuskers football coach, is not on the ballot after his loss in a gubernatorial primary.

Lower on the sports-politics food chain, at least four other House races feature ex-jocks.

Baron Hill, a former basketball player at Furman, is a Democrat looking to regain his seat in Indiana. Rick Renzi, a Republican and former captain and linebacker at Northern Arizona, is up for re-election in Arizona.

Former Stanford women's basketball star Angie Paccione is trying to unseat a Republican in Colorado. Italo Zanzi, who competed at the Pan American Games as a U.S. team handball player, is bidding for a New York seat on Long Island against a Democratic incumbent.

Away from Congress, Joe DeNucci, a middleweight boxer who twice lost to Emile Griffith, is looking to remain Massachusetts state auditor. Fred Hemmings, a state senator and former world surfing champion, is running unopposed in Hawaii. Mike Nifong, the district attorney prosecuting three Duke lacrosse players, is up for re-election in Durham, N.C.

Sports and politics also will intersect Tuesday in a family sort of way:

-Sen. George Allen, R-Va., son of the former Washington Redskins coach, opposes former Navy Secretary Jim Webb in a pivotal and fierce race.

-The mother of Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints is a candidate for a Texas appeals court. The quarterback asked Austin lawyer Mina Brees to stop using his picture in TV ads. To underscore his request to Mom, he threatened to sue her.

-Michael Steele, Maryland's lieutenant governor, is running for the Senate against Rep. Benjamin Cardin. If elected, Steele will be the only member who can call himself Mike Tyson's former brother-in-law.