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Mr. Shuler Returns to Washington

Heath Shuler is about to make his re-appearance in Washington, D.C.

A decade after he last played quarterback for the Redskins, Shuler won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives by upsetting an eight-term incumbent in the midterm elections earlier this month.

A Democrat, Shuler will represent North Carolina's 11th district in the western part of the state, where he grew up in the town of Bryson City. He takes office in January.

Shuler and his supporters are hoping that this experience in the nation's capital is more successful than the first one.

As Redskins fans can vividly recall, Shuler was a major disappointment for the burgundy and gold. After the Redskins drafted him in 1994 with the third overall pick, he was pegged as the franchise's quarterback of the future and the man who would lift a squad that finished 4-12 the year before back to respectability.

Instead, he completed only 48 percent of his passes (186 of 390) in three seasons in D.C. for 2,403 yards, with 13 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.

Redskins fans resented that Shuler fell way short of expectations, as well as the fact that he had staged a 13-day contract holdout as a rookie before signing a $19.25 million deal. They often booed him at RFK Stadium, and media referred to the boyish-looking athlete as a "bonus baby."

Shuler, who had been idolized by fans while starring as a college quarterback at Tennessee, found the situation very difficult.

"It was a very, very tough place to play. Gosh, it was tough," said Shuler, who rooted for the Redskins while growing up in Bryson City and is now 34. "It almost seemed like everybody hated me in Washington. The hard part about it was the expectations were so high. The fans weren't going to wait and see what happens three or four years down the road, they wanted to see what happens now because the team has such a rich tradition."

After appearing in 18 games in his first two seasons, Shuler played in one game and threw no passes in 1996. That year, Redskins coach Norv Turner had named Gus Frerotte, a Redskins seventh-round pick the same year Shuler arrived, as the team's starter before the first game.

The Redskins opted not to renew Shuler's contract after the season and traded him to the Saints for two mid-round draft picks. He threw two scoring passes and 14 interceptions for New Orleans in 1997, and suffered a foot injury that ended his NFL career. Today, he is paralyzed in the left foot.

Why did Shuler struggle in D.C.?

"When you're coming to a team that's 4-12, you're going to have to handle some real adversity," Turner said. "That was hard on Heath. He also had a tough time getting comfortable with the NFL game, which was much different for him than what he'd done in college.

"The thing that's forgotten is Heath got hurt a number of times. It seemed like every time he was getting a comfort level and started to play a little bit, he had a setback. In the '95 season, he went through a (late-season) stretch where he was doing some things pretty good, but he broke his finger."

Turner, whose first year with the Redskins was 1994, advocated picking Shuler over the other top blue-chip quarterback in the draft, Fresno State's Trent Dilfer.

The 6-2, 221-pound Shuler, noted for his tremendous all-around athletic ability, threw for more than 4,000 yards at Tennessee and entered the draft after his junior season. The 6-4, 235-pound Dilfer, more of a pro-style quarterback, amassed nearly 7,000 yards.

Unlike Turner, then-general manager Charley Casserly favored drafting Dilfer and said the Redskins would have taken him if Joe Gibbs, who left the team after the 1992 season, were still coaching in Washington.

Dilfer, who now plays for the 49ers, has been nothing spectacular in his 13-year career, but he quarterbacked the Ravens to a win in Super Bowl XXXV.

"The thing that put Heath over Trent was probably his mobility," said Turner, now the 49ers' offensive coordinator. "People put a lot of weight on Heath playing at Tennessee, compared with Trent playing at Fresno State. Reflecting on it, most people will tell you that neither deserved to be picked that high."

After leaving football, Shuler built a lucrative real estate career. At his victory speech after being elected to Congress, he used a sports analogy to sum up his win.

"It is about teamwork," he said.

Michael Richman is a freelance writer who specializes in Redskins history. His e-mail address is mikerichman@redskinshistorian.com.

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