Silver for Shuler

Marvin Westwestwords

Heath Shuler is moving on up, big time, toward the top of the heap.

The former Tennessee quarterback will be honored next week with the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award.

To put this in perspective, only two former Vols have been so recognized – center Bob Johnson and fullback-linebacker Andy Kozar.

The prize is based on accomplishments, one third on what an athlete did in college and two thirds on what happened in the following 25 years.

Shuler did pretty well in 1993, his junior season as a Volunteer. He was Southeastern Conference player of the year. He was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. He threw for 2,354 yards, completed 64.6 percent, had 25 touchdown passes and was the triggerman for Phillip Fulmer’s career as a head coach.

“He had an uncanny ability to lead and compete, in addition to very obvious physical tools,” Fulmer said. “He just did so many little things that made a difference.”

To tell it like it was, Shuler was a brilliant college quarterback, a great athlete with a strong arm and quick release, and good legs to carry him away from the rush.

He was on the SEC all-academic team. He had an unusual major for a football player: psychology.

Heath was unusual in several ways. He was 6-3 and 215. Confidence glowed. He had a firm handshake. He looked you in the eye. He had a broad, disarming smile. You might have thought he was running for mayor.

He was the real deal. In Bryson City, N.C., he gave back to the community that treasured him. He spoke to schoolchildren about avoiding drugs and alcohol. Part of his presentation was he practiced what he preached. He had never had a cigarette or an alcoholic drink. He gave up caffeine and carbonated drinks – when he was 9.

I always thought his signature play came as a sophomore, between the hedges at Georgia, Bulldogs leading by four, time running short. Heath directed a Vol drive from the far-away 20. It came down to fourth and 14 at the Georgia 40.

Coming out of a timeout, Shuler patted Fulmer on his broad bottom and said, “Relax, Coach, we’ll get it.”

Fourth and 14? Against overwhelming odds, Shuler completed a 22-yard pass to Ron Davis. A couple of minutes later, Shuler scored from the 3. Tennessee won. Two legends were born.

After the next season, Shuler declared for the NFL draft. The Washington Redskins invested their first-round pick, No. 3 overall, and $19.25 million. Shuler was a major disappointment. A late start and an injury were factors.

Shuler got some more money from New Orleans and again fell below expectations. Jon Gruden brought him to Oakland, but the recurring foot problem took him out.

Heath used his reputation as a Volunteer and some of his spare change to start a real estate company in Knoxville. It flourished.

As a conservative Democrat, he represented Western North Carolina in Congress for three terms. I thought he thought Nancy Pelosi was wild and crazy. He challenged her for Speaker of the House.

He lost that election but no other. When his district was redrawn and part of Asheville went missing, he retired from public office and became senior vice president of federal affairs for Duke Energy, a Fortune 200 company.

After that, he joined BakerHostetler, a prominent Washington law firm, as senior adviser. He made it perfectly clear that he was not and had not been a lawyer.

Along the way, he became volunteer coach at Christ School in Asheville. His son, Navy, is the quarterback. The young Shuler can also throw a football. He has scholarship offers. He has visited Tennessee as a prospect.

His dad, in two sentences, said a lot about that.

“Don’t recruit Navy because he is our son. Recruit him because he is good.”

Heath Shuler is a perfect fit for the Silver Anniversary Awards program. He is a natural-born winner. In the current class of six are soccer legend Mia Hamm and Jason Varitek of Red Sox fame.

From my list of past honorees, I’ll drop a few names on you: Ty Detmer. Jennifer Azzi. Mike Mussina. Troy Aikman. Tony Dungy. Joe Girardi. Doug Flutie. Danny Ainge.

You do remember the late Sally Ride, first woman in space, physics professor, former Stanford tennis star? She was a silver recipient.

Keep in mind: one third as an athlete, two thirds as a success over a quarter of a century.

You know about Bob Johnson: high school team captain, honor student, Eagle Scout; UT team captain, unanimous All-American, National Football Foundation Scholar Athlete, Jacobs Trophy as Southeastern Conference’s best blocker, College Football Hall of Fame; NFL No. 2 draft choice, first of the Cincinnati Bengals, team captain 11 years, number retired; after that, president of Imperial Adhesives Inc.

You know about Dr. Kozar: co-star with Hank Lauricella on one of Robert R. Neyland’s finest teams; 37-year academic career at UT, from professor to department head to executive assistant to President Ed Boling.

Among many other things, Kozar wrote the book on Neyland, “Football as a War Game.”

In typical Kozar style, proceeds went to the Robert R. Neyland Athletic Endowment in the Volunteer Scholarship Fund.

Marvin West invites reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected]

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