Before Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, and Johnny Manziel, there was Heath Shuler.
Shuler joins a list of quarterbacks who played magnificently during their college days but fizzled out in the NFL.
Shuler’s pro stint was so ignominous, ESPN named him the fourth-biggest draft bust in NFL history.
Many fans didn’t see that coming, especially someone who placed second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1993.
Despite Shuler’s forgettable NFL career, he made serious amends as a businessman, lawmaker, and family man in his post-football life.
Long story short, Heath Shuler was a fallen gridiron warrior who fought back with a vengeance when the chips were down.
Joseph Heath Shuler was born to Joe Benny and Margie Shuler in Bryson City, NC on December 31, 1971.
He was named after his father and the Heath Barkley character from “The Big Valley” television series, per The Baltimore Sun’s Mike Preston.
He has a younger brother, Benjie, who would play wide receiver for the Tennessee Volunteers.
According to Preston, Heath Shuler became a born-again Christian at the age of 10.
Shuler helped the Swain County Maroon Devils win 40 of 45 games and clinch three consecutive state championships.
During his impressive prep career, Shuler passed for 7,098 yards and 103 touchdowns.
In his senior season alone, Shuler threw for 3,636 yards.
His final game, a 40-14 blowout victory over the Robersonville Roanoke Redskins, saw him pass for four touchdowns.
Opposing coaches marveled at Shuler’s ability to change plays at the line of scrimmage.
They thought he’s one of the best in that aspect of the game, per the Scripps Howard News Service’s (via The Chicago Tribune) Ron Higgins.
“Every time he came up to the line, he looked for someone on the defense to line up wrong,” Shuler’s high school football coach, Boyce Dietz, told Higgins in October 1992.
Anyone want a shoebox filled with Heath Shuler football cards from the 94 and 95 season?#WashingtonFootball pic.twitter.com/AP3czj3VoE
— Washington Football Fans CLT (@CLTWFTFans) January 31, 2021
Shuler didn’t just excel on the gridiron.
He was also a “two-time all-state defensive back, a state high jump champion who cleared 6-9, a baseball catcher who hit .390, and a center in basketball,” per Higgins.
He could also give Shaquille O’Neal a run for his money.
Heath Shuler actually shattered a backboard once when he dunked a ball before tip-off of a high school basketball game, per The Orlando Sentinel’s Mike Dame.
He’s also revered as a football figure in Western North Carolina.
His dad, Joe Benny, told The Baltimore Sun in 1994 about his son’s iconic status in that part of the country:
“A lot of people are football-crazy in North Carolina. But even if they weren’t, they knew about Heath and what he has accomplished in his hometown.”
“A special kind of person lives here, and Heath is one of our own. A lot of people play football through Heath, and he’s never changed.”
Once his high school playing days concluded, Shuler whittled his college choices to Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee, per The Washington Post’s David Aldridge.
Ultimately, proximity to home prevailed for Shuler.
The University of North Carolina was a five-hour drive while Alabama was a lot farther down south.
In contrast, the University of Tennessee was just 90 minutes away from Bryson City, NC.
Heath Shuler decided to become a Tennessee Volunteer.
Twenty-eight years later, Shuler received the prestigious NCAA Silver Anniversary Award for his collegiate and professional achievements in the past 25 years.
When he received the accolade, he told the Volunteers’ official athletics website choosing Tennessee was “life-changing”:
“When I think of Tennessee, I think of life-changing. This could not have happened if not for the very first choice I made as a young adult – which college I would go to.”
“Choosing the University of Tennessee was the first great decision that I made in my life.”
When Heath Shuler chose Tennessee, he was about to make a profound impact on that football program over the next few years.
College Days at the University of Tennessee
Heath Shuler made quite an impression as a true freshman quarterback at the University of Tennessee in 1991.
On his first day of scrimmage, he threw a ball so hard it actually deflated when it made contact with a receiver’s helmet, per SI.com’s William F. Reed.
Happy Birthday & Happy New Year's Eve to #VFL Heath Shuler! 🍊🍊🍊🍊🍊🍊🍊 pic.twitter.com/ix9V0slcln
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) December 31, 2015
Unfortunately, the 6’3″, 212-lb. Shuler didn’t play much during the 1991 NCAA season.
Shuler acted as senior quarterback Andy Kelly’s understudy that year.
Consequently, the pride of Bryson City, NC passed for just one touchdown and a paltry 23 yards in 11 games during his freshman season.
When Kelly graduated the following year, Shuler made up for lost time.
He became the Vols’ starting quarterback during the 1992 NCAA campaign.
Shuler was clutch in Tennessee’s second game of the season against the 14th-ranked Georgia Bulldogs on September 12, 1992.
Shuler kept third- and fourth-down drives alive with a run or pass in the last 25 minutes of the Volunteer’s 34-31 upset win.
Shuler threw a crucial 22-yard pass to wide receiver Ronald Davis on fourth down in the game’s final drive.
The fourth-down conversion enabled Shuler to run into the end zone from three yards out and clinch the game with just 50 seconds remaining.
Then-Volunteers offensive coordinator Phillip Fulmer remembered that pivotal fourth-down situation.
Despite the tremendous odds, Shuler remained unfazed.
Fulmer described the moment to UTSports.com:
“We bring Heath to the sideline and we are talking about the play we were going to run.”
“He’s got a big old smile on his face. He reaches behind me and pats me on the rear. We give him the play and he says, ‘Coach, we got this.'”
“He goes out there and sticks it in there.”
Shuler’s unflappable demeanor helped him succeed in Congress and the boardroom some two decades later.
21 Days means it's Heath Shuler Day! #VFL giving his all for Tennessee! pic.twitter.com/SMuURXKrLD
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) August 10, 2014
In Shuler’s third start, he showed he’s a valuable dual-threat quarterback who not only has a great arm, but nimble feet as well.
Shuler rolled out from the 11-yard line, turned on the afterburners, raced down the sideline, and reached for the pylon to give Tennessee a 7-0 lead after the PAT over the fourth-ranked Florida Gators at rowdy Neyland Stadium on September 19, 1992.
The Vols eventually prevailed, 31-14.
Two weeks later, Tennessee was 5-0 and ranked fourth in the nation.
At that point of the season, Fulmer told Higgins he was excited about Shuler’s progress:
“Heath has an air about him that many outstanding quarterbacks possess. He takes his confidence and spreads it to his teammates.”
“A lot of times, he gets himself out of trouble because he’s such an outstanding athlete. His ability to throw off the run adds another dimension for us.”
Without warning, Tennessee’s promising season began to crumble.
The Volunteers lost to the Arkansas Razorbacks, Alabama Crimson Tide, and South Carolina Gamecocks by a combined nine points over the next three weeks.
Not only that, but the Vols also lost in the game’s final drive in each of those losses.
Tennessee head football coach Johnny Majors was eventually forced to resign at the end of the 1992 NCAA season after a 15-year tenure.
Fulmer promptly took over the reins.
The Vols duplicated their 9-3 win-loss record from the previous season.
Shuler finished his sophomore campaign with 1,712 passing yards, 10 touchdowns, and four interceptions.
The Volunteers received an invitation to play in the 1993 Hall of Fame Bowl against the Boston College Eagles on New Year’s Day.
As we continue celebrating our 35th year, we rewind to the 1993 Hall of Fame Bowl 🏆, featuring @Vol_footbaII vs @BCFootball!
The Vols built an early lead and held on for the 38-23 win.
MVP: Heath Shuler
See recap here: https://t.co/jjyrJHUe7v#ThrowbackThursday pic.twitter.com/knL4c4TFhN
— Outback Bowl (@outbackbowl) July 2, 2020
Heath Shuler took center stage with a 17-yard touchdown scamper and a 69-yard touchdown pass to Mose Phillips in the third quarter for a commanding 31-7 lead.
The Volunteers went on to win, 38-23.
Shuler converted on 18 of 23 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns.
He also added two touchdowns on the ground for good measure.
The game, which was telecast on ESPN, gave America a glimpse of the Vols’ new phenom.
Shuler upped the ante during his memorable junior season at Tennessee.
He became the focal point of one of the best offenses in the program’s football history: the 1993 Volunteers averaged a gaudy 441 yards and 39 points per game.
Tennessee finished with a 9-2-1 win-loss-draw record in 1993.
However, the NCAA forfeited the tied outcome with the Alabama Crimson Tide on October 16, 1993 to Tennessee.
Consequently, the Volunteers improved their win-loss record to10-2 – their best record in four years.
During Heath Shuler’s junior season, he relied more on his arm than his legs.
By the end of the 1993 NCAA season, he passed for 2,354 yards, 25 touchdowns, and eight interceptions.
His 25 touchdown passes more than doubled his total from the year before.
It came as no surprise Shuler was proclaimed the 1993 SEC Player of the Year.
He also finished second to Florida State Seminoles quarterback Charlie Ward in the 1993 Heisman Trophy voting.
Shuler decided to skip his senior season at Tennessee and take his chance at the NFL.
Alas, Heath Shuler’s pro career would become one of the most tumultuous phases of his life.
The then-Washington Redskins made Heath Shuler the third overall pick of the 1994 NFL Draft.
The Indianapolis Colts passed up on a quarterback (they drafted future Hall-of-Fame running back Marshall Faulk instead), giving the Redskins an opportunity to draft a signal caller.
Washington’s choice boiled down to Shuler or the Fresno State Bulldogs’ Trent Dilfer.
Shuler eventually got the nod.
Shuler, who was at a party at his home in Bryson City, NC with 400 friends and family members during the draft, told The Baltimore Sun’s Vito Stellino he was excited to become a Redskin.
“It’s terrific. Washington has the tradition of great players like Sonny Jurgensen, Joe Theismann, great quarterbacks.”
“I keep a single-minded focus and continue to play and do the things that got me far.”
@BenMank77 @michaelshure Since the NFL Draft is coming up in a couple weeks, I’ve been reading about all-time draft busts and Heath Shuler is near the top of busts. But was he a bigger Bust as a Redskins QB or as a “Blue Dog” Democrat who proudly helped kill the public option? pic.twitter.com/B0boUJbg55
— Mike Malnicof (@MarvelousMike94) April 12, 2020
He stirred a bit of controversy before he played his first NFL down.
Shuler held out of training camp for 13 days until he got a seven-year, $19.25 million contract.
Regrettably, he didn’t live up to the hype.
Shuler had a sub-par rookie year in Washington.
He played in 11 games, started eight, and threw for 1,658 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.
Washington stumbled to a 3-13 win-loss record – its worst in 33 years.
Redskins fans began to turn against Shuler after his one-touchdown, five-interception showing against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 7.
They were clamoring for backup quarterback Gus Frerotte, a seventh-round selection in the 1994 NFL Draft.
Despite the unrest among the fan base, first-year Redskins head coach Norv Turner stuck with Shuler.
Shuler, whose 43.8 passer rating was the worst in the league, told the Tuscon Citizen in August 1995 he doesn’t mind constructive criticism from the fans:
“If they’re right, I’d put a lot of stock in it. I have a lot more to focus on besides who is yelling in the stands, and that’s our offense.”
“We’ve struggled at times. Other times, it has been good. It comes from practice and (getting) our timing down.”
Shuler wasn’t much better in his second year in the NFL.
He separated his shoulder in the Week 1 season opener against the Cardinals.
Frerotte took over quarterbacking duties for the next nine games.
Turner told The Washington Post’s Richard Justice that Shuler could’ve had a breakout year had it not been for the injury:
“He started the game and was playing well. Then he separates his shoulder and Gus plays the next nine weeks.”
“If he hadn’t gotten hurt and had played the way he had at the end of the previous season, things could have been totally different for Heath here.”
BustOfTheWeek-Heath Shuler (QB Tenn) 1998 Rd 1 Pick 3-#Redskins. Only played 4yrs-15 TDs 33 INTS-Threw 5 INTS in 1 game pic.twitter.com/xILQYnxe
— The GritIron (@TheGritIron) February 29, 2012
Shuler eventually returned and suited up in a total of seven games, started five, and passed for 745 yards, three touchdowns, and seven interceptions in the 1995 NFL season.
For his part, Turner decided to bench Shuler in favor of Frerotte the following season.
With Frerotte under center, the Redskins went 9-7 in 1996.
Unfortunately, they didn’t make the postseason.
As for Heath Shuler, he played his last down in the nation’s capital.
The Redskins traded Shuler to the New Orleans Saints for two draft picks on April 18, 1997, per Justice.
According to The Washington Post, Shuler agreed to a four-year, $7.6 million deal with the Saints with the assurance from head coach Mike Ditka he will start at quarterback.
Once again, Heath Shuler didn’t live up to his massive billing.
Shuler sustained a serious turf toe injury in a 13-10 road win against the Oakland Raiders on November 9, 1997.
Despite a torn toe ligament, Shuler suited up against the Seattle Seahawks the following week.
He converted on six of 14 passes for 64 yards. He also threw two picks in the 20-17 win.
That turned out to be Heath Shuler’s last NFL game.
He played in 10 games, started nine, and passed for just two touchdowns while throwing 14 interceptions during the 1997 NFL season.
The Saints won just six games that year.
They went 4-5 with Shuler as their starting quarterback.
The Saints eventually released him in February 1999.
Heath Shuler wins “Worst Saints QB” Bracket https://t.co/zGPPlCNnIH pic.twitter.com/LWml5VDTXD
— John B Pinto 3.🏈⚾ (@Jbpinto3) August 13, 2016
Oakland signed him as a free agent a few days later.
Unfortunately, he re-injured his foot during a three-day minicamp.
The Raiders released Shuler in June 1999.
He hung up his cleats that same offseason.
He finished his NFL career with 3,691 passing yards, 15 touchdown passes, and 33 interceptions.
Heath Shuler never met expectations as a player in the National Football League.
Shuler explained his thoughts on his pro career to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette’s Jeremy Muck in September 2015:
“I didn’t play well. I certainly would have liked to have played better. I gave it all I had. I gave it 110 percent.”
“I studied harder than anyone did. I worked out harder than anyone did. But I think things happen for a reason.”
“It was God’s way of saying there are other things in life.”
Heath Shuler’s assessment was spot on.
Bigger things loomed in the horizon for the pride of Western North Carolina.
Fortunately, Heath Shuler found a second lease on life after he hung up his cleats.
After Shuler’s retirement from the NFL, he returned to the University of Tennessee to complete his psychology degree.
Shuler returned to his native state of North Carolina in 2003.
A year later, Shuler and his younger brother Benjie founded Shuler Real Estate, one of the biggest independent firms in Knoxville, TN.
While Shuler’s real estate career was in full swing, former President Bill Clinton and congressman Rahm Emanuel gave him phone calls and encouraged him to run for congress.
Shuler eventually earned a seat in the 11th Congressional district of North Carolina in 2006.
He served in that capacity for three terms until 2012.
During that span, Shuler earned a respectable 70 percent approval rating.
Former Tennessee QB great, Redskin 1st rd draft choice & US Congressman Heath Shuler at the @LRTouchdownClub tomorrow pic.twitter.com/23a9uIddnv
— LR Touchdown Club (@LRTouchdownClub) September 27, 2015
Shuler told USA Football’s Eric Moreno in 2018 he credits his success in public office to his experience on the gridiron:
“If you look at the work ethic that it takes to be successful in the NFL and to be successful in Congress, that has to be something that is instilled in you at an early age.
“I feel fortunate enough to have had that, thanks to my background in the game of football.”
Shuler decided not to seek re-election so he could spend more time with his wife Nikol and their children Island and Navy.
Some seven years later, Shuler told the Asheville Citizen Times’ David Thompson he was mulling a return to politics sometime in 2024.
According to Thompson, Shuler “would run as a Democrat and is considering a bid for Congress, the Senate, and even governor.”
After Shuler’s Congressional stint in 2012, he became the senior vice president for federal affairs of Duke Energy – the nation’s biggest electric company – in 2013.
Two years later, Shuler became the Christ School Greenies’ quarterback coach.
Back then, his son Navy was an eighth-grade at the school.
For his part, the older Shuler managed to juggle his coaching job in Asheville which was his corporate position in Charlotte, which is almost 130 miles away.
Twenty-seven years after Heath Shuler placed second in the Heisman Trophy voting, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame made him one of its inductees along with former Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, former NBA star Tony Delk, and Nashville Predators broadcaster Terry Crisp.
Phillip Fulmer, Shuler’s head football coach at Tennessee, broke the news to him in the spring of 2020.
Fulmer told UTSports.com Shuler belongs in the upper echelon of Tennessee Volunteer football players:
“There have been many elite football players in the University of Tennessee’s history, but Heath Shuler ranks among our very best.”
“He was ahead of his time as a quarterback, excelling as both a passer and a rusher. His toughness always stood out, and he was a terrific leader.”
“Those leadership skills obviously carried over to his career as a U.S. representative. I’m thrilled to see Heath receive this honor from the Hall.”
VFL and Heisman Trophy runner up Heath Shuler in the house today honored during the first half for his nomination to the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. Induction will take place this summer @wvltCaleb @ZackRickensTV @wvlt pic.twitter.com/6B8yEJA4dY
— Rick Russo (@wvltrick) February 29, 2020
Faith is an important part of Heath Shuler’s life.
He remains an active member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Heath Shuler is also an avid hunter and labrador trainer.
He discussed his passion for hunting with LandReport.com in 2009:
“I started out as a kid hunting squirrels on those steep ridges around home.”
“As soon as I got big enough, I graduated to what I consider to the be the most challenging game bird in the world – the ruffed grouse. A dog that can handle grouse can handle anything.”
Shuler has trained his dogs so well they reached the Master level in the American Kennel Club testing program, per LandReport.com.
When his son Navy was just eight years old, he shot his first quail.
Shuler’s friend, Mike Osteen, told LandReport.com in 2009 hunting in North Carolina is therapeutic for the former football star:
“For Heath, the dog training and hunting really serve as an escape from the pressures of Washington and the demands of his business and gives him a chance to spend time with his family.”
“I’ve known Heath for a long time, and he’s more mesmerized by this place than by anything else he’s experienced.”
Heath Shuler’s post-football life is a far cry from his career on the gridiron.
He told Moreno he credits his success to his ability to overcome the obstacles which came his way:
“There have been a lot of obstacles in my life, both in and out of the game of football.
“Being able to overcome them and to have had the successes that I’ve had in my life after the game, I think that is what has made me the person that I am today.”
If there’s one feel-good story worth reading over and over again, it’s Heath Shuler’s.
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