Under pressure to explain his position on abortion, former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler found himself scrambling on a new playing field — politics.
"It's a personal, just personal issue with me, because I know how difficult it was to have children," said the anti-abortion Democrat and congressional hopeful. "It is not a platform that we even talk about. It's just personal."
In his former life, Shuler had to elude hits from onrushing linebackers and defensive ends. Now, the former University of Tennessee standout is trying to avoid getting taken down by issues such as abortion as he seeks a U.S. House seat in western North Carolina held for the better part of two decades by Republican Charles Taylor.
But it's Shuler's name and gridiron fame that may matter most. In an era when the party machines that once groomed candidates have broken down, political analysts say celebrities such as football stars have huge advantages in name recognition and fundraising.
That is why the Pennsylvania GOP cleared the field so Lynn Swann — the Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers who went on to a career as a television analyst — could challenge incumbent Democrat Ed Rendell.
In Nebraska, former Cornhuskers football coach Tom Osborne is giving up his seat in the U.S. House to run for governor.
"The more successful you've been as an athlete, the more successful you will be politically, because people have positive memories," said Brown University political scientist Darrell West, a co-author of "Celebrity Politics," a 2002 study of the increasingly intertwined worlds of fame and politics.
"The local boy who's made good who returns home — that's a good story too. You can do very well with the halo of a former athletic hero," West said.
Swann is revered in Pennsylvania, where he helped the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories in the 1970s. Osborne, who won three national titles at the University of Nebraska, has never received less than 82 percent of the vote in his runs for Congress.
Though Shuler was a bust as a pro after the Washington Redskins drafted him third overall in 1994, he is famous in western North Carolina for leading Swain County High School to three state titles and for his career at the University of Tennessee in nearby Knoxville, Tenn.
During a recent tour of a Waynesville facility where the mentally disabled and others are trained to manufacture surgical supplies, Shuler stopped to meet administrator Ginny Best, a devoted fan of the Tennessee Volunteers.
"I'm just very impressed with him," Best said. "I followed his high school career when he was at Swain County. ... We're real proud of him."
Shuler faces his first electoral test in Tuesday's Democratic primary against Asheville builder Michael Morgan, an unsuccessful candidate in 2004 who has raised little money.
Taylor, a timber magnate and bank owner, is seeking his ninth term representing North Carolina's 11th Congressional District. It includes Asheville and the rugged, conservative mountain counties at the state's western tip.
Nine months into his inaugural political campaign, Shuler has evolved, spitting out Democratic talking points. But he also can be painfully tentative when trying to explain complicated positions on issues such as abortion and Iraq.
He repeated the phrase, "We need to have a game plan," at least a dozen times as he spent five minutes explaining why he supported the war at its start but now believes the Bush administration has lost its way.
In Pennsylvania, Swann can be an inspiring public speaker. But he has left some wondering about his command of the issues.
In a nationally televised interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos in February, Swann appeared to be under the erroneous impression that a ruling overturning Roe v. Wade would automatically outlaw abortion.
"Well, if the Supreme Court overturned it, then, they've basically overturned it," said Swann, who opposes abortion rights. "They've basically said that, you know, you can't have an abortion."
In fundraising, Swann lags far behind Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor who moonlights as a Philadelphia Eagles post-game analyst on television. As of March 27, Rendell had raised nearly $16 million, compared with $2 million for Swann.
In trying to unseat incumbents, Swann and Shuler face a tougher road to office than other gridiron notables who entered politics.
Osborne's first run for Congress was for an open seat — as were the campaigns that saw University of Oklahoma quarterback J.C. Watts and Seattle Seahawks great Steve Largent elected to the House in the 1994 GOP tidal wave.
When he sets aside the playbook and speaks from his heart, Shuler can be convincing. He addresses the issue of abortion through the prism of possible fertility treatments before his wife, Nikol, became pregnant with their second child.
"It is important to know how someone stands on abortion. But you know what? It's just as important to know that we have our moral values in order," he said. "Guys, I've had my 15 minutes of fame. I've had mine. I want to do something for my children, my neighbors' children and the people in this district."
Best, the Tennessee fan, declined to say how she plans to vote in November, but said she won't be influenced by Shuler's football heroics.
West doesn't buy it.
"People always say that, but it's not true," he said.