Stephen's Blog

LOTL Sports Take — Athletes Who Became Politicians

One thing that is undeniable about sports is that they are competitive. There are winners and losers, and though fantasy football point totals and Madden player ratings might lead you to think otherwise, sports are a pass or fail exercise. Whether you win by 1 or 50, or lose by 1 or 50, the result is the same. In many respects, politics and elections are the same way. It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose an election by 1 vote or 1 million votes, either you obtain public office or you don’t.

This fact is certainly not lost on the many athletes that have had successful careers in government following their playing careers. Some of the most noteworthy athlete politicians include Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, who followed a legendary career with the Philadelphia Phillies by becoming a two-term senator from Kentucky. There is also Jack Kemp, who had an 8-year run as Buffalo Bills’ quarterback before becoming a 9-term congressman from New York, and then became Bob Dole’s running mate in the 1996 presidential election. Other notables include football players Heath Shuler, John Runyan, and Steve Largent; football coach Tom Osbourne of Nebraska fame; Olympians Jim Ryun, Don Lash, and Ben Nighthorse Campbell; and basketball stars Bill Bradley and Kevin Johnson, the latter of whom is currently serving as mayor of Sacramento.

The 2018 midterm elections took place this past Tuesday, and here in greater Cleveland, we saw a former Ohio State football standout ascend into the House of Representatives. In the 90’s, Anthony Gonzalez was just another ordinary kid growing up in Avon Lake, Ohio. From 2000 to 2002, Gonzalez was a star football player and track athlete for Saint Ignatius High School. In his senior year he caught 71 passes 1,873 yards and 21 touchdowns. His 26.4 yards per catch average that season is still a school record. But in typical athlete fashion, Gonzalez keeps things in perspective. In an interview with WTAM this past week, Gonzalez said the best part of his high school career was helping Saint Ignatius beat rival Saint Edward three years in a row.

Gonzalez went on to Ohio State University, where he starred alongside popular Buckeyes like Troy Smith, Ted Ginn Jr, Roy Hall, Antonio Pittman, and Chris Beanie Wells. Gonzalez was rated all-Big Ten in 2005 by league coaches and was an academic all-American as well. In his senior season in 2006, Ohio State went 12-0 and won the Big Ten championship. The Buckeyes went to the national championship game, which unfortunately ended in a loss to the Florida Gators. Following his time in Columbus, Gonzalez entered the NFL Draft and was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts.

Gonzalez’s career in Indianapolis got off to a strong start. In 2007 he caught 37 passes for 576 yards and 3 touchdowns. This increased to 57 catches for 664 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2008. With powerful Peyton Manning throwing to him and with hall of fame receiver Marvin Harrison being released before the 2009 season, 2009 was expected to be a breakout year for Gonzalez. In a cruel twist of fate, Gonzalez suffered a severe knee injury in the season opener against Jacksonville. He did not play a down the rest of the season. He returned to middling success in 2010 before injuring the same knee in a game against the Houston Texans. Before he knew it, his football career was over. Gonzalez didn’t mope about his situation. In 2012 he enrolled at Stanford Business School, eventually earning his MBA. He moved back to Rocky River in 2014, and he was fairly content with his work until something strange began to happen. At the beginning of 2018, it was widely expected that Ohio’s 2018 Senate election would be a rematch between incumbent democrat Sherrod Brown and republican state treasurer Josh Mandel. But on January 5th, Mandel surprised everyone by withdrawing from the race, citing some of his family members being in poor health. After this move, prominent republicans began to explore running in the republican primary, and in February, Jim Renacci, Ohio’s 16th district representative, announced that he was running. This meant that the 16th district, which covers much of Cuyahoga, Medina, and Wayne Counties, including Gonzalez’s home in Rocky River, was now open. Not long after Renacci jumped into the Senate race, Gonzalez filed to run for the US House of Representatives.

He was challenged in the May primary by Ohio house representative Christina Hagan, but Gonzalez won the primary with relative ease. Ohio’s 16th district was drawn strategy in 2011 to elect a republican. However, as 2018 wore on, due to poor national approval ratings for President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, it was becoming obvious that the Democratic Party was likely to have a big year. By summer, pundits were referring to the coming avalanche of democratic wins as the Blue Wave. This meant that the race for Ohio’s 16th district was likely going to be closely contested. Undeterred, Gonzalez raised over $500k in his first month in the race, and ended up raising in excess of $2 million for the year. This allowed him to set up a strong campaign to reach key voters on foot, pepper the district with yard signs, and secure advertising on broadcast television and radio. His opponent was democrat Susan Palmer.

On November 6, Gonzalez had to sweat a little while as many heavily democratic precincts reported first. However before too long he had moved into the lead, and just after 9:30 p.m., the 16th district was called for Gonzalez. He won with nearly 57 percent of the vote to Palmer’s 43 percent. On his campaign website, Gonzalez said, “It is with deep humility and gratitude that I accept the awesome responsibility of representing the 16th district in the 116th congress.” He later added, “My promise will never be to be perfect, but to always be honest, accessible, and tireless, in working on behalf of the constituents that I am now honored to serve.” In a very interesting note, as a Cuban-American, Gonzalez is the only Hispanic in the House GOP freshman class; all of the other 30 first-time elected members are white.

Gonzalez’s journey from the playing field to the chambers of Congress was not unique this cycle. Former Tennessee Titans linebacker Colin Allred followed a very similar path. Having played for the Titans from 2007 to 2010, Allred then became a lawyer in the Obama White House before electing to run against incumbent republican Pete Sessions in Texas’ 32nd district. Much like Gonzalez, Allred won his race, defeating Sessions by a 52-46 margin. Upon his race being called by the news organizations, Allred wrote on Twitter, “This victory did not happen by accident. It happened because of the years of hard work and long hours of countless grassroots organizers and volunteers, not only in our campaign but in a coalition of groups.” Allred’s victory was perhaps even more impressive than Gonzalez’s in that he had to defeat an incumbent representative as opposed to winning an open seat, but unlike Gonzalez, he had a strong national surge in favor of his party to work with.

Other prominent former athletes elected to the House this year include Jim Jordan of Ohio and Sharice Davids of Kansas. Jordan, a former wrestler at Ohio State University, won re-election to Ohio’s 4th district with a dominant 65 percent of the vote. With House republican leader Paul Ryan retiring this year, Jordan is likely to run for House minority leader next month. Davids’ story is perhaps the most interesting of all. Davids is a former mixed martial arts fighter, having competed as an amateur and professionally, even trying out for the UFC’s reality show, The Ultimate Fighter. During this tryout she actually got current UFC fighter Nina Ansaroff to submit, which earned her praise and a cash bonus from UFC president Dana White. Davids ran for Kansas’ 3rd district and defeated incumbent Kevin Yoder by a 53-44 margin. She became the first openly gay Native American in US Congress, and one of the first Native American women ever in the US Congress.

Examples like these show that the attributes to be successful in sports; strength, determination, desire,
and endless energy and dedication, often lead to success in politics. As the cycle begins anew, it’ll be
very interesting to see what former athletes decide to take the plunge in what is likely to be a highly
contentious presidential year in 2020.

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