Former University of Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr remembers first meeting Jon Runyan when he was in high school. Carr, then an assistant coach, went to Carman-Ainsworth High School in Flint, Mich. “He was so tall,” Carr remembers, “that when he left class to meet me, he had to duck under the doorway.”
Runyan, a six-foot-seven offensive tackle who went on to the NFL and spent nine years with the Philadelphia Eagles, is running for Congress in New Jersey’s third district, which covers portions of the Philadelphia suburbs and the Jersey Shore. While Barack Obama carried NJ-3 by 5 percentage points in 2008, last November Republican governor Chris Christie defeated Democrat Jon Corzine by a 66–29 margin in Ocean County and a 48–46 margin in Burlington County, the two counties that make up most of the district. The seat is currently held by freshman Democrat John Adler — who won election by 4 points — though it was in GOP hands from 1993 to 2009.
Runyan decided to launch his bid for Congress after being approached by GOP state assemblywoman Dawn Addiego (their daughters are schoolmates), who thought that Runyan’s charity work would make him a compelling candidate. “I liked that, as a star athlete, he was active in giving back to the community,” Addiego says. According to his campaign website, Runyan has been involved with the New Jersey Special Olympics, the USO, the Leukemia-Lymphoma Society, the American Red Cross, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. He also sits on the Board of the Alzheimer’s Association of the Delaware Valley.
Like most GOP congressional candidates this cycle, Runyan is most concerned about “pocketbook issues, such as the economy and out-of-control spending.” He is generally conservative on social issues as well, supporting gun rights and opposing gay marriage. While Runyan is not 100 percent pro-life, he is “opposed to partial-birth abortion, late-term abortion, and abortions over state lines,” according to a spokesman. In terms of local issues, Runyan has criticized Adler over his reluctance to secure funding for beach preservation.
The ex-Eagle sees a number of similarities between his current work on the campaign trail and his past job in pro football. “You have to let stuff roll off your back, you need a tremendous work ethic, you need to know how to deal with people and the media, and you often become involved with charities,” he says. “One difference is that running for Congress requires learning a different subject matter.”
Another key difference, he notes, is that one has less time to analyze his opponent in a congressional race. I asked him whether Adler is a tougher opponent than Michael Strahan, a former All-Pro defensive end for the rival New York Giants. (During their respective careers, Strahan tried to sack the Eagles quarterback while Runyan sought to protect him). “Michael Strahan and John Adler are both tough opponents,” he replied. “I figured out Michael over 8-9 years, but I have a reduced window to study Adler.”
Carr recalls the qualities that Runyan possessed as a Michigan football player: “He took great pride in the program; he had a great work ethic and a great attitude. He did not have as many years of playing experience as others, but he was diligent about the things he had to do to become a better player. Runyan was very intense and competitive; he did not like to fail. But he was also a great listener. When he was here he was very attentive and very focused, and he always got the info before he responded.”
“I believe Jon Runyan will be a great congressman,” Carr adds. “He is very dependable, honest, and he has the courage of his convictions.”
Some political pundits admire how Runyan has transitioned from the gridiron to the campaign trail, which is no easy feat. “It is hard to go from sports to politics because you have to portray yourself in a serious light, but it appears that Runyan has done a good job,” says Isaac Wood, House-race editor for political analyst Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball website. Other past NFL players who have served in Congress include Rep. Heath Shuler (D., N.C.), elected in 2006, and former Republican congressman Steve Largent, who represented Oklahoma’s first district from 1994 to 2002.
Wood believes that this race will be an uphill battle for Runyan, whose opponent is thus far winning the fundraising fight. “We have the race rated as ‘leaning Democratic,’” Wood says. “John Adler is a freshman, and while Obama won this district, a GOP tide will help make this race competitive. But Adler is the incumbent, so at this point the more likely outcome is an Adler victory.”
If Runyan wins, a former college teammate of his could end up joining him on Capitol Hill. Jay Riemersma, who played tight end at Michigan and now serves as a regional director for the Family Research Council, is also running for Congress as a Republican, in Michigan’s second district. (Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Republican, is vacating the MI-2 seat in order to run for governor.) “John Runyan was a great teammate and really tough competitor,” says Riemersma. “He’ll bring that same work ethic and toughness to Congress, and I hope to call him my GOP teammate there in the near future.”
– Jesse Naiman, a Collegiate Network intern at NR, is editor-in-chief of The Observer at Boston College.