Runyan thrives in politics

Former OT answers call to serve community, elected a congressman

Updated: June 14, 2012, 10:15 AM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

Justice Seamus McCaffery showed up at a USO fundraiser a few years ago in New Jersey not planning anything spectacular. He would help pull in some funds, shake hands, make conversation and call it a night.

McCaffery, the creator of the "Eagles court" in Philadelphia's old Veterans Stadium when he was a municipal court judge, didn't figure on launching someone else's political career.

Randomness sometimes dictates the course one takes for the rest of his or her life. A chance chat can spark an idea, an unplanned compliment can transform into a different belief in one's self.

[+] EnlargeJon Runyan
Hunter Martin/Getty ImagesThe seeds for Jon Runyan's political future were sewn during his playing days with the Eagles.
McCaffery arrived, sat at his table, and next to him was then-Philadelphia Eagle Jon Runyan.

"It was just a fortuitous meeting," said McCaffery, now a justice in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. "I didn't even know Jon was going to be there and there were several other sports professionals there, some Flyers, I believe. There were some other sports figures there, and Jon and I happened to sit next to each other.

"I wasn't really interested in discussing plays or games or anything like that like other people. I was wondering what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, that kind of thing."

By the end of the night, McCaffery gushed to Runyan about a potential future for the Michigan graduate: Politics.

McCaffery figured Runyan thought he was being nice, so he went home that night, woke up the next morning and continued his life. The two lost touch, Runyan playing for the Eagles and McCaffery presiding on the bench.

Runyan never forgot the conversation.

"He kind of said, 'This is part of you, and that is what representing people and politics is. It is community service. There is a lot of good you can do, and you know a lot of people and people like you,' " Runyan said. "There are great things you can do if you decide to go that route.

"He kind of planted that seed."

Runyan planned on a local political career later in life. He was playing football as an anchor on the Eagles' offensive line. He figured on transitioning to broadcasting after retirement. Politics, he thought, would come down the road.

Plans changed.

After starting 190 consecutive regular-season games in the NFL, Runyan had microfracture surgery on his knee before the 2009 season. Not re-signed by the Eagles, he finished his career in San Diego.

In the middle of his final season, he announced he would be running for Congress as a Republican in New Jersey's third Congressional District, challenging Democratic incumbent John Adler.

Runyan saw a chance to help people and to try and change things in areas he cares about, including veterans affairs, head injuries and Alzheimer's disease. When McCaffery heard about it, he chuckled and thought back to the conversation years earlier.

"As soon as I heard he was making a run for Congress in South Jersey, I said to friends I wonder if I was behind that idea, that if he left that night and the next day looked at himself in the mirror and said, 'Maybe Seamus is right, maybe this is something I should explore,' " McCaffery said. "He came across as a very serious young man. He wasn't one of those 'all about me' pro athletes you see out there.

"He came across as someone who wanted to have a serious conversation, and you don't get into Michigan if you are some kind of dullard. He is someone who can do well for himself in the political arena."

Less than a year after Runyan announced his candidacy, he proved a potential future in politics. Runyan defeated Adler and transformed from football player Jon Runyan to Rep. Jon Runyan, serving the constituency of the New Jersey third district in the United States House of Representatives.

"The thing about Runyan, certainly as a player and who he is ... but as a football player he was a tough, hard-nosed competitor and a guy that worked hard," said former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, who recruited and coached Runyan. "The people in the Philadelphia, New Jersey area, they respected him for his work ethic and his approach.

"He's a blue-collar guy and not afraid to get his hands dirty. That has proven to be very good for him in his career as a football player and a political leader."

Since his election, Runyan teamed up with another NFL athlete-turned-Congressman, Heath Shuler, to chair the men's health caucus. He has worked to make positive changes in the areas that matter to his constituency: armed services, veterans affairs and natural resources.

Carr He's a blue-collar guy and not afraid to get his hands dirty. That has proven to be very good for him in his career as a football player and a political leader.

-- Former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr

Head injuries have been a big focus. Runyan has tried to bring together different groups doing research on the effect of injuries to the brain -- from the NFL to IED blasts for servicemen and servicewomen -- in hopes of improving research, prevention and treatment.

The issue brought his personal interests and those of his constituents together. Beyond the NFL, Runyan sat on the board of the Delaware Valley Alzheimer's Association for five years and he said both he and his wife lost grandparents to Alzheimer's.

"It was something I was really tied to," he said. "Bringing these three worlds together and having discussion and sharing ideas, maybe someday we're doing the research side by side and moving in the same direction.

"At the end of the day, moving a lot faster and being a better steward of the taxpayers' money is only going to help us."

Runyan hopes this is merely the start of his new career. He is up for re-election in November, facing Shelly Adler, the widow of the man he defeated two years ago. While he knows it will be a tough campaign -- he equated running for office to the rigors of an NFL training camp -- he hopes to continue to serve his constituents.

McCaffery has been watching. Everything he has read and seen has meshed with his original thought about Runyan years ago: He would transition to politics naturally.

McCaffery believes Runyan's political future isn't close to ending.

"I don't see him stopping as a Congressman," McCaffery said. "The Jon Runyan that I saw, now that he has his appetite whet and sees he can make a difference, you never know. We've seen it before. Look at Fred Thompson, who came out of Tennessee.

"These guys with this background, you don't get to be such an elite football star without bringing something to the table, and he brings that to Congress. I think Jon Runyan, with polish and support, he could go on to Senate or maybe even Governor of New Jersey."

Once in a while, a chance conversation can turn into a completely different future.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter