WAYNESVILLE, N.C. — A decade after he last broke a huddle in Washington, D.C., former Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler wants to go back, following in the footsteps of footballers J.C. Watts, Steve Largent and Tom Osborne.
The path from the gridiron to the halls of Congress has been well worn in recent years, but in challenging longtime GOP incumbent Rep. Charles Taylor, Shuler has set himself a tough task.
"What better way to help a lot of people than to bring back the mountain ways, the family values ... to bring those mountain values to Washington," the former Tennessee star said in an interview two days after announcing he would seek the Democratic nomination to Taylor's seat in 2006.
Still looking as fit as during his playing days, with NFL cufflinks in his shirt, the 33-year-old Shuler spoke of wanting to serve.
"I think there's a time in your life when you weigh options, and there's a point in time when you want to help people," he said.
He has had a long interest in politics; in 2001, when Shuler was living in Knoxville and running a real estate company with his brother, Tennessee Republicans tried to recruit him for a congressional run there.
"I was so flattered," Shuler said, adding that he decided it was not the time or place to start a political career.
Shuler and his wife, Nikol, moved from Knoxville to Waynesville in late 2003. With two young children at home -- son Navy and daughter Island -- Shuler said he was inspired to run in 2006 by watching residents of North Carolina's 11th Congressional District pull together last September after devastating floods caused by remnants of hurricanes Fran and Ivan.
"The family values are still there. You saw that with what happened in Haywood and Buncombe counties after the floods last year," he said. "I want to be able to take those same values and allow that to represent western North Carolina."
The North Carolina mountains -- like much of the rest of the South -- once were bedrock Democratic territory. But Democrats running for federal office have had trouble winning here in recent years.
Taylor, a wealthy banker and timber magnate, has been in office since 1990, frequently winning re-election against overmatched challengers from the liberal urban enclave of Asheville.
If he wins the Democratic nomination, Shuler would break that mold. He grew up in tiny Bryson City in the tip of the state known as "west of the Balsam."
With his moderate politics and hometown hero resume -- he led Swain County High School to three state titles before going to Knoxville -- Shuler could play well with swing voters and conservative Democrats.
"I grew up a Democrat," Shuler said. "I've supported members in both parties. I've always voted for a person, not a party."
Jerry Meek, executive director of the state Democratic Party, has made retaking the western part of the state one of his top priorities -- and Taylor tops his list of targets.
Meek notes that Taylor was one of 14 out of 231 Republicans who won election to the U.S. House in 2004 with less than 55 percent of the vote.
That shows "people in the 11th District have some serious reservations about Charles Taylor," Meek said.
Ted Arrington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, sees a potentially winnable uphill fight for Shuler -- if the national party decides to get involved.
"The district is not hopelessly Republican, from the perspective of the Democrats," Arrington said. "But he's got to have enough money to tell people, 'I'm not a pinko liberal, I'm a jock.' ... I don't know whether the Democrats are willing to give him that kind of money."
Shuler said he has just begun his fund-raising and that he anticipates putting some of his own money into the race.
The only response from Taylor's office to Shuler's candidacy has been a statement noting that there are still 16 months until the 2006 general election. "Congressman Taylor is busy in Washington, D.C., doing the work people elected him to do," the statement said.
Shuler was taken third overall in the 1994 NFL draft, but his pro career sputtered out after four-plus injury-plagued seasons with the Redskins and New Orleans Saints. He said that experience prepared him for a tough political fight.
"I think [struggling] builds character," he said. "It builds a tremendous work ethic."
"Look at the issues we're faced with today," he said. "It can't be about one individual. Americans as a whole have to get together and say, 'How can we have a better place to live?' "