Heath Shuler hasn't had the best of weeks as a second-term U.S. congressman from North Carolina's 11th District.
Embroiled in a messy controversy over a TVA land swap, the former Tennessee quarterback has spent most of the past three days defending his judgment and integrity over what he knew and when he knew it.
Yet tough as that scrutiny has been, the Democrat insists it's nothing compared to being a Big Orange quarterback facing Florida in the Swamp. And Shuler threw five touchdown passes against the Gators in a 41-34 loss there in 1993.
"Playing in the Swamp is much tougher than this," the 37-year-old Shuler said Thursday evening. "When you look at the people involved (in the TVA controversy), I'm 99.9 percent certain that this is politically motivated. That's just politics.
"But when you play college football at a place like Tennessee, you feel like you're representing the entire state every time you go out on the field. That's much more pressure."
When this year's Volunteers face the top-ranked Gators at 3:30 this afternoon on CBS, the most pressure will fall to current UT quarterback Jonathan Crompton, who grew up in the Asheville suburb of Waynesville, N.C., less than an hour from Shuler's hometown of Bryson City. Shuler now lives in Waynesville.
Perhaps that explains why Crompton has known the congressman since junior high, even working for him a summer or two.
So with the current Vols QB enduring more heat than his mentor this week after throwing three interceptions against UCLA, one wondered if Shuler had spoken to Crompton this week?
"I haven't," he said. "I would never want to interfere. Jonathan and Coach (Lane) Kiffin will work it out. He'll be just fine."
Shuler still staunchly defends Crompton, despite admitting "it is hard" watching the UT senior's struggles.
"It reminds me of my days in the NFL," Shuler said. "You have good days. Then there are days that don't go so well. But even knowing that, I can't imagine some of what he's been through. I think he's had four different offensive coordinators in five years. Anybody would struggle with that."
Even with that, Shuler has seen much growth and maturity in Crompton.
"He's grown and matured so much outside the game," he said. "But both Jonathan and the fans have to realize that not every day is going to be Western Kentucky (when Crompton threw five TD passes)."
Shuler wishes he'd never had a day like Sept. 18, 1993, despite the five TD tosses.
"That was one of the toughest losses of my career," he said. "We were both highly ranked (UT was No. 5, Florida No. 9). I'd never been a starter in Gainesville before. And in the fourth quarter, when we were trying to fight back, the sky opened up. It was a downpour."
Down 38-20 at one point, Shuler helped rally the Vols as close as the final score, thanks in part to a 70-yard scoring pass to Billy Williams. But UT never could grab the lead and Florida went on to win the SEC title.
"It's just a very tough place to play," Shuler said. "The fans really get on you there. It's loud, it's usually hot and their team's always good. It may be the toughest place in the SEC."
What's been toughest on Shuler has been watching the Vols play this season without Phillip Fulmer on the sideline as head coach.
"One of my first big starts and wins was at Georgia, when he was the interim coach," Shuler recalled. "We really had a great run after that. I got to know his family so well. We're still close, so it's tough to get over what happened.
"At the same time, in the big picture, you want to support the university. Tennessee will always be my team and my school. And with Coach Kiffin, I know we're in great hands."
Taking in last week's UCLA loss, Shuler was particularly impressed with the Vols' running game "when we lost confidence in our passing game. We just couldn't pitch and catch well enough with eight men in the box."
Shuler won't be in Gainesville today, but he will watch the game on television, at least partly because of the other team's quarterback, who runs it and throws it even better than the talented Shuler once did.
"I've always been impressed with Tim Tebow's performances on the field," he said of the Florida QB. "But what he's giving back off the field is truly amazing."
So does Shuler have enough belief in the Vols pulling a truly amazing upset to make one of those friendly political wagers with a Congressional cohort from the Sunshine State?
"(Florida representative) Adam Putnam and I have made some friendly wagers in the past," Shuler said. "But I wasn't in a betting mood this time."
Four-touchdown point spreads can do that to the best of alums.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...