‘I saw something very, very special’

Published 5:08 pm Thursday, September 2, 2010

COMMENTARYWell, you can put the football player in Congress, but you cant take the football player out of the Congressman.

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler (D-Waynesville) spent Tuesday afternoon proving that with the Polk County High School football team.

There was no mention of politics. No liberals. No democrats. No Blue Dogs. Just a bunch of Wolverines and one Maroon Devil.

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This wasnt the campaign trail as much as it was a quick trip down memory lane for Shuler and a reminder of the trails and trials ahead for the 2-0 Wolverines.

High school is where you develop those friendships and relationships that youll always have for the rest of your life, Shuler said. Im living back where I grew up (in Swain) and a lot of these kids will live and work here in Polk County. Theyll be going to the football games someday, and theyll be watching their kids play.

My hope is what theyve instilled in the tradition at the school will carry over to the next generation.

Shuler knows a thing or two about high school football tradition. He won three state championships at Swain County High School and was named N.C. Player of the Year as a senior. He then went on to play at Tennessee and was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy as a junior for the Vols before moving on to a disappointing and injury-shortened five-year career in the NFL with the Washington Redskins and New Orleans Saints.

I played in the NFL, and I played in college, Shuler told the players before heading to the practice field with them. But there is no greater feeling than coming back to your hometown with a victory in a state championship. There is no greater feeling. . . . That bus ride home may be as memorable as anything because those are the guys you went to church with, those were the guys you had class with and youve been in the same class since first grade or kindergarten.

Shulers seize-the-day message went hand in hand with Polks This Is Next Year theme for the 2010 season.

The Wolverines, ranked No. 6 in Class 2A by MaxPreps.com, have brought a senior-dominated team and no small degree of playoff frustration into the 2010 season.

But Shuler saw something in Polks 20-14 season-opening victory over Tuscola that led him to visit for a pep talk and a little practice time.

To be able to watch them play two Friday nights ago the way they played against Tuscola, I saw something very, very special that you dont see very often, he said.

I saw it last year with Reynolds and got to go talk with them about setting the precedent, setting the tradition at their school, and they ultimately went on to win the state championship. I continue to see it here.

Call it an it factor or team chemistry or whatever, but Shuler has seen it before and felt it before, firsthand. More importantly, he knows the gravity of recognizing it and taking it as far as possible.

Youll never get this day back, he told the team. Everything you put in today will prepare you for the future. Preparing for the future gives you the opportunity to play in that championship game.

But its only football, right? Surely, a U.S. Congressman has bigger fish to fry somewhere on Capital Hill or a baby to kiss up in Asheville?

This is the most important thing we can do as a part of the community, said Shuler. This is what its all about. This is our future, right here.

And if Shuler is right again as he was a year ago with Reynolds destiny could be waiting for the Wolverines.

Right now.