a political education

words: jesse berrett

In the summer of 1971, Washington Redskins guard Ray Schoenke walked over to George McGovern’s office on Capitol Hill. Like many of his teammates, Schoenke occasionally hobnobbed with the nation’s elite—he’d accidentally broken the arm of 13-year-old David Kennedy during one of the notoriously rugged touch-football games at Robert Kennedy’s Hickory Hill estate—but he’d never been involved in a campaign before. He didn’t even have an appointment. He was just looking to throw his weight behind someone who opposed the war, and McGovern struck him as the best choice.


It was the perfect time for a professional football player to volunteer his services to a politician. For better and worse, depending on the observer, there was general agreement that the nation’s most popular sport “reflects our politics, our economic system … in short, our whole way of life,” as the journalist Jerry Izenberg put it. A newly influential band of campaign consultants constantly compared their craft to football, meaning not that it was brutal and violent but that it was dynamic, popular, hard-fought, and visually appealing. Gary Hart, McGovern’s campaign manager, called it “the Kennedy/Lombardi school.” Renowned Democratic advance man Jerry Bruno guessed that the adrenaline of hitting the road with a candidate must have approximated how playing pro football felt. Political scientist Larry Sabato noted that leading practitioners tallied their wins and losses, “and as they count them the records are phenomenally and uniformly successful.” In the wake of the consultant-dominated 1970 elections, the Washington Post even ran a box score comparing various experts’ winning percentages.


Consultants also used football to play politics by other means. They sent their candidates to football games, encouraged players and coaches to endorse candidates and run for office, and stage-managed party conventions that conveyed competence and confidence through what were in essence scripted plays designed to produce effective television. Football players themselves were making political statements. In 1972 Hubert Humphrey campaigned for the Democratic nomination in the company of the Vikings’ Purple People Eaters. “Our purpose is to show our concern for the man we believe represents what this country is all about,” their PR man said. Schoenke’s coach, George Allen, appeared on the cover of an Athletes for Nixon brochure in 1972, which ended up boasting more than 450 endorsements from the world of sport. Former quarterback Jack Kemp, a political “No. 1 draft choice, a bonus baby,” as a Sports Illustrated reporter following his campaign put it, led a wave of player-politicians. “One wishes,” a journalist wrote, “that flankerbacks ... would confine their exploits to the playing field and keep away from board rooms [and] political campaigns.” Instead, at the 1972 Republican convention, Bart Starr introduced Gerald Ford and Kemp gave an “electrifying” speech seconding the nomination of Spiro Agnew--a clue, many thought, that the congressman was being showcased for the Senate in 1974 or vice presidency in 1976.


Without any of the careful grooming that Kemp enjoyed, Schoenke displayed an instinctive grasp of the virtues athletes could symbolize in this environment. McGovern’s people, equally alert to his value, quickly ushered him into the senator’s presence. McGovern had won the Distinguished Flying Cross for piloting a B-24 in World War II (“a man’s airplane … it always required, and sometimes demanded, almost superhuman strength to fly,” historian Stephen Ambrose writes), but popular opinion had already stereotyped the candidate as “the Pavlovian liberal,” as his press secretary put it. Off the cuff, Schoenke suggested that McGovern get himself photographed alongside “some big defensive linemen,” like the Chiefs’ Buck Buchanan and George Seals, which would remind everyone that he was a war hero. McGovern jumped at the idea and introduced Schoenke to his makeshift team. They told Schoenke to scoop up as many names as he could—“the more athletes, the merrier.”


Schoenke built himself a one-man political operation. He handed out campaign literature at training camp. He got rosters from the league office and worked the phones every night. Several hundred NFL players “were looking for an opportunity to get involved,” including twenty of his Redskins teammates. Almost every position group chipped in—“linemen, running backs, defensive backs, linebackers, ends, kickers …. But no QBs.” In a moment that seemed to Schoenke to explain that situation, when Schoenke and Johnny Unitas ran into each other at BWI, Unitas yelled, “stay away from me, you commie bastard!”


But most “guys were eager to talk” to voters, he says. Players who’d grown up on farms spoke to farmers in their own language; the Dolphins’ Marv Fleming, who’d taken one of the NFL’s USO-organized trips to Vietnam, talked about “guys dying over there.” “We’ve done something about destroying the generalization of the dummy in shoulder pads,” the Chiefs’ Ed Podolak, who put in more than 10,000 miles on McGovern’s behalf, told a UPI reporter. Columnist Jeannie Morris described the Chiefs as “a hotbed of McGovernites.” Football players could make converts where your typical McGovern-loving long-hair wouldn’t dare go. Podolak, for instance, fit in at “bar areas and construction sites,” said Mark Reza, who took over much of the detail work for Athletes for McGovern once the NFL season began, because “nobody’s gonna call him a sissy.”


A “total novice” at political organizing, Schoenke took politics seriously as a contest of ideas. He thought of it as his moral duty, a “commitment toward decency,” he told the Washington Post, to be at once football player and citizen. “The time when the jock was king is gone, when you just had to stand up and everybody’d swoon,” he added. “Now you better have something to say, or they’ll boo you right down.” He didn’t consider himself a celebrity and didn’t want fellow players to high-hat the voters. “These guys aren’t just props,” he argued. “They are citizens with convictions.” Redskins defensive tackle Bill Brundige, who had never done anything even remotely like this before, explained to the Post the day before the election that “I did what I thought was right because I felt an obligation. I believed in my candidate.” Schoenke introduced players to McGovern and let the candidate’s principled sincerity sway them. Having been given no direction from the campaign, Schoenke told the players to keep it simple. “Speak from the heart,” he remembers saying. “Tell the people why you support him.” “I was raised on a family farm in Iowa,” Podolak said at a McGovern rally in Milwaukee, “and saw my father, who dearly loved the profession of farming, forced off the land. Senator McGovern was the first and loudest voice to speak of the small farmer.”


Schoenke didn’t think of himself as a radical like the Cardinals’ Dave Meggyesy, who protested non-union training-table grapes, blasted football as “a goddamn military camp, completely authoritarian,” and quit the sport. He wasn’t a freak like the Raiders’ Chip Oliver, who blew his mind watching a game on mescaline, told Al Davis he was tired of being regarded as a “slab of beef,” and moved everything he owned into a vegetarian commune in Marin. And he wasn’t a politico like Meggyesy’s teammate Rick Sortun, a one-time Goldwater voter who joined SDS and sent Cardinal owner Stormy Bidwill a Ho Chi Minh postcard with a cheerful warning that “football as a professional sports activity will no longer take place and I hope that when the barricades are drawn you will be on the right side.”


Schoenke considered himself part of the mainstream, though his first exposure to politics was anything but. He went to college in 1960s Dallas, the most fervidly conservative city in a state Theodore H. White labeled “a paranoid right-wing fortress” a decade before Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK. A history major and academic All-American at SMU, he wasn’t there just to play football; he enjoyed his professors and loved arguing with classmates. “You are all so damnable conservative now—how will you be in years to come?” the school newspaper reported a despairing instructor pleading to his students during Schoenke’s senior year. Schoenke remembers that he “came out of there a socialist” whose Hawaiian heritage deepened his leftward leanings and made his brushes with intolerance even more painful. Then he got drafted by the Cowboys, owned by a Texas oilman, whose ahead-of-their-time player-evaluation algorithms and upright Christian coach heralded the emerging Sunbelt technocracy that would vote Nixon, Reagan, and two Bushes into the White House.


He didn’t find the environment congenial. He describes the Cowboys as “steeped” in prejudice, with “a lot of guys who wouldn’t open their minds.” (In retrospect, he’s amazed the team managed to win the Super Bowl in 1972, given its “explosive” racial conflicts.) One argument too many at a team party made him and his wife decide to hold their peace. But the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy prodded him to get involved, at first with a church-run youth program in south Dallas and then more broadly in the community. “I wasn’t going to say nothing,” he says.

The Cowboys cut him after two seasons. Schoenke bounced around the league for two years before catching on with the Redskins, where he spent the next decade. Washington changed his life for the better, both on and off the field. He was named starter at left tackle and made the franchise’s 50th-anniversary team and its list of 100 greatest players. Off the field, “the city was pretty much open to you,” he recalls.


It was open to quite a few Redskins. Schoenke and the teammates he’d proselytized fanned out through the metropolitan area to speak on the candidate’s behalf. Schoenke hit the road everywhere east of the Mississippi, from New Hampshire to down South, attending all the early primaries until training camp forced him to scale back and prevented him from running for DNC delegate. But he helped kick off McGovern’s efforts in Maryland, delivering a speech extolling “a man who will make changes,” end the war, and fill the spiritual void left by King and Kennedy, then did more than his part by going door-to-door, helping register voters, auctioning off autographed footballs, and posing for Polaroids with kids for a dollar a shot. He remained involved during the season: An AP photo shows him, teammate John Wilbur, and Lady Bird Johnson’s former press secretary heading out in mid-October to prospect for votes in six southern states four days before the Redskins played Dallas.


Journalists covering these stories frequently wondered how players balanced day jobs with political commitments. Schoenke just as frequently denied that his activism had incurred any penalties or in any way lessened his devotion to the team. But he later admitted that noted Nixon man George Allen did not like what he was up to, questioning his loyalty at the end of the exhibition season. “I went apeshit,” Schoenke remembers.


Nixon showed up at Redskins’ practice to rally the troops, telling the team that, as “sort of an old pro… in my business,” he knew that they would make the playoffs despite a recent slump. (They did.) Schoenke called that stunt out, after which his brother mocked him as “the dumbest kid in the whole world” for challenging his coach.


Offensive-line coach Mike McCormack confronted him. “How dare you criticize the Commander-in-Chief?” McCormack demanded. “Last time I heard,” Schoenke said, “I was a citizen. I have that freedom.” “No you don’t,” McCormack responded, then cut his playing time for the rest of the season.


Ironically, the experience brought Schoenke and Allen closer. Schoenke’s demand for a no-cut contract for the next season, which Allen granted just before training camp opened, won the coach’s respect, and he began to consult Schoenke about pregame speakers and team planning. Realizing that “I wasn’t disloyal because I was a McGovern person,” Schoenke says, Allen eventually got McGovern seats at a Redskins game.


McGovern, of course, got crushed in what one disappointed columnist called “one of the dullest political football games ever played before a nationwide TV audience.” Many years later, Schoenke recalled teammates begging him, “‘please, don’t tell anybody I was with you.’” But this brush with the political big time made him realize that “if you stood up, things happened.” So he kept standing up. He organized Artists and Athletes for Carter in 1976, went into fundraising, tried to find a middle way on the Second Amendment, ran for governor of Maryland in 1998. True to McGovern’s heritage of saying what he believed, damn the consequences, Schoenke’s campaign commercials denounced politicians who wasted public money on stadiums. A decade later, he submitted a brief to the Congressional Record on behalf of Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court. McGovern’s “people politics” and devotion to the grassroots gave Ray Schoenke a vocation that lasted long past his playing days. “Being youthful and naive and idealistic were good things,” he says. “I pat myself on the back for doing it.”