During Jon Runyan's 14 seasons as an NFL offensive tackle, controversy was his regular running mate. That was never truer than during his nine years in Philadelphia, a tenure that led peers to vote the 6-foot-7, 330-pound people-mover the NFL's second-dirtiest player in a 2006 SI poll. "The sports world is so negative," said Runyan. "You develop a thick skin."
That extra padding will come in handy now. Last Thursday, Runyan announced plans to run as a Republican for New Jersey's Third Congressional District, which stretches from the state's suburbs just to the east of Philly to Ocean County. It's home to about 650,000 people. The district had been a GOP stronghold until Democrat John Adler's victory in 2008. A conservative who opposes big government and the federal stimulus spending, the 36-year-old Runyan (who majored in Kinesiology at Michigan) was quickly endorsed by the district's three major GOP county committees.
Running newcomers is a time-honored, go-to strategy whenever the political pendulum swings to one side, and Runyan is hardly the first jock to be cheered on by the local GOP. Heisman Trophy winner Pete Dawkins (a 1988 U.S. Senate candidate), former NFL wide receiver Phil McConkey (a 1990 Congressional candidate) and five-time NHL All-Star Brian Propp (a 2007 State Assembly candidate) also received the Republican seal of approval, but couldn't seal victories. Two years ago, the local GOP approached former major league pitcher Al Leiter about running for the Senate, but was ultimately rebuffed by the southpaw. Leiter also lived in Florida, an issue prospective opponents likely would've hammered like a hanging fastball.
Runyan's entry into politics is just as quixotic. He hadn't seriously considered running for office until last October, three months before retiring from football following microfracture surgery on his right knee. That's when Republican State Assemblywoman Dawn Marie Addiego -- whose children go to the same school as Runyan's -- floated the idea to him and his wife, Loretta, over the phone. His decision to run as a Republican may seem curious given his Blue Dog roots in Flint, Mich., where his father labored for years as a union autoworker. "There was political talk around all the time in my family," Runyan explained. "I'd listen to it, but I'd always take in all sides. As I got a little bit older and developed my own opinions, I came to the right."
His patience for listening stood out in the Eagles locker room, along with an eagerness to engage his teammates in matters outside of sports. Said onetime teammate Troy Vincent: "We could be five minutes from practice, and he might come up to me and say, 'Did you see that editorial in today's paper?' Or we could be in the weight room, and he'd be like, 'Did you see that debate last night?' He was one of those guys who could carry on conversations about multiple subjects."
Still, the most important assets Runyan brings to his new arena remain name recognition and enough personal wealth to finance his own campaign. An NFL source with knowledge of Runyan's contract history estimated his career earnings at $46 million -- the bulk of which came from the six-year, $30 million contract he signed with Philadelphia in 2000, which made him the league's highest-paid offensive lineman at the time.
In what is expected to be a rugged contest -- especially in the primaries, where party upstart Justin Murphy looms as a strong contender -- Runyan may have to do some drive-blocking: He has been a registered Republican for only three months, and he may get flagged by conservative voters for his pro-choice stance. Further, Runyan's handling of property taxes on his 25-acre Mount Laurel estate has already caused a stir. A January report in The Philadelphia Inquirer found that Runyan had paid $57,000 in 2009 on the five acres on which he resides, but $468 on the rest -- part of which is home to four donkeys -- by registering the space as farmland. "Voters want a member of Congress who is committed to public service and looks out for their constituents' best interests, not their own," said Shripal Shah, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Though Runyan was not formally active in the NFL Players Association, Vincent, then the Eagles' player rep, credited Runyan for rallying locker-room support around union causes. "He's one I leaned on a lot," Vincent said. "You can trust him."
While conceding his political inexperience, Runyan is quick to fall back on his lineman's instincts by seeking to turn his opponents' strengths into weaknesses. "Look at their experience," he said. "It hasn't gotten us far."
That's why Runyan is going into this new endeavor with the hurry-up mindset employed during his old one. "By no means do I intend to make a career out of this," he said. "I've had my life's career already. This is just an extension of who I am and my community service. Just going out and helping people is something that I have a tremendous passion for, and this is a great time to make some positive changes to get this country back on its feet."