Shuler embracing role as coach of Riverhawks

By Matt Hill

   JOHNSON CITY--Though his NFL days are over with, Heath Shuler is making a return to football this spring.
   The former Tennessee Volunteer and NFL quarterback is getting ready to start his coaching career with the Tennessee Riverhawks.
   Shuler talked about his new endeavors and looked back at his playing days earlier this week at Hooters Restaurant during a taping of a local sports show.
   As for Shuler, he looks forward to this new chapter in his life.
   "It's the National Indoor football league," Shuler said. "It consists of 24 teams throughout the United States from Oklahoma City to Myrtle Beach, S.C. to Lake Charles, La. to Evansville, IN. We play all over the country. It's a step below the arena football league.
   "The only difference that we don't have is that we don't use the net. We don't use the net to rebound and catch off the net. It's actually two men forward motion are all we can have at the same time. It's still the arena type setting."
   Shuler has always been a man that wanted to give back to the community, and he felt this was the perfect way to do it.
   "I had helped out a player a couple of years ago that was playing on the arena team, and obviously knowing one of my good friends, Andy Kelly, being successful in the league, it made me want to give back something to the game," Shuler said. "I didn't have time to spend it whether it be coaching on the NFL level or coaching on the college level, but I wanted to give back to some aspect, and I felt like this was a great way to give back into the community and to the area, and give back to to players that only get paid $200 a game. They don't have the egos, and they don't have the expectations of always going to the NFL and making millions, and they have their heart in the right place and they love the game."
   Even though he was the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1993, and is considered a legend at Tennessee, Shuler's NFL career never panned out. He eventually was forced to retire due to a foot injury.
   Shuler says he has absolutely no regrets about the career.
   "It was great," he said. "Unfortunately being paralyzed in my foot is something I'll never get back, but that's just part of it. That's part of the dream come true part of it. That was worth the sacrifice.
   "I've been blessed with a wonderful wife, and we've been blessed with a little boy. It's just been wonderful. It's almost a blessing in disguise that I'm not playing anymore. Being able to spend time with him is far greater than what I can do in the NFL."
   Shuler still has close ties to the Tennessee program, and those connections recently gave him the opportunity to help somebody out that with a tough decision that he had to make ten years ago.
   When former Elizabethton High standout Jason Witten was trying to decide whether he was going into the NFL Draft, Shuler was contacted by Witten.
   "I talked to Jason Witten for two hours the night before he made his announcement to leave UT," Shuler said. "Jason is as quality of a human being as you will ever meet. He was so struggling with that decision. He just needed to have somebody say 'it's OK, it's your choice,' It was his choice to make, and he's just a quality person. I can't say enough good things about him.
   "I told him about my experiences, and I think the thing that became really became humbling to a lot of people is when my predecessor, Jerry Colquitt, went down the very first game and blew out his knee. That could have been me there. It's hard to grasp it sometimes, but that's part of the game. It was a decision that I prayed about and thought about so many times, it finally just came down to making the choice and just doing it. I've been thankful that I made it, and I got to fulfill a dream that I've had since the fourth or fifth grade."
   Shuler leaving school early didn't dampen his popularity in the long run. That has been proven with Shuler now owning one of the state's top real estate firms.
   Shuler seems to be on top of the world at this moment.
   "My life can't be better," Shuler said. "I've been so blessed with family and friends, and the support of them. I fulfilled a dream come true to play in the NFL. Actually, the dreams I have of my family are far greater than those dreams, and I just never knew the extent of how great it is to have a wonderful family like I have."