Heath at HV

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF

   Heath Shuler, one of the greatest quarterbacks in University of Tennessee football history, was at Happy Valley High School Monday night as the special guest of the Character Counts Regional Rally.
   The event itself focused on outstanding youth in Carter County and their achievements. While at the event Shuler was gracious enough to talk about his days with the Vols, time in the NFL and a little about what he currently is doing.
   Shuler, runner-up to Florida State's Charlie Ward for the 1993 Heisman Trophy balloting, commented on this year's Tennessee team.
   "I'm so excited with this team, especially with what the quarterback (Casey Clausen) has done," said the former UT star. "Offseason, Casey was just unbelievable in his work ethic. It's unfortunate that he has kind of struggled early.
   "I think that he knows that the responsibility is really on his shoulders. For a young guy to understand that and to know what it's all about, it's been tough on him. I think it's going to come out that he is the great quarterback that we all expect him to be. I think a lot about what Tennessee has done and it has been very positive, especially how the coaches have handled it."
   With his experience as signal-caller, Shuler gave an assessment of how the play of this year's Big Orange quarterback resembled another famous Vol QB.
   "They're very similar," said Shuler in comparing Clausen to Peyton Manning. "Casey's style and Peyton's are very similar in what they do, how they present themselves on the field and what they do with the straight drop-back passing.
   "They don't scramble a whole lot. I've got a lot of respect for Casey and a lot of respect for the offensive line. I think they're doing a tremendous job."
   While Clausen is often compared to Manning, Shuler is often linked with Tee Martin, the quarterback who led Tennessee to the national championship in 1998. Both were noted for being solid players with the ability to make things happen when the pocket collapsed.
   It upsets the 1994 Hall of Fame Bowl MVP that his former quarterback coach and now Vol offensive coordinator Randy Sanders has come under fire from Tennessee fans. Many fans blasted Sanders after a 26-24 loss to Georgia two weeks ago although Sanders called an apparent game-winning pass play with 44 seconds left in the game.
   "Randy is a great coach," said Shuler about Morristown native Sanders. "We racked up 491 yards of total offense against Georgia and people want to complain about the offensive play calling. It doesn't matter who you are racking up that many yards against, you would take that every single game.
   "I don't think that Randy was the problem or has been the problem. I think it's just execution. I think Tennessee's personnel has to do a better job executing."
   Shuler had a tremendous career in the time he played for the Volunteers. He backed up Andy Kelly in his freshman year before being turned over the reigns his sophomore season. He was behind center when the Johnny Majors-era ended and new coach Phillip Fulmer took over. That time propelled Tennessee football into a new standing, which culminated in 1998's National Championship.
   When asked about his best memories of playing for the Orange and White, Heath responded: "The first pass I threw to my brother (Benjie) in college. That was a great memory. Then, I look at a fourth-and-16 against Georgia between the hedges. That was a big game (a 34-31 Vol win), Coach Fulmer's big debut. It was a lot of fun."
   While playing for Tennessee and finishing with a 19-5 mark as a starter was exciting, the Bryson City, N.C. native realized a dream when the Washington Redskins made him the number three overall pick in the 1994 NFL draft.
   "Since I was in the fifth grade, I dedicated myself to the opportunity to play in the NFL," Shuler explained. "I didn't think it would be as a quarterback. Words don't describe when you reach the goal of your life, when you overcome the ups and downs.
   "There were a lot of up sides. There was a great family and the university that supported me."
   Shuler's career in the National Football League never materialized the way he envisioned. He developed a feud with then Redskins coach Norv Turner, which tainted his stay in the nation's capital.
   Heath was traded to the New Orleans Saints. There, injuries and playing for famed Coach Mike Ditka made for a challenging time. He then landed in Oakland, where hopes were to revive his career with the Raiders, a team famous for taking players other teams have discarded and putting them in starring roles.
   But, this wasn't one of those movie-script type of endings as Shuler aggravated a foot injury that forced his retirement from professional football before the 2000 season kicked off. Despite the hardships endured, Shuler says he still wishes he was playing on Sundays.
   "I miss it everyday," Shuler admitted. "I watched my Raiders play last night and I was for them against the Colts. Even with a former Tennessee quarterback (Manning) playing, my heart was with the Raiders and coach Jon Gruden, since they were the team I ended up with last.
   "I miss it so much, because that was what my life had been about so many years. Now that I have a family, a young boy (Navy) five months old and my wife (Nikole). I know there's more to life than just football. It's pleasing to me to know there's so much more, my faith in Christ, than just football."
   Shuler has made a successful transition from throwing spirals to becoming a businessman. He currently owns a large real estate firm based in Knoxville, that covers an area stretching up to Kingsport.
   "We have some great personnel, some great agents," boasted the proud business owner. "My brother has done a tremendous job as President of the company. We just work hard. We just try to outwork our competitors and outwork the next guy in line."
   As we first reported, the reason for Shuler being at Happy Valley was to lend support to the "America's Character Counts!" rally. If you would like more information on the Character Counts program, you can contact the staff of the First Tennessee Human Resource Agency through the following people, Sam Fann, Director CCI at 461-8231, Carrie Marchant, Youth Services director at 461-8244 or Annie Nelson, Youth Services Coordinator at 461-8283.
   Tell them that Heath sent you.