WASHINGTON -- Heath Shuler feigns surprise. "You mean they were booing me?" he says. "I thought it was because a beach ball got taken away from the crowd."
Laughing about your NFL career, it seems, is mandatory if you're Shuler and it's draft time.
It's the time of year when the media create lists inevitably ranking the former quarterback, elected to Congress from North Carolina in 2006, as one of the league's all-time draft busts. "I'm just proud that I'm still making a list," Shuler, 36, says.
It's easier for Shuler, the third overall pick by the Washington Redskins in 1994, to joke about the NFL now than during his injury-marked career. His election to the House of Representatives from the rural 11th District was hailed by his party as further proof that a Democrat could win in a conservative region accustomed to voting Republican.
The boyish-looking, green-eyed Shuler went from being a struggling Redskin (and a Saint and Raider) to a celebrated "Blue Dog" - a term in Congress for a group of moderate and fiscally conservative Democrats, many from the South. After a brief career in real estate, Shuler said he got into politics after seeing a disturbing number of manufacturing jobs leave his district.
"I never imagined it's something I would do," Shuler says of his political career. But he jokes that his unexpected second stint in Washington is going better than the first, which ended when the Redskins traded him to New Orleans before the 1997 season.
His Washington statistics: a .477 completion percentage, 13 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions. His career quarterback rating was 54.3.
Bill Clinton once joked with Shuler that he was glad to see someone else getting headlines in Washington because it took some of the heat off the then-president's political troubles.
Nine years after his NFL retirement, Shuler says he's at peace with how things ended up. At the same time, he concedes that it stung to occasionally be booed. And he doesn't mind revisiting his football life - the injuries and highs and lows - to make sure the record is correct.
Shuler says NFL quarterbacks survive through a combination of grit, persistence, finding the right fit with a team and coach, and staying healthy.
Shuler suggests he met the first two requirements. The second two, not so much.
His career all but ended when he was flattened by Oakland's 330-pound Chester McGlockton in 1997 while playing for the Saints. All the toes on his left foot were dislocated and Shuler - who had prided himself on mobility - would never move quite the same way. He had also suffered injuries with the Redskins that limited him to five starts in his second season.
Shuler says he and the Redskins were mismatched from the start.
Shuler, 6 feet 2 and 216 pounds, emerged from Tennessee in 1993 as the school's third all-time leading passer and runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. He rushed for 11 touchdowns in 1992, a school record for the position.
After holding out during training camp for an eight-year, $19.25 million contract, Shuler got to Washington and found a young team with a rookie head coach, Norv Turner.
"I was more of a West Coast offense, athletic quarterback," Shuler says. "They put me in a Don Coryell, pro-style, straight five- to seven-step drop."
After two seasons with the Saints, Shuler said he was excited to play the 1999 season with the Raiders. He says Jon Gruden, then Oakland's coach, was running an offense that suited him. The team had a veteran quarterback, Rich Gannon, who could have mentored Shuler. But Shuler's body wouldn't hold up, and he retired before the season began.
If Shuler could offer advice to teams picking quarterbacks tomorrow, he says it would be to look for somebody with "heart" whose abilities match the team's offensive system.
He still plays some quarterback in flag football games. In a game against the Capitol Police last fall, his favorite receiver was Rep. Jason Altmire, 40, a Pennsylvania Democrat who once played football for Florida State.
And Shuler still occasionally gets ribbed. After he was elected, several people wrote blogs saying that if Shuler passed legislation, it probably would get "intercepted."
Says Shuler: "You get thick skin. This political game is a contact sport, too."