By Anthony Cruz
Jon Runyan is the U.S. Representative for New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District. He has served since 2011 and is a member of the Republican Party. Before entering politics, he was an American football offensive tackle in the NFL for fourteen seasons, playing for the Houston Oilers, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the San Diego Chargers. He announced in November 2013 that he would not be seeking reelection to Congress in 2014.
What made you want to run for Congress after playing in the NFL?
JR: I decided to run for Congress after my career in the NFL because I saw it as a way to serve the South Jersey community that had become home for me and my family. During my tenure with the Eagles, I spent a lot of my free time taking part in various philanthropic activities, including raising money for cancer research and serving on the board of the Alzheimer’s Association. When presented with the opportunity to run for Congress, I simply saw it as another way to give back to the South Jersey community and to the country.
What encouraged you to become active in politics? Did you always have an interest?
JR: Community service and giving back became a huge part of my life while playing football at Michigan. As members of the team, we were required to get involved in community outreach and to volunteer. Over time it just became a part of me and was something that stayed with me through my entire NFL career. And although I never had a specific interest in politics, I simply saw running for Congress as another way to serve.
How did being an NFL player, especially a Philadelphia Eagle, help you run in NJ’s 3rd Congressional District? Do constituents speak to you more about football or policy? Do fellow congressional members joke around with you and ask for autographs?
JR: The district that I represent is actually split 50/50 between Giants fans and Eagles fans, so I don’t really think I had any advantage. Any favorable name recognition that I would have received from Eagles fans probably ended up working against me with most of the Giants fans.
You were in Congress for a bit with fellow former NFLer Heath Shuler. What was that like?
JR: It was a pleasure having the opportunity to serve with another former NFL player in Congress. After being elected, I teamed up with Congressman Shuler and established the Men’s Health Caucus, which focused on raising awareness on health issues that affect men, boys, and their families.
Over the years, there has been great debate over the role of Congress in regulating sports. Having seen both sides, what is your take on this?
JR: In general I feel confident that the professional sports industry has the capacity to regulate itself, without Congress getting involved. With all of the challenges facing the country right now, congressional involvement might make things worse. One area where Congress has been able to make a sound contribution to professional sports, while not allowing politics to become a distraction, is around the issue of concussions. Much of the research we’re doing around traumatic brain injury in the military can be hugely beneficial to the NFL and other sports as they deal with this pressing issue.
How did you balance time with your family while in the NFL? How does that compare with your time in Congress?
JR: Obviously I was away from my family quite a bit when I played in the NFL, and that was tough. I made a promise to myself during those years that after I retired, I would be there for my kids. Being away from my wife and 3 kids was hands down the hardest part during my time in Congress as well. Ultimately missing time with them was one of the main factors regarding my decision to not seek re-election.
You recently announced that you were not running for re-election. Could you elaborate as to why you made that decision?
JR: “I can’t really pinpoint a specific moment when I made the decision not to seek a third term in Congress. It was more like a series of gut-check moments. Like on the third day of a seven-day family reunion vacation – I was leaving the next day to return to Washington – when my youngest daughter sat on the end of my bed and made it very clear to me she did not want me to go back, ever. A month before that, I was at the Detroit airport after dropping my son off at football camp at the University of Michigan (my own alma mater), letting me know that my son was being offered a scholarship to play ball there. I missed the first plane that day to take the phone call, but I really missed being with my son and sharing that moment that you get once in a lifetime.” (Excerpt from “Forth and So Long,” Politico Magazine, January 24, 2014.)
Would you ever consider running for public office again? Any plans after your service in Congress?
JR: When I launched my campaign for Congress I made it clear that I had no intention of making a career out of politics. In fact I strongly believe that making a career out of politics is part of the problem. For me, serving in Congress was another way to give back to the community and the country. I’m very proud and honored to have had this opportunity to serve and now I am ready to happily turn the reins over to someone else.
What advice do you have for those that wish to go into public service?
JR: I applaud anyone who is willing to step out there into public service. I am very proud of the work that I have done on behalf of my constituents, and these last few years have been some of the most rewarding of my entire life.
This interview was conducted in early January and contains minor edits for clarity and grammar.
This interview originally appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of PPR.
Image courtesy of http://runyan.house.gov.