Jon Runyan, ferocious tackle for Eagles, now wants N.J.'s 3rd District seat in Congress

Jon Runyan, shown at the Lincoln Day dinner in Camden in June, is facing U.S. Rep. John Adler, the Democratic incumbent .
Jon Runyan, shown at the Lincoln Day dinner in Camden in June, is facing U.S. Rep. John Adler, the Democratic incumbent .
Posted: August 07, 2010

IN 1998, Jon Runyan wasn't wealthy by NFL standards or even a star in the league, but he certainly could have afforded to hire a mechanic to fix the brakes on his pickup truck.

Runyan was a starting tackle for the Tennessee Oilers and his lifelong reputation as a gladiator in the trenches had roots in two late-season games that year. On Dec. 20, more than 70,000 Green Bay Packers fans chanted Reggie White's name in unison, hoping the defensive legend would register one last sack at Lambeau Field. Runyan denied him. The following week, Runyan was ejected from a game against the Minnesota Vikings for punching defensive lineman Jerry Ball in the crotch.

That gridiron ferocity helped to establish Runyan's reputation, but it was an off-the-field incident that winter that he thinks embodies his values and supports his belief that he'd be a good choice to represent New Jersey's 3rd Congressional District in Washington.

He can't remember the exact date, but it occurred on a day when he pulled his GMC pickup into his two-car garage in Nashville.

"I remember my wife came in and thought I was crazy. She was like 'what are you doing'? I said, 'I'm doing my brakes, why?' " Runyan said with a deep laugh during a recent interview with the Daily News at his Mount Laurel campaign headquarters. "This is stuff I've done my whole life with my father. It's how I was raised. We did things for ourselves."

Runyan now lives in a spacious, custom-built home in Mount Laurel with his wife and three children, but the conservative beliefs he's campaigning on were forged in the hardscrabble, factory town of Flint, Mich. That's where he watched his father, Tom, walk down their dead-end street every morning, hop a guardrail, and disappear into a GMC factory. He'd come home later, with sore, calloused and grease-stained hands.

Tom Runyan wasn't beholden to the unions that dominated the Michigan auto industry in the 20th century. He felt they pushed too hard, and when the factory laid him off, Tom Runyan didn't wait for the union to help, his son said.

"We would run a bicycle-repair shop out of the garage and he would say, 'You're doing this today, and this another day,' " he said. "It taught me the value of hard work. I've been blessed with a lot of great things in my life, and one of them was work ethic. And with work ethic, you can make anything happen."

Anthony Gargano co-hosted a Monday-night football program with Runyan for several years on WIP (610-AM) and learned how much that blue-collar childhood molded him into a man who rarely missed a game at a position that guaranteed brutal collisions on every down.

"It's about sacrificing for the greater good," Gargano said. "It's about protecting. The offensive linemen are usually among the most intelligent on the team. To do their job, they need to be the most emotionless, while defensive players come at them with primal force. They are pragmatic. Jon Runyan embodies these. And don't those characteristics comprise the perfect public servant?"

Runyan said he already was 6 feet 7 at age 15, and his imposing figure seemed destined to be a permanent fixture on the line. But basketball was his first love and he was one of Michigan's best players while playing center at Carman-Ainsworth High School.

"He was shy and quiet and he worked harder than anyone else I can remember," said Bob Root, Runyan's coach and current athletic director at the school. "He was mentally tough, even as a kid."

Runyan was "unstoppable" in the low post, Root said, and was offered a scholarship to play basketball at Michigan State. He had taken up football late in high school, though, and the thought of suiting up in Wolverine blue and maize at the University of Michigan was too appealing.

In 1996, Runyan was drafted out of Michigan in the fourth round by the Houston Oilers.

Runyan was not a political junkie in college, where he studied kinesiology (the science of human movement) or even when his career brought him to Tennessee and later Philadelphia, where he was beloved by Eagles fans. Runyan's opponent in the congressional race, Democratic U.S. Rep. John Adler, pointed to the former all-pro lineman's spotty voting record over the last decade as indicating a lack of concern, but Runyan claims his conservative values were growing stronger as his NFL career was coming to an end.

"I think that's when it really gets to you. When you get close to retirement you think, I've made a good chunk of money and they just want to take more and more and more of it," he said. "I'm not going to have this income for the rest of my life. I've worked my butt off my whole life to obtain this. How do I keep it? That's when you start picking apart policy and what is actually going to affect you in each bill."

Runyan and his wife, Loretta, were active in nonprofit circles in the Delaware Valley, he said, and the subject of public office often came up. Runyan was courted by the GOP in South Jersey to challenge Adler, and he agreed before signing a midyear contract with the San Diego Chargers last year.

In June, he won the GOP primary and has been battling with Adler, the first Democrat to win New Jersey's 3rd District in more than a century, ever since. (The district covers most of Burlington and Ocean counties plus Cherry Hill in Camden County.) Runyan claims he's running on a "common-sense" platform, one that calls for balanced budgets, smaller government and term limits.

"One thing you can take from Gov. Christie is that he says, 'I don't care if I get re-elected, I'm doing what I think is right. I'm not here to get re-elected; I'm here to make change,' " Runyan said.

Along with Christie, Runyan's also received advice from Steve Largent, a Hall of Fame wide receiver who later served as a congressman in Oklahoma. Largent said Runyan's motivations are pure.

"I applaud guys like Jon who are willing to do it, to make the sacrifice to serve the people," he said. "He could make a lot more money and have a lot more time with his family if he chose to do something else."

Adler has attacked Runyan's issue with taxation by pointing out the pet donkeys and firewood sales he used to get a farm designation and its subsequent tax break on his Mount Laurel property. Runyan was also late on property-tax payments in New Jersey and Texas 33 times.

"As a candidate, Jon Runyan belongs on the bench," Adler spokesman Geoff Mackler said.

Runyan has acknowledged those blemishes and admitted to others as well, including a DUI conviction in Michigan and business lawsuits he's been named in.

"I've lived a very open and public life my whole career, which I think helps me in this aspect, but at the same light, you have to have a thick skin and be mindful of the words that come out of your mouth 24 hours a day, much like you did before," he said. "Your family has to be prepared that criticism is going to fly their way. There's going to be finger-pointing."

Runyan, according to a Philadelphia Eagles' bio, was considered a "feisty" player, but the rest of the NFL preferred the term "dirty." He doesn't reject the reputation but thinks the fame and money that accompany an NFL career can change people and make them forget what they're being paid to do. Tom Runyan's boy never changed and proved his mettle every down until the whistle blew . . . and maybe a second or two afterward.

"You're not out there to make friends; it's a competition," he said. "A lot of people are in politics to make friends, too, instead of making positive change. They're worried about getting re-elected."

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