As rookie politician, Runyan remains a gamer

Republican Jon Runyan chatting with the crowd after a debate with U.S. Rep. John Adler in Mount Laurel last month. Runyan built a reputation for toughness and durability in 14 NFL seasons.
Republican Jon Runyan chatting with the crowd after a debate with U.S. Rep. John Adler in Mount Laurel last month. Runyan built a reputation for toughness and durability in 14 NFL seasons.
Posted: October 22, 2010

Jon Runyan's life of hard work has brought him financial rewards and made him one of football's most reliable players.

In his very public career change to Republican candidate in New Jersey's Third Congressional District, Runyan has promised potential constituents the unwavering dedication that led him to two Super Bowls as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles and the Tennessee Titans.

"Everything I've done in my life has been a challenge," the Mount Laurel resident said. "I look forward to taking that same tenacity I had on the football field to Congress."

But Runyan, 36, turned pro after years of playing experience. The rookie politician has never held any public office.

He takes the field at a particularly challenging time. The nation continues to wallow in an economic slump, and voters want to know if candidates can pull them out.

On the campaign trail in one of the nation's most closely watched and expensive races, Runyan has offered what he calls commonsense solutions. He would fix Washington by opposing the Democratic agenda. He would fix the economy by cutting government spending. He would avoid becoming an alienated career politician by serving no more than eight years.

His sound bites are followed by few specifics, some analysts say.

"The fact that Runyan walked into the nomination is attributable solely to the fact that party leaders in the district believed he would have high levels of name recognition," said Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison.

With his celebrity, she said, party leaders believed "he would bring great financial resources to the table, which he hasn't."

The former lineman has "improved" as a speaker on the campaign trail, Harrison said. "But I don't think he's successfully transformed from jock to statesman yet," in the manner of Bill Bradley, the Rhodes Scholar and former New York Knicks basketball player who served as a Democratic U.S. senator from New Jersey.

Runyan is up against a seasoned politician, U.S. Rep. John Adler, who served in the state Senate for 17 years and is a Harvard-educated lawyer. So far, the freshman Democrat has out-raised Runyan, who has contributed $300,000 to his own campaign.

The self-described Republican conservative - who opposes gay marriage and says he is pro-choice with "many restrictions" - said his inability to pursue a goal less than 100 percent would pay off for the district, which cuts through Burlington and Ocean Counties and includes Cherry Hill in Camden County.

Runyan grew up in Flint, Mich., the son of an autoworker. As a boy, he had trouble academically because of dyslexia, he has said. His grades improved after his condition was diagnosed and he received tutoring.

In athletics, Runyan's first love was basketball.

"I remember playing basketball for the first time in seventh grade," he said. "I was the kid that throws the ball at the bottom of the rim four times before he gets a basket but is taller than everybody, so he gets the rebound every time."

Eventually, the 6-foot-7 Runyan made his shots.

Bob Root, athletic director at Flint's Carman-Ainsworth High School, remembers him as a "a tough competitor."

"In the summer I would call and say, 'Let's go to the gym and work on your skills.' He never turned me down," Root recalled. "He commits to something, and he sticks with it."

By his junior year in high school, Runyan had started playing football, which earned him a scholarship to the University of Michigan.

During practice in his third year at Michigan, "I had two guys fall on my foot and fold my foot in half," Runyan said.

Surgery left him with a screw in his left foot and a decision to make. He could stay in college or start his life as a professional athlete. Knowing how short pro careers can be, he chose the latter.

The Houston Oilers drafted him in 1996, then abruptly moved to Tennessee the next season. The team lost the 2000 Super Bowl to the St. Louis Rams.

During his brief stay in Houston, a 22-year-old Runyan met his future wife, Loretta, a Houston beat cop eight years older than he is. They married in 1998 and have three children, ages 8 to 13, who attend private school.

In 2000, Runyan joined the Eagles, where his career took off.

"He never missed a game. He is one of the most durable players in the history of the Eagles - of the NFL," team spokesman Derek Boyko said.

Runyan played through injuries and collected a handsome paycheck. According to published reports, he signed a $30.5 million, six-year contract in 2000. In 2006, he re-signed for three years at $12.4 million, and in his last year he accepted a $600,000 pay cut.

The Eagles went to the Super Bowl in 2005, but lost to the New England Patriots.

By 2009, Runyan was done. He had suffered an injury to his right knee and spent 10 months in rehab. He tried out for the Eagles and other teams that summer, hoping to end his career with one more shot at a championship.

"I had three workouts in five days," Runyan said. "No one called back. Nothing happened. Psychologically, it was really, really tough."

Just as he had made peace with the reality that his playing days were over, he got an offer from the San Diego Chargers. He finished the 2009-10 season with them while working toward his House campaign.

He had never expected to play more than 10 years, said Runyan, who lasted 14 seasons. To prepare for the next step in his career, he sought a wider audience.

The man declared one of football's dirtiest players in annual Sports Illustrated surveys softened his image with high-profile commercial appearances, including his receiving a cup of McDonald's coffee from a locker-room gofer whose effort he rated "chest-bump-worthy."

Runyan also continued his frequent guest and commentator appearances on sports radio. In 2004, while still an Eagle, he and radio personality Matt Cord talked sports and music on Rockin' With Jon Runyan on WPHI-FM (100.3). After the live broadcast from Runyan's residence, then in Moorestown, they would take a limo to Iron Hill Brewery in Media and watch Monday Night Football. Runyan would do commentary for the patrons. In a promotion, the place named one of its brews Runyan's Robust Red Ale.

Even after the game, "he'd get so caught up with the people and talking and hanging out with everybody," Cord recalled.

He isn't surprised that Runyan went into politics. "He's such a smart guy, and he's so well-liked," Cord said.

On the occasions when people don't like him, Runyan said, he ignores their verbal assaults. But he has said he is offended by Adler's campaign attacks alleging that Runyan disingenuously calls himself a farmer to reap the tax benefits of the state's farmland assessment program.

Runyan's gated Mount Laurel mansion sits on a 25-acre spread. On 20 of those acres, where he grazes four donkeys and cuts timber, he pays less than $500 in property tax. On the five acres where his house sits, he pays $61,000 a year, Runyan said.

According to Adler, the donkey farm is a tax dodge because it stretches the intent of a law meant to preserve open space. Runyan calls himself a steward of the timberland, and tax experts say his actions are legal.

Farmwork is how he relaxes, Runyan said, even though he gets poison ivy. When he isn't cutting wood, he fixes his pool's vacuum, does plumbing and electrical work, and tinkers with the car.

He cooks, too, especially barbecue and his mother's German chocolate cake.

"I hate cleaning up. That's a good reason why I cook: I make the mess and walk away," he joked in an interview. "Cooking is a matter of following directions. The only artistic part of it is really not burning it."

In his House race, Runyan also has followed a recipe, taking directions from the Republican playbook and spending countless hours on the campaign trail. On Nov. 2, he will learn whether his hard work has paid off.


Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.

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