Backstory: In this huddle the partisan divide vanishes
WASHINGTON — Partisan tempers turned raw in the last hours before the House of Representatives recessed on Friday, as shouts, finger jabbing, gavel rapping, and cries for "order!" sometimes drowned out a debate on the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
At the center of the action, Rep. Harold Ford (D) of Tennessee surged across the aisle to confront a group of Republicans, until led back to the Democratic side. But, in the lobby just off the House floor, he was still simmering, telling a knot of reporters, "We're talking about a war here! This is one of the worst examples of politicization since the war started."
About then, up walked Rep. Patrick McHenry (R) of North Carolina,viewed by Democrats as one of the shrillest GOP partisans.
More angry words? Not this time. Instead, both men broke into big smiles and high-fived each other.
For this moment, they weren't partisan warriors but teammates - "Pee-Wee" McHenry and cornerback Ford. Two nights before, along with a ragtag crew of congressmen (and one congresswoman warming the bench in yoga pants), they had battled a younger, faster, and (vastly) fitter US Capitol Police team to a draw - in a driving rain ... on a muddy field ... at night.
It's a side of congressional life that the public often doesn't see. But it's personal ties that can keep Congress moving, especially when votes get tough. The venues for establishing such ties are as varied as the members. Last week, it was a muddy field.
For Tom Osborne, a college football coaching legend and three-term Nebraska congressman, the first annual "Longest Yard Fall Classic" marked a series of career firsts.
"I'd never played on a field quite that bad," he said, referring to the storm that quickly converted the gridiron at host Gallaudet University in northeast Washington to a sole-sucking bog.
"I never had my best player pull both hamstrings in warm-up and then fall down in the mud. I never had a 5'6", 160 lb. player at defensive tackle. Oh, and having a guy almost lose his ear, that's a first, too," he added.
It was all for a good cause. The Capitol Police Memorial Fund - created to help the families of two officers, Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson, who were shot and killed in the Capitol in 1998 - was running low. Learning of the need, Rep. Rick Renzi (R) of Arizona hit on an idea for a fundraiser: a flag football game between House members and the Capitol Police. And who better to coach it than Mr. Osborne, who had led his Nebraska Cornhuskers to 25 bowl games and three national championships.
In the end, about 30 members volunteered, including Rep. Mary Bono (R) of California, who says she was benched for skipping practice. No one was rejected. Mr. Renzi assured his player colleagues that "Everyone is going to get a certificate signed by Coach Osborne saying that he played on the team. We're not going to cut anybody." "You may want to rethink this," Osborne quipped.
"Sometimes you have speed. Sometimes you have strength and size. And sometimes you have neither," the coach said, after the first practice. "I thought we'd be fortunate if we came within three or four touchdowns."
Yet few get to the US Congress without a will to win, and no one was giving up. The coach reached deep into his playbook for moves to adapt for the seven-man flag football team he'd been dealt.
"We didn't do anything fancy," explained Osborne. To counter the Guards' speed, "we did use some misdirection.... That did help to some degree."
Each member had an assignment. Plays were diagrammed on laminated cards. Rep. Zach Wamp (R) of Tennessee walked the field the day before the game. (Think George C. Scott on the field at Carthage before the tank battle in "Patton.") On the morning of the game, Osborne called one last practice, "to go over the plays one more time."
The Capitol Police, while grateful for the interest in their charity, were also in no mood to lose. About 100 of the Capitol Police's finest tried out; 60 made the cut, including several women. Their captain, Sgt. Ron Russ, had played two seasons of pro football in Germany. "I wanted to run up the score on them," he says.
Game day began warm, but a cold front moved in and with it a drenching rain. No one considered calling the game. With Congress within two days of recess, there'd be no easy way to reschedule. And members felt the cause was too important to let slide.
By the 8 p.m. kickoff, the field was already deep in mud and by the fourth quarter temperatures had dropped 25 degrees. The congressional team, in white jerseys marked "Inmates," - a reference to the film, "The Longest Yard" - sent out "Pee-Wee" McHenry, their shortest player, to take the toss.
"Just play along," he whispered to the police chief in a blue "Guards" jersey taking the toss for the other side. McHenry won the toss, elected to receive, then pushed the officer ... hard.
"It was to set a tone," said McHenry. "Just because the average age on our team is 10 years older, just because they're 100 pounds bigger and a foot taller, we would not be the demure members of Congress. We would actually be aggressive."
"That little guy earned his respect, and we went back to the sidelines really pumped," said Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois, an ideological bookend to McHenry.
While the rules of flag football don't include tackling, you wouldn't know it from the head-banging pileups on the field.Rep. Bill Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania, an offensive lineman, emerged from the bottom of a pile with a torn ear. "I was blocking one of the police officers and he didn't want to get blocked - and it's football," he said.
"I was impressed with the congressmen," said Osborne. "They seemed to be willing to go out there and throw their bodies around in the mud," At the two-minute half, truncated by the torrential rains, players huddled to hear his motivational speech, also truncated: "Let's get this thing over with," he said.
Along with the hits and slips in the mud, there was plenty of good-natured banter across the scrimmage line. "Just remember when you're out there that we control your pension!" said Renzi, after an especially solid hit from the men in blue. "You've still got to come through my post to make that vote,'' shot back Sergeant Russ. Members also forged ties across the aisle. "When you meet with members of the other party in these settings," said Mr. Wamp, "you gain an appreciation for them you'd never have on the floor or in committee. You see the person behind the ideology."
"I liked being on the same side with Jesse Jackson Jr., for a change," said Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) of Pennsylvania. "He's very intense, very competitive, and had a lot of spirit ... trying to pump up people to play their best."
The final score was 14-14. The "Inmates" scored on an option play in the first quarter and on a bootleg pass in the third quarter, both to Gerlach. The game also raised $40,000 for the Capitol Police Memorial Fund.
"If we tied against a Capitol Police team that was stronger, younger, and more talented, that counts as a victory," says Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin.
"We also drilled and practiced with players like [Democrats] Harold Ford, Jesse Jackson [Jr.], Tim Ryan, and Kendrick Meek. Any time you're on a team with anyone, it's a bonding experience."