SHULER: 'MY DAY WILL COME'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The latest savior of the Washington Redskins and, perhaps, the NFL is from an area hidden away in the Great Smoky Mountains. He was baptized in Deep Creek River, has a Southern twang and charm, and eats bear and boar meat.

Dan Marino, move over. Heath Shuler has arrived.

"History shows that all modern-day quarterbacks have struggled their rookie season except for Dan Marino," said Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman. "This kid could have a Marino-like rookie season. He's got everything."

Almost.

There are no Super Bowl rings, no conference championships, not even a division crown. Heck, this son of a mailman and yogurt store employee won't even start in the Redskins' regular-season opener Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks at RFK Stadium.

But, eventually, Shuler has to play. He was the Redskins' No. 1 pick, the third player chosen in the draft. He held out 13 days, and then signed for $19.25 million over eight years, the richest contract ever for an NFL rookie.

"I'm learning as much and as fast as possible," Shuler said. "My day will come."

He's going to be big, either as successful as Sammy Baugh or Joe Theismann, or a bust like defensive back Jim Smith, the Redskins' No. 1 pick in 1968 who played one season, or quarterback Larry Isbell, the team's top pick in 1952 who never played.

"We all know that at some point Heath is our starting quarterback," said Redskins coach Norv Turner, who on Tuesday named veteran John Friesz to start the opener. "We're going to hit a point where that just happens. Hopefully, it will work out for all of us."

That includes the NFL, which is in search of young quarterback stars. Quarterbacks are hard to develop because the league has little patience and no minor-league system beyond the colleges.

If Shuler and Trent Dilfer, the No. 1 pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have reasonable success, the NFL would have somewhat of a quarterback surge, joining Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer, the two top rookie quarterbacks from last season. It could bring back memories of the class of 1983, which featured Marino, John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason and Ken O'Brien.

"It's just another burden that I have to bear, but one I can live with," said Shuler. "I've always thrived under pressure. The only thing I ask is that people not judge me now, but judge me later. It's a reasonable request."

Joseph Heath Shuler was born in Bryson City in Swain County, N.C., where 80 percent of the land is either part of the Smoky Mountains or the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Unemployment is high (14 percent, second worst in the state) and tourism is one of the biggest money-makers in the economically strapped region.

The fishing is great and moonshine is still available to the 1,200 residents who live in the plateau.

It is there where the Shuler name became legend.

"Own this county?" said Boyce Dietz, Shuler's coach at Swain County High. "He wouldn't have to ask for it. They would give it to him."

Wherever Shuler goes in Bryson City, a traffic jam ensues. Cars stop. Horns honk. People stick out their hands just to touch his.

Joe Benny Shuler, Heath's father, has a mail route that encompasses 720 boxes in a 45-mile area. His son is always the main topic of conversation.

"A lot of people are football crazy in North Carolina," said his father. "But even if they weren't, they knew about Heath and what he has accomplished in his hometown."

Shuler led Swain County High to three straight state titles and completed 389 of 685 passes for 7,684 yards and 74 touchdowns in his high school career.

He was such a favorite that people in the state forgave him for going to Tennessee instead of North Carolina.

"A special kind of person lives here, and Heath is one of our own," his father said. "A lot of people play football through Heath, and he's never changed."

Heath Shuler likes fishing, hunting and water skiing. One of his favorite foods is still the hamburger topped with cole slaw at Bryson City's Na-bers Drive-In.

His convictions are as strong as ever. Shuler is a born-again Christian who was baptized when he was 10. He doesn't drink, smoke or curse. Not even in the huddle.

He reads the Bible and attends prayer meetings daily, and last year made 70 to 80 appearances at prisons, hospitals and churches.

"Heath is a very strong, honest person, almost too vanilla," said his younger brother, Benjie, a receiver at Tennessee. "Some people may be reading him wrong in Washington because he held out. But he always was a person of high morals, and has few regrets about decisions he has made."

No second thoughts about going to his local school board with his family to get permission to repeat the sixth grade. No regrets about staying away from soda since he was 12. No doubts about telling Washington fans they had little knowledge when they booed him in the preseason.

"I've always tried to sign autographs and be available to other people in distress, be a role model," said Shuler, who was named after his father and Heath Barkley from "The Big Valley" television show. "I've always been a hard worker and I'm at peace with myself. If other people want to criticize me, then strap it on and come on down."

Said Dietz: "That's vintage Heath. Always in control, always a leader, even at a young age. That's why he's going to be a good one in that league."

It's all a memory now, Shuler's three years at Tennessee in which he threw for 4,089 yards and 36 touchdowns and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting last year. The decision to enter pro football ended with a walk and prayer down the Road to Nowhere, a stretch of 5.6 miles that was supposed to be cut through the Smoky Mountains to Knoxville, Tenn.

"Everything has happened so fast," said Shuler. "One day I'm a Volunteer, the next day I'm singing 'Rocky Top' in the Redskins' minicamp."

Shuler, 6 feet 2 and 220 pounds, already has had a chance during the preseason to play against some of the league's best in Joe Montana and Jim Kelly.

"They just seemed so relaxed, so poised," said Shuler. "I want to be that way."

Aikman says patience is the key.

"I would say don't try to be Superman, and stay within the system," said Aikman. "One of the keys is that he has Norv to work with with, and he will slowly groom him. Everything else, basically, is there."

Listen to stories about Shuler's arm strength:

Tennessee offensive guard Tom Myslinski and center John Fisher were sitting in the team's indoor practice facility prodding Shuler and asked him to hit a goal post nearly 70 yards away.

Shuler bounced a spiral off the right upright.

His brother, Benjie, said Heath could hit the upright from 40 yards on his knees.

"He can go deep, hit the short out on a wide field, throw hard across the middle or loft it with a touch," said Turner. "If he had been in camp the full time, he may have been our starter. Heath has another quality of a great quarterback, and that's toughness."

How tough?

When Shuler was in the eighth grade, his football coach asked for a volunteer to play guard. Shuler raised his hand, and was moved from quarterback.

Last year in the second half against Alabama, he played most of the game with a sprained shoulder.

This is a guy who once dragged two 270-pound Kentucky defensive linemen for several yards. Shuler even has a brown belt in karate; he loves Steven Seagal movies.

"There will come a time in the huddle when some of those 300-pound offensive linemen stare you in the face, and they want to see courage and confidence," said Shuler. "Maybe they haven't seen it yet in me, but in time they will. I'm not running anywhere."

Actually, Shuler is pretty mobile and a good athlete. He won the state high school title in the high jump at 6-9. He gives Washington an added dimension. He is adept at running bootlegs and rollouts.

Friesz isn't.

Shuler's biggest adjustment is going from the three-step drop at Tennessee to the five-to-seven-step drop used by the Redskins. Of course, he'll get his share of blitzes and disguised coverages from the defense.

"We had some of those drop-backs in our offense, but not quite as many," said Shuler. "Another change is that the game is so much faster. The speed level gets turned up a notch."

He'll adjust. And step up. It's inevitable. Prodigies don't sit the bench long. But will he be a success or a bust?

"I get the impression," said Turner, "that I'm going to be working with this guy as our starter for a long, long time."

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