FROSTBURG -- When the Washington Redskins drafted Heath Shuler last year, one of the things they liked about him was his quick feet.
Shuler's speed came in handy last month, when he --ed through the Atlanta airport to help himself and a great-grandmother he had met at Baltimore-Washington International Airport catch a flight to Knoxville, Tenn.
The woman, a 67-year-old widow named Bessie McFarland who has three sons, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, then decided she wanted to thank the Redskins quarterback in writing for helping her make the connection.
She didn't have the Redskins' address, so she decided to write a letter to the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
"I thought I'd write a nice letter to the editor and it would be published on the editorial page and be a real big thank you to Heath Shuler and that would be it. I didn't dream about all this other stuff," McFarland said yesterday.
She didn't have any idea the newspaper would take her picture, put it on Page 1 and that the wire services would send the story across the country.
The result is that after the Redskins' morning practice yesterday, Shuler had to explain how he met the woman June 26 at BWI.
He was going home for a break before training camp and she was flying for just the second time in her life. She had been visiting her son, Stan McFarland, a computer consultant, and her daughter-in-law, Lynn, a Chinese linguist, at their home in Crownsville.
Her original flight through Pittsburgh was canceled and she got on one to Charlotte, where she planned to make a connection to Knoxville.
After the plane pulled away from the gate and her family left, it developed mechanical trouble and returned to the gate.
After they deplaned, McFarland met Shuler because they were the only passengers on the plane going to Knoxville.
"He was such a clean-cut young man and I said, 'What's your name?' and I felt real embarrassed. I realized then, 'Oh, my gosh, you're Heath Shuler,' " she said.
Shuler said, "She was skeptical about me helping her out, but then she felt comfortable [after he introduced himself]."
Shuler arranged for them to fly to Atlanta and change airlines for the last flight to Knoxville after 11 p.m. When the flight arrived late in Atlanta, Shuler ran through the airport, from Gate A to Gate F, only to find the gate for the Knoxville flight had already closed and the plane was pulling away.
"The guy at the gate knew who I was so he asked the pilot to bring the plane back. Then I said, by the way, 10 minutes down the hall, there's an old lady coming with me," he said.
Shuler --ed back, got her ticket, ran back to the gate to check her in as the plane returned to the gate.
McFarland said she wasn't that slow, she just couldn't keep up with Shuler.
"Everybody pictured me being a doddering lady walking with a cane," she said. "I was trying to keep up with him. I guess we were a spectacle almost at midnight."
She added, "I hope all this isn't embarrassing to Mr. Shuler."
Shuler, who found out about the letter when a friend faxed him a copy at training camp, said, "It's nice. It's good that she did that. I guess it was her way of thanking me."
The Redskins will be in Knoxville in two weeks to play an exhibition game against the Houston Oilers. In an attempt to promote the game and sell tickets, the Redskins PR department has been sending a daily diary to the Knoxville paper. Shuler hadn't included the airplane story in the diary.
"I wasn't going to run and tell everybody that I helped a lady in an airport," he said. "A lot of players on our team would have done the same thing."
She said, "He's such a down-to-earth young man. I don't think success has gone to his head. It's unusual these days for young people to care that much about older people."