By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) The American presidency is no stranger to American sports.
Gerald Ford played center and linebacker for the University of Michigan. George H.W. Bush was a first baseman at Yale. And Richard Nixon… well, he liked to bowl.
As gifted as those men might have been at their respective sports (or, you know, games), each of them became better known for their talents in politics as they rose to the highest office in the land.
But here on Election Day, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some former-athletes-turned-politicians who probably are still best known for their sporting exploits, no matter how successful they’ve been at scoring votes.
Interestingly, all eight of the men on this list were accustomed to having the ball in their hands during their athletic careers, which could be why they went into politics.
After all, playmakers need to keep making plays.
Kevin Johnson – Mayor of Sacramento (2008-present)
A three-time NBA All-Star and one of the premier point guards of the 1990s, the 6-foot-1 KJ still holds the Phoenix Suns records for assists, free throws and free throws attempted.
In 2008, Johnson became the mayor of a city that’s home to one of the Suns’ divisional rivals when he was elected as the first African-American to lead the Sacramento. The mayoral job is non-partisan, but the 46-year-old KJ is considered a Democrat. His initiatives have included a push to keep the Kings in town – and, I suppose, to keep the Suns visiting.
Dave Bing – Mayor of Detroit (2009-present)
The 68-year-old Bing was a seven-time All-Star guard and former Rookie of the Year (1975-76), who was inducted into the Hall of Fame after starring for the Detroit Pistons, Washington Bullets and Boston Celtics.
His biggest score for Detroit, however, may have come in 2009 when he won a special election to become mayor of the city after Kwame Kirkpatrick was forced to resign following a scandal. Bing also won the scheduled election for the non-partisan office (he’s considered a Democrat) six months later.
Heath Shuler – U.S. Congressman (2007-present)
As the third overall pick of the NFL draft out of Tennessee, Shuler never panned out as a quarterback for the Washington Redskins. Or for the New Orleans Saints. Or for the Oakland Raiders. In fact, he’s considered one of the biggest draft busts of all-time.
However, the 40-year-old Shuler has found greater success as a politician. Since 2007, he has represented the 11th district of North Carolina as a Democrat – but is considered a “Blue Dog,” meaning he has some conservative tendencies.
Steve Largent – U.S. Congressman (1994-2002)
Considered the greatest Seattle Seahawk of all-time, Largent once held six major receiving records, including most receptions and most touchdown catches.
The Hall of Famer had a pretty prolific political career too, winning four terms in the U.S. House as a Republican, representing the 1st District of Oklahoma. Largent, now 58, ended up resigning his congressional seat to run for governor of Oklahoma, but lost the election by just a few thousand votes.
J.C. Watts – U.S. Congressman (1995-2003)
From 1977-80, Julius Caesar “J.C.” Watts ruled Oklahoma as quarterback for the Sooners before he was drafted by the New York Jets to play running back. Watts instead opted to play quarterback north of the border in the Canadian Football League and led the Ottawa Rough Riders to the Grey Cup championship game in 1981.
Watts played in the CFL until 1986 before eventually embarking upon a political career that led him to become the first Republican African-American congressman to be elected from a southern state in 120 years. When his political career ended nearly a decade ago, Watts, now 54, was considered one of the most powerful members of his political party in Congress.
Bill Bradley – U.S. Senator (1979-1997)
As a shooting guard and small forward, Bradley won an Olympic gold medal before winning two world championships with the New York Knicks during his Hall of Fame basketball career.
As a politician, Bradley – a Rhodes Scholar – was also highly successful as a longtime U.S. senator, winning term after term before voluntarily giving up his seat in 2007. Three years later in 2000, Bradley hoped to earn the Democratic nomination for the presidency but failed to win a single primary. Today, the 69-year-old hosts a radio show on Sirius.
Jim Bunning – U.S. Senator (1999-2011)
During his 12-year Major League career, Bunning hurled a perfect game and racked up 224 wins for the Tigers, Phillies, Pirates and Dodgers en route to his ultimate Hall of Fame enshrinement in Cooperstown in 1996.
After retiring from the Phillies in 1971, Bunning headed home to his native Kentucky and entered politics. He rose from city councilman to state senator, where he became minority leader. In 1986, the Republican was then elected to the U.S. House of Representatives before going on to become U.S. Senator in 1999. He served in that capacity until his retirement last year at the age of 80.
Jack Kemp – U.S. Congressman (1971-1989)
The only member of this list who’s no longer living, Kemp — who passed away in 2009 at the age of 73 – was a Hall of Fame quarterback with the Buffalo Bills, winning league MVP in 1965 and being named to seven Pro Bowls.
As a politician, the Republican called signals from a wide array of roles, starting out on the Ronald Reagan’s staff when he was governor of California. In 1971, Kemp was elected congressman of New York’s 39th district and remained in the House of Representatives until 1989 when George H.W. Bush tabbed him to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
In 1996, he made one last hurrah as a politician when Bob Dole named him his vice presidential candidate during the 1996 election.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.