On September 14, former Buffalo Bills tight end Jay Riemersma announced he was running for Congress in Michigan. He joins a group of former Bills who have gone on to political careers, headlined by late AFL-era quarterback Jack Kemp and featuring '80s nose tackle Fred Smerlas.
I asked Riemersma in an interview for Buffalo Rumblings about the number of former Bills who have gone on to politics.
"I don't think that there's a huge leap between playing professional football and going into the realm of politics," said Riemersma. "I think that the leadership and the discipline, the understanding on how to unify people whether it be in a locker room setting with guys from different races, ethnicities, backgrounds, worldviews, agendas, and frankly large egos, I think that that translates very well to what you have to do in Congress. Certainly you have different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, worldviews, and I think there's a few egos in Washington, D.C., too. I think anybody who is a proven leader, who has a way to rally the troops, so to speak, and get some things done is somebody that can ultimately make a difference in politics."
He continued comparing football and politics, telling me that being an upstanding citizen and teammate translates well to the political arena.
"Probably more than anything else, having your teammates respect you as a quality character person as well as just a hard working guy, I think are attributes that will bode well in the realm of politics."
The seed of a political run was planted while Riemersma was still attending the University of Michigan.
"I've been friends with Congressman (Pete) Hoekstra, who is currently running for Governor here in the state of Michigan, and actually I'm looking to replace him and his seat. We have maintained a relationship over the years, and he gave me one of my first speaking engagements when I was still in college. Politics has always been in the back of my mind, but I didn't know how I was going to get involved, but certainly this is a tremendous opportunity."
Riemersma was drafted 244th overall in the seventh round of the 1996 NFL Draft by the Bills from the University of Michigan. He began his college career as a quarterback, but in 1994 suffered a rotator cuff injury and was forced to switch positions to tight end. He has drawn on that experience of changing positions and overcoming adversity in his political life.
"Certainly as a quarterback and certainly facing the adversity of having to make the transition from quarterback to tight end is definitely [something I draw on.]"
On his website, Riemersma's message is based heavily around his football experience. His first political ad is entitled "Time for a Pro" and features a referee. He has videos of himself speaking at a rally for Tim Tebow, and of former Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr speaking on his behalf. He also mentions his Hall of Fame coach with the Bills in the biographical section of his website.
"I think [Marv Levy] was a tremendous motivator, and he knew how to handle people. I think that there's a good way to handle people and an incorrect way of handling people, and he just had a way of pushing the right buttons to get people excited about the direction that the Buffalo Bills were heading, as well as the team was heading, and probably more importantly your involvement as an individual player in that whole team concept. He was a great motivator."
Coach Levy also plays an important role in Riemersma's fondest memory as a Buffalo Bill. It was Riemersma's second year as a Bill, and his first on the active roster. He was playing in only his fourth career game when the Colts jumped out to a 26-0 lead. The Bills tallied two scores right before the half to lessen the deficit to 16 at the half.
"One of my fondest memories is we were blessed to be a part of the third-greatest comeback in NFL history at the time, against the Colts at home. I remember how down we were at halftime, and I can always remember Marv Levy using this quote: 'Character, not circumstance, defines the person.' It's an old Booker T. Washington quote, and I remember it well because at the time I was playing and didn't know where he got that quote from, but I've looked it up since. 'Character, not circumstance, defines the person.' What he was saying was I don't care how far we're down, we're just gonna go out there and scrap and fight and try to come back as much as we can. On that given day, it ended up being a great comeback. Those are lessons I've been able to carry on in my life, and hopefully will instill those into my kids."
I also made the mistake of asking him about some of his other memories as a Bill, even mentioning the playoff loss to the Titans from January of 2000. I was only halfway through my question when I heard him let out a groan.
"Oh, you had to bring that one up, huh?" Riemersma questioned mournfully.
Even with disappointing playoff losses, Riemersma realizes how lucky he truly was to not only play football at Michigan, but also overcome his injury and continue on with his football career as a Wolverine, Bill, and ultimately as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He also knows that the virtues he possessed to become successful in the NFL are also what make people in every line of work successful.
"In my life experience and just an average guy from a small town given the greatest opportunity to play for some of the greatest fan bases in Buffalo and Pittsburgh. This is an unbelievable country, and I believe in the American idea of discipline and hard work, being a true man of character, integrity, and those are the things that I am messaging on in this campaign and they seem to be resonating with people."
One of the merits of Buffalo that Riemersma continuously trumpeted throughout the interview was the working class mentality the city showcases. It's part of his political message to potential voters, and why he feels he is ready to lead as a member of the House of Representatives.
"It's a blue-collar town with great people that respect discipline and hard work, character and integrity. Those are the kinds of things that I tried to emulate out there when I finally got an opportunity to don that uniform."
During his time in Buffalo, Riemersma started 65 games at tight end, playing in a total of 90. He is the last Bills tight end to catch more than 50 balls in a season (53 in 2001), and his 204 receptions and 2,304 receiving yards are second in team history at the tight end position to Pete Metzelaars. He also scored 23 touchdowns. When told of his selection as the tight end of the 2000s by Buffalo Rumblings with a 92% approval rating, he was floored. I asked him if it'd be nice to win his Congressional seat by such a wide margin.
"Yeah. If we do that, we would be thrilled. That's incredible. I'm honored and I'm humbled. I think it speaks to the guys I played with. You know, I was just a guy that fit well in a system, and I really had an honor and a privilege to represent the Buffalo Bills. I'm honored and very humbled."
An Achilles injury forced him to retire following the 2004 season. He moved back to Michigan and began coaching high school football at his alma mater, Zeeland High. An interesting conversation broke out when I asked him about his former Michigan and Buffalo teammate Todd Collins and still playing in the NFL.
"I know [he's still playing]. It's ridiculous. [laughs] He's done fantastic. I can't [imagine playing now]. All I'm doing nowadays is knocking doors, walking several miles a day, and that about all my knees can take."
Riemersma feels blessed to have played at the highest levels of football despite some of the injuries he's had to endure.
"You play nine years in the NFL, there are certainly things you wish felt better. I wouldn't trade my experience for the pain that I have now. Any of those experiences and more than anything else my teammates. They were great guys to play with, as well as great fan bases wherever we went, and it was just a tremendous joy and a privilege to play in front of great crowds."
Riemersma is running for Congress in his home state of Michigan's second district. He included information on his campaign and a final note for fans of his career in his parting shot.
"People can continue to follow me at VoteJR.com and get updates on how we're doing. More than anything else, I just remember the good fans in Buffalo and Pittsburgh and when I was playing at the University of Michigan. There's a lot of really great people out there that really take their team serious, and those are memories that'll last a lifetime."