Josh Kendall

Political Football: Former college QBs are coveted campaign partners

On Wednesday night in Chapin, Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio picked up the most coveted endorsement in Columbia. Also, the governor of South Carolina backed Rubio.

Maybe that’s an overstatement, but in the state of South Carolina it’s only a slight one. In case you haven’t noticed, out state is starting to swell with a very Southern phenomenon -- the ex-quarterback-favored-son-turned-political-endorser.

Connor Shaw entered the race Wednesday. The winningest quarterback in University of South Carolina history introduced Rubio at an event in Chapin. Rubio’s campaign trumpeted Shaw’s appearance and endorsement earlier in the day with an email to media members that referenced “USC football legend Connor Shaw.”

Legend? Well, yeah probably. Shaw won 27 games as the Gamecocks starting quarterback from 2010-2013, presiding over the most sustained success in the school’s history and becoming an undeniable star in a state that has no professional idols like Cam Newton to suck up all the celebrity air space.

It may be only in South Carolina where a person who’s only old enough to be voting in his second presidential election and whose bona fides thus far have been earned exclusively while wearing shoulder pads can be a powerful campaign presence, but there was Shaw on Wednesday, being cheered by a large crowd as he welcomed Rubio and Governor Nikki Haley to the stage.

“I was nervous,” said Shaw, now with the Cleveland Browns. “I don’t think I get that nervous for football games.”

Shaw spent 15 minutes privately with Rubio prior to Wednesday night’s event and then went over the talking points for his short speech with a Rubio campaign manager.

“He’s a big football fan,” Shaw said of Rubio. “It was really cool.”

Shaw is the second ex-quarterback to hit the campaign trail this month. Former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, who helped kick start Dabo Swinney’s turnaround with the Tigers, has been at several events with Ohio governor and presidential hopeful John Kasich.

Both Shaw and Boyd were approached by the campaigns of their respective candidates, and neither handed out their endorsement lightly, they said. Shaw picked Rubio chiefly because of how outspoken he is about his Christian faith and his foreign policy plan, Shaw said. Boyd was drawn to Kasich by his promise to move power from the federal government to state governments, Boyd said.

For the campaigns, it’s a no-brainer – latch onto a former college hero in a state where former college heroes have a lofty position on the social totem pole. Shaw spent 45 minutes after Rubio’s Wednesday night talk signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans, including two young fans who asked him to “dab” for the photograph.

“That’s the first time I’ve done that,” he said.

When Boyd was added to a Kasich event at a Mauldin BBQ restaurant, the RSVPs for the speech quickly went from 200 to nearly 500, Boyd said.

“I was like, ‘That’s big,’ ” Boyd said. “I knew I had a little bit of pull, but I thought, ‘Let’s see how much pull I’ve got.’ I embrace the South Carolina people and hold them in high regard, and I think they do the same with me.”

Kasich’s tabbing of Boyd was a wise move politically given that he needs all the upstate votes he can get and that the governor of Ohio could hardly cozy up to a Southeastern Conference guy and expect to be welcomed back to the heart of Big Ten country when the presidential race is complete.

Pitting an orange endorsement against a garnet one is always a good talking point in the Palmetto State anyway. It’s honest-to-goodness political football.

“Absolutely, it gets you geared up,” Boyd said of the chance to compete against Shaw even if it’s indirectly. “I think it’s good for the state. I really like Connor and respect his opinion. I think it’s good because it shows you are more than a football player because ultimately we are more than that.”

Especially in South Carolina. Donald Trump brought several Iowa football players on stage with him during a January rally in Iowa City before that state’s caucuses but didn’t get much bump out of the move, finishing second behind Ted Cruz, but this is the SEC, where the blessing of the hometown gridiron star is just short of papal.

Nick Saban could probably get Alabamans to vote overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders (although Saban feels more like a Trump guy).

Shaw doesn’t expect to take up a career in politics at any point, he said (“But I never saw myself in the football position I am in right now either,” he added.), but Boyd would like to run for office “five or 10 years down the line,” he said. Both players are Greenville residents, so if Shaw changes his mind the Greenville mayoral race could be interesting in a few years.