Six days into the new year, Ray Schoenke, still physically formidable at 79 years old, sat down and turned on the television in the living room of the home in bucolic Laytonsville, Md., he has lived in for half a century. He and his wife, Nancy, had lived in the D.C. suburbs in the early days after moving from Dallas, but too often friendly neighbours would drop in unannounced, eager to talk about Schoenke’s workplace, which happened to be the offensive line of the local NFL franchise. Nancy soon had her fill of her hub humouring these self-invited guests, so the Schoenkes headed to, if not the country, a town in the country. In Laytonsville, they had a guest home, a swimming pool and a tennis court on their five acres; a place with a view of something more than a neighbour mowing his lawn, though sometimes it was a neighbouring farmer on a tractor.
These days, Schoenke’s son and two daughters are a short drive away and they drop by with their kids to check in on him, particularly since Nancy’s death last February and with his age putting him at higher risk during the pandemic. It has been an uneasy start to this last chapter of his life, the chapter without the woman who kept him grounded. With all he has been through, Nancy’s declining health, her passing, her absence in what was always their home, their American success story, he couldn’t imagine that too much could distress him to any real degree at this point.
Schoenke flipped to news coverage from the Capitol, a live feed of Vice President Pence’s certification of the electoral college vote before a joint session of Congress. He watched what were expected to be the ritual proceedings descend into mayhem. The Democratic Party on one side, the Republican Party on the other side, and what looked like an anarchic, insurrectionist tailgate party on the outside.
The images put Schoenke in a state. It wasn’t that the scene was playing out just 35 miles down I-270; for Schoenke, it hit even closer to home. He had come to play for the NFL team in Washington but stuck around for four decades to play the biggest game in D.C.: politics. “When I saw the mob heading over to the Capitol, I thought back to the ’60s when I marched on those streets against the war … peaceful protests, acting on our conscience,” he says. “Watching those rioters climbing through the windows of the Capitol and walking through the halls … I walked through those halls, and not on a tour. That’s where I’d go to talk to congressmen, to senators.”
Golf legend Bobby Jones, a co-founder of the Masters, said of Jack Nicklaus after a record-breaking win at Augusta: “He plays a game with which I’m not familiar.” Ray Schoenke walked away from politics just 10 years ago, but on that TV screen in his living room, he was watching a game with which he was both unfamiliar and deeply disturbed.
In the fall of last year, just days before the U.S. election, a couple of famous names from the 1970s stepped forward and in full-page newspaper ads endorsed the re-election of President Donald Trump. Circa 2021 we’re accustomed to the intersection of politics and sports. Still, the endorsements of Trump from Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Orr rocked fans. In his ad, which read much like Nicklaus’s, Orr said: “[I want] my grandchildren to know the America that I know … President Trump has delivered for all the American people, regardless of race, gender or station in life. That’s the kind of teammate I want.“
On January 6, 2021, Orr’s kind of teammate gave his best — if all too familiar and odious — Win One for the Gipper speech to supporters who minutes later crashed the Capitol, an attack that led to the deaths of a Capitol Police officer and four others, innumerable and still snowballing threats of violence upon elected officials, and dozens and maybe soon hundreds of arrests. In the words of Liz Cheney, the third-ranking member of Trump’s own party in the House of Representatives, he “summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack.” She and nine other Republican house members voted for Trump’s impeachment the week before his scheduled departure from the White House.
It’s unclear if there’s any endorsers’ remorse for the Golden Bear or Parry Sound, Ont.’s most famous son. Still, those sports legends who have supported a President who will come out so completely on the wrong side of history (one hopes), probably expect that they will be forgiven, that this will be forgotten, and it’ll be on to the next tournament, the next game. Ray Schoenke will tell them different, though, and he would know.
In his decades-long work on U.S. political campaigns Schoenke never endorsed such an unpopular president — say what you will about Jimmy Carter, but he came out ahead in the popular vote at least once. Schoenke had, however, respectfully protested an unpopular war — that was how he got involved in politics in the first place, working for George McGovern, the anti-war candidate in ’72. Though history would be pretty kind to the causes Schoenke threw himself into and the candidates he supported, the experiences taught him enough to offer a cautionary word to anyone who would step into the fray like he did — and Nicklaus, Orr and others have. “This stuff just doesn’t go away,” he says. “It sticks with you. I had [Hall of Fame quarterback] Johnny Unitas come over to me in an airport years later, saying, ‘You dirty f—ing pinko bastard.’
“You know [endorsements] put you out there. You better do your homework and know who you’re supporting and what they stand for because no one is going to listen to you if you try to say, ‘I didn’t know.’”
Ray Schoenke came by his political convictions early and earnestly. His is a life of privilege now but it was far from that coming up. He was born in a military hospital in Hawaii. His father, Ray “Snowshoes” Schoenke, was a military engineer and a star of the Army baseball and basketball teams back in the ’20s and ’30s, and his mother, Olivia, was a native Hawaiian who spoke no English until her teens. His family left for the mainland after Pearl Harbor and settled in Dallas, where he went to grade school. “I was a big kid for my age, overweight, sweet and nice and very non-combative, but the other kids in school called me ‘fat girl’ and then it was ‘half-assed n—–.’ In eighth grade, I ended up getting attacked by a bunch of them and I had to fight back and they backed off.… That introduced me to the whole thought of what racism was all about. Although I was very popular in the school, there are people who would judge you before they know you.”
When his parents moved back to Hawaii, Schoenke enrolled at Punahou, coincidentally the high-school alma mater of Barack Obama. “[Moving back] opened up a whole world about my Hawaiian heritage, which was just mind boggling,” Schoenke says. “This was a place where all races were together and they seem to co-exist in harmony — there were some issues, yes, but there was a different feeling toward races.”
Schoenke went on to major in history at SMU, where he played on the football team and was named an Academic All-American. After graduation in 1963, he landed with the Dallas Cowboys, who were then in transition from expansion doormats to contenders. As he tried to establish himself as an NFL player, Schoenke also looked beyond football. When combining the Cowboys and law school proved too ambitious, he pursued a career in the insurance business, trading on school connections and whatever celebrity an offensive lineman could muster. He had one foot on the field and another in the boardroom, and in both places he went behind what many fellow progressives considered enemy lines. “Dallas was a hotbed for conservatism,” he says. “I got into huge arguments with some [Cowboys] teammates who were arch conservatives, and I was totally on the left side. We would argue about politics. I was calling on businessman and particularly, some very successful people in Dallas who enjoyed me because of my football but didn’t like my politics and would tell me outright.”
The political, cultural and generational tempests sparked Schoenke’s engagement but it was the human tragedies that fuelled his activism. Half a century later he’s still shaken when asked about it. “When Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King got killed in ’68, I [could] no longer stand on the sidelines,” he says. “I had to get involved. I marched down to South Dallas and banged on the door of the Bethlehem Center, a Black community [organization] and said I wanted to help: ‘I’m a football player. I think I can help the kids in the sports programs.’ I decided, [to become] an activist. I’m going to stand up and take on tough issues.”
Schoenke began going into the offices of Dallas businessmen — white, conservative and not shy about criticizing his politics — and asking them to financially support the organizations and causes he worked on behalf of. “I would tell them, ‘I understand [our differences of opinion], but I need you to help me with this program in South Dallas,’” he says. “And they would turn around and give me money. So I found out that people might disagree with you, but if you had the courage to stand up, they would support you. And that just carried me over.”
The Cowboys cut Schoenke after he was injured in the summer of ’65, before what would have been his third NFL season. He was left at loose ends, at least as a lineman — the lone offer he had was a chance to play semi-pro ball with the Springfield Acorns of the Atlantic Coast Football League, three practices and a game a week with guaranteed shifts pumping gas on his off-day. Schoenke was so desperate to play that he entertained the idea, until Nancy stepped in and made an executive decision to politely pass. After a year out of the game, he signed contracts with Green Bay and then Cleveland, and didn’t stick with either. But then, at the start of the 1966 season, he got a call from Washington and with that the course of his career and life changed. Team owner Edward Bennett Williams described Schoenke as “the most intelligent athlete I’ve ever met.” Despite drawing Williams’s high praise and earning a starting spot in the lineup, it would take a couple of years before he felt confident enough in his place on the roster to move his family from Dallas.
Early in ’71, Schoenke walked into the office of George McGovern, the Senator from South Dakota, with an idea if not an appointment. In his four-and-a-half years with Washington, he’d earned a starting role and maintained his political convictions off the field, marching in opposition to the war, staying involved in grassroots community organizations like Bethlehem House and even taking a leading role in the founding of the Special Olympics, but he wanted to do more. McGovern had announced his intention to enter the race to be the Democratic candidate for the presidency, and polls showed that he was standing an uninspiring fifth in the race. The senator had an image issue — too reasonable, too conciliatory, too soft. He wanted to end the war in Vietnam but to voters he seemed incapable of stirring up enough emotion to fight for a peaceful withdrawal.
Schoenke opened with the uncomfortable truth and risked ending his involvement in the McGovern campaign after the introductions. “You have this reputation of being soft, a liberal, a socialist, but I know you’re a decorated military hero,” Schoenke said. “You were a fighter pilot in World War II. You’re a tough guy. You’re brave. Nobody knows your history, that’s the problem. Your story would be an asset for making your case against the war.”
Schoenke told McGovern and his advisors that he could help. “I’d like to put you beside some big pro football players,” he said. “They’re big and strong. The optics will help you with your image. I can help set this up.”
McGovern remembered that Bobby Kennedy had included two famous athletes in his entourage in ‘68: Olympic champion decathlete Rafer Johnson and Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Roosevelt Grier. (In fact, they had been backstage at the California primary victory party when Sirhan Sirhan shot and killed RFK, and they subdued the assassin.) “That’s not a bad idea,” McGovern told Schoenke. “Let’s try it.”
As the national chairman of the Athletes for McGovern Committee, Schoenke’s first recruits were two of the biggest, most fearsome defensive lineman in the game: Kansas City’s Buck Buchanan and Chicago’s George Seals. At six-foot-seven and 270 pounds, Buchanan would have cast a long and wide shadow over any politician, but the six-foot-three Seals only had an inch or two on McGovern. A winning photo op. The McGovern team knew they had hit on something.
In a matter of weeks, Schoenke became a fixture on the campaign, which was in its earliest stages, still months out from the first primaries. He networked and found NFL players at virtually every stop on the trail. He tapped his Washington teammates and convinced many to make appearances or at least sign a petition for the withdrawal from Vietnam. (“The quarterbacks weren’t up for it,” he says today, more as gentle teasing of their privilege and pay scale than criticism of their political choices.) McGovern continued to fly below the radar, rising but remaining a prohibitive underdog. Nonetheless, Schoenke was rubbing elbows with celebrities who backed the candidate and his push to get U.S. troops out of Vietnam, perhaps the most famous of them a brother-and-sister act, Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine. An appreciative McGovern would later write: “Ray was taking a chance because many of his insurance clients were against me [but] he always found time to work on things he believed in. He kept his faith in the democratic process and never gave up.”
In July of ’71, Schoenke had to leave the campaign and report to training camp, where he met George Allen, Washington’s new coach. Allen was an established NFL name, a former Coach of the Year with the Los Angeles Rams who could claim a career-long run of winning seasons. That much Schoenke knew, though he was skeptical in the beginning. “Allen was a rah-rah guy,” Schoenke says. “And he told us, ‘Before, it’s all over, I promise you, you guys will be jumping all around after games and cheering and singing.’ And I thought, ‘Man, no way. We’ve got veterans in the lineup. He’s bringing in a lot of players from the Rams. Man, no way are we going to be jumping around like kids.’ But that’s what happened. I was really excited about the team and that hadn’t happened a lot.”
What Schoenke didn’t know was that Allen was a fast friend of Richard Nixon, the President of the United States.
Nixon had attended Whittier College, a small Quaker school in Southern California, and had been a scrub on the varsity football team, which owned the singularly least intimidating nickname in the game, the Whittier Poets. Nixon didn’t get into games and only earned a letter in his senior year but that seemingly only intensified his love of the game. As Hunter S. Thompson described him in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, Nixon was “a goddamn stone fanatic on every facet of pro football.”
Nixon and Allen first crossed paths in the ’50s, when the future president returned to the Whittier campus for a fundraiser and met the young Allen, who was working miracles as coach of the Poets. They stayed in touch, and Allen’s splashy hiring in Washington was well-timed for Nixon, who was labelled by the media as “the Fan-in-Chief,” an image he embraced. Nixon’s first love was actually baseball — he was even an honorary member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. In ’71, though, MLB’s financially struggling Washington Senators were playing out the string before lighting out west to relaunch as the Texas Rangers. Football could fill the void for a politician in need of a home team.
Sports weren’t just a passion for Nixon, they were a tool his aides used to manage a politician prone to darkness. “When he was under a lot of stress in the White House … those on his team would say, ‘Get his mind off of things,” says Nicholas Sarantakes, a historian who has written about Nixon’s interest in sports. “Give him something sporty to do. Let him relax a bit.’ They’d get him on the phone with a coach or a sports star, a sportswriter like Shirley Povich at the Washington Post.”
The Nixon Presidential Library has archived many of those conversations with athletes and sportswriters, but those with George Allen almost certainly out-number the rest. It was only a matter of time before the President connected with Washington’s new coach. Nixon’s attendance at a game would be logistically difficult (and somewhat awkward because Edward Bennett Williams was a rare breed, a franchise owner who was a prominent Democrat). Meanwhile, Allen, probably the trailblazer when it came to the modern-day 24/7 approach to coaching, thought going to the White House would send the wrong message to his players — that he had time for a family or social life. That left only one option for an official visit: a practice.
It would have been just another too-long afternoon at Washington’s practice facility, just another bunch of drills in the humid steam bath that is the capital area every July. Nothing would have distinguished it. Nothing would have jumped out at all.
That went out the window, though, when a bunch of expressionless guys in dark suits walked in and pulled out their walkie-talkies on the sidelines. Soon after, amid the whistles and shouts, the hut-hut-huts and the percussive hits, the players on the field heard a sound that they never associated with practice: the whirring of helicopter blades. As it turned out, it was Marine One touching down outside the facility, and the helicopter’s selected passenger list included the 37th President of the United States.
Soon, there was Nixon in the flesh, standing on the sidelines, waving to George Allen. The coach brought the dreary proceedings to a halt to go over to the president.
Allen blew his whistle and called in the players. “Let’s get a picture with President Nixon,” he said. “Let’s go.” An official White House photographer was in attendance. Fresh and unbruised, the quarterbacks walked over right away. The veterans down in the trenches gathered themselves for a second, took deep breaths and thanked a merciful God for relief from their exhausting tedium.
Schoenke heard Allen’s whistle but listened to his conscience. Teammates knew he was a Democrat. They knew he had no love for the president who would stand in the middle of the impromptu team picture. Schoenke’s teammates watched and waited to see what he’d do — or what he wouldn’t do. And what he wouldn’t do, it turned out, was heed his coach’s call and pose with Nixon.
Schoenke had no record of insubordination. On the field, in the locker room, and in representing the team, he was more Boy Scout than rebel, selfless rather than selfish. Schoenke’s wasn’t a loud protest — he didn’t make a scene, didn’t demand equal time, didn’t heckle the president like 50 percent of Americans would’ve been tempted to, if Nixon’s approval ratings were to be trusted. No matter, the blowback was immediate. At the end of practice, when the players headed to the dressing room, offensive line coach Mike McCormack reamed out Schoenke. A tough guy from Cleveland’s great teams of the ’50s — one of the best in the league when linemen stayed on the field for 60 minutes, playing both ways — and an unabashed supporter of Nixon, McCormack had been gunning for Schoenke, unhappy about the press he had been getting from his role with McGovern.
“How dare you criticize our commander in chief?,” McCormack shouted.
“I thought that was my right,” Schoenke said.
“No, it isn’t,” McCormack growled.
The dialogue doesn’t fully capture the intensity of the moment: a shouting match between McCormack and Schoenke so intense it threatened to boil over into something physical. A fistfight was narrowly avoided but Schoenke was delivered the message that Allen wanted to see him in his office.
Schoenke was ready to explain his actions — with Nixon and McCormack. He was not ready for what Allen had to say. The coach didn’t ask any questions, and his reputation for being a good cop, a players’ coach, went by the boards when the door shut behind Schoenke. “It’s been brought to my attention that you’ve been disloyal to our team,” Allen said flatly.
Schoenke had stayed cool when his teammates posed for photos with Nixon and tried to keep his composure when confronted by McCormack but he lost it at that moment, momentarily dumbfounded by the accusation and then furious. He slammed down his helmet and shouted: “I got more loyalty in my little finger than half the guys out here. If you want to get rid of me and cut me, go ahead, do it. I dare you. But don’t cut me because of loyalty.”
Schoenke stormed out of Allen’s office and slammed the door behind him. His teammates gave him knowing looks, some laughed openly at him. Those he had recruited for McGovern’s campaign events kept their distance and some asked Schoenke, only half-jokingly, if he could take their names off the list of players opposing the war in Vietnam. “Needless to say they did not show a lot of courage,” Schoenke says. “They figured out, you know, I was history.”
In an afternoon, Schoenke had seemingly gone from starting guard to pariah. Everything had happened so unexpectedly, so quickly, that it took some time at his stall for it to sink in. Bad enough that he had challenged McCormack, far worse that he had dared Allen to cut him. Nobody’s job was that safe. His mind raced. “I thought, ‘Did I do something wrong?’” he remembers. “I thought I did the right thing and this was the price I was going to have to pay.”
Schoenke went home that night and broke the news to his wife that he was out of a job. He took his kids aside and told them that they might get teased at school because it was going to be in the newspapers that their dad was cut. He got on the phone with his older brother in St. Louis and his brother didn’t mince words. “You’re the dumbest kid that I’ve ever known,” he said. “When your head coach is friendly with the President of the United States, you don’t, as an employee, criticize the president. What are you thinking?”
The dreaded call — letting him know he’d been cut loose — didn’t come the next day nor the one after. A message was delivered the next practice, however: Schoenke was dropped as a starter. Seemingly, cutting him loose in training camp would have left the team in the lurch, so it stood to reason that management would phase him out in the fall and replace him in the off-season.
An uneasy peace settled between the team and the player, and stayed in place into the regular season. Under Allen, Washington took flight and landed in the playoffs, the first berth for the franchise in a generation. Schoenke’s role with the team grew larger with every game and he became a key player in the post-season. Washington made it to the playoffs as the wild card but lost to the San Francisco 49ers 24–20 in the first round. (Prompted by an assistant coach’s loose lips and sense of humour, the media breathed life into the story that Nixon sent in a play to Allen, an end-around to Roy Jefferson that resulted in that loss to the 49ers. “Never happened, purely apocryphal,” Schoenke says.)
Washington’s prospects for the ’72 season looked promising but Schoenke was sure that he was on what was effectively a time-release blacklist. He went to Allen when the players were packing up and gave him an ultimatum: “I’ll never be treated that way again. And I’m never going to play for you unless you give me a guaranteed contract,” Schoenke said. “Just count on me not [being] here until I hear from you.”
With that, he walked away.
Some funny things happened thereafter. If you’re at all acquainted with modern U.S. history, you know that some unfunny things happened, too.
Funny: Schoenke didn’t hear from the team all winter and spring and figured he was done, at least until the day Allen’s secretary called to say that there was a guaranteed contract for the upcoming season the seemingly shunned lineman needed to come in to sign. When they met, Allen vowed to Schoenke that he’d have a guaranteed contract on the table for as long as he wanted to play. “What I thought ended my career brought Coach Allen and I closer,” Schoenke says.
Funny: George McGovern went from polling in the single digits to winning the Democratic nomination and owned a lot of momentum in mid-summer, seemingly enough to give an incumbent president a stiff challenge.
Unfunny: The anti-Establishment candidate tried to appeal to the party centre by selecting Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri as his running mate, unaware of Eagleton’s history of treatments for depression, which would soon emerge in the press and devastate the Democrats’ campaign.
Unfunny: Despite his landslide victory over McGovern, Nixon found Watergate looming at year’s end. Hearings began in early ’73, setting in motion twists and turns that wound up with Nixon leaving the White House in disgrace, waving as he boarded the helicopter that had carried him to the football team’s practice.
Funny: Allen’s team made it all the way to the Super Bowl.
Unfunny: Washington lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins 14–7.
Funny: Washington’s single touchdown came on a late pick-6, an interception of the lone career pass attempt by Garo Yepremian, a Cypriot place-kicker.
Unfunny: The team’s fortunes fell off, what you’d expect. After all, on arrival, Allen had backed up his motto, “The Future Is Now,” by trading Washington’s first-rounder and most of its draft picks for veterans looking to squeeze out one last good season. The half-life of the core of an NFL roster is short but much shorter when your defensive unit is known as the “Over-the-Hill Gang.”
Funny: One day, when Nixon’s legacy was in tatters, Allen took Schoenke aside to tell him he had a pair of season tickets that he wanted to give to George McGovern. The blow-up over the Nixon photo op was a teachable lesson for both coach and player. “I give Coach Allen credit,” Schoenke says. “He realized he could let me be who I wanted to be and it had no effect on what I did on the field for him.”
Schoenke signed two more guaranteed contracts with Washington. When he told Allen that he intended to retire after the second, the coach saw to it that he got a big send-off with a press conference and plenty of praise from the team for his service. No one had reason to shed tears for Schoenke. “By that time I was earning more money from my insurance business than I was on the field,” he says. This, though, was not even remotely the end of his time on the scene in D.C. In fact, given the relative invisibility of offensive linemen and the spotlight on major political players in the U.S. capital, Schoenke might have become more prominent when he hung up his cleats.
A cold-call to George McGovern’s office had landed him an unlikely role in his first presidential campaign but by the start of the next election cycle he was both established and free of any scheduling conflicts with an NFL team. And the second campaign Schoenke worked on was a match for McGovern’s in many ways: a candidate coming from relative obscurity with a spotless record; a politician whose greatest virtue was hardly seeming like a politician at all. Jimmy Carter started with less national name recognition than McGovern had — “a peanut farmer from Georgia” was the derisive thumbnail. Still, his shrewd strategy, basically knocking on every door in Iowa ahead of the influential caucuses, was crucial to landing the Democratic nomination in a narrow win over Gerald Ford. On his second day in the White House in January ’76, Carter pardoned all those who evaded the draft, a belated slamming of the door on Vietnam, the issue that had motivated Schoenke to enter the political fray in the first place.
During Carter’s term, Schoenke had an office in the East Wing of the White House and he developed skills beyond recruiting celebrities from campaign events. Carter’s single term in office was star-crossed — the most memorable images of his presidency were long lines at the gas pumps and the siege at the U.S. embassy in Tehran — and his loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980 disheartened Schoenke no less than McGovern’s to Nixon. A record of 1–2 is a tough start to a football season but run-of-the-mill for a political career and by the mid-’90s Schoenke was fully prepared for larger roles in campaign politics.
Bill Clinton had a bit more buzz in the run-up to entering the race for the Democratic nomination and exponentially more skills at winning hearts and minds. When Schoenke signed with the Clinton campaign in ’91 he was considered a political veteran, a member of another Over-the-Hill Gang amid a bunch of youngbloods in the candidate’s soon-to-be-famous James Carville-led war room. “I was on a committee — I forget what committee it was, but clearly the chairperson didn’t like me and was really just disrespectful,” Schoenke says. “I was quite taken back by the treatment I got. I complained to campaign staffers and someone said, ‘Can you raise any money? Because money is what’s needed. That’s what really makes the world go around.’”
The ability to raise money is what separates insurance salesmen from former insurance salesmen and thus did Schoenke find his niche. He delivered for the Man from Hope, Ark., raising millions in campaign contributions. If the media didn’t place Schoenke in Clinton’s inner circle, he played a role more crucial than better-known names. “The first time I raised half a million dollars at a dinner, suddenly I became a big dog,” he said. “Clinton was very charitable to me. He reached out and invited Nancy and me to a lot of events. I’d take off with him. I had an offer to be undersecretary of the the interior, among other things. He even offered me the ambassadorship to New Zealand, which I turned down … which in hindsight was stupid. That would have been a great opportunity to see an amazing nation — as a [Hawaiian] Islander, it would have been such an enriching experience to become acquainted with the Maori people and their culture. I realized that too late when I finally went there.”
Schoenke turned down the assignment because he had ambitions of his own — in the late-’90s he entered the race to be governor of Maryland. He didn’t get out of the primary and he never again sought elected office. Tellingly, in contrast to his beginnings with McGovern, Schoenke didn’t ask any athletes to appear with him at public events and, in fact, a major plank in his platform was opposing public funding for a stadium for the Baltimore Ravens. “I didn’t want to be seen as the ex-player, so being around athletes would have been reinforcing the wrong idea,” he says. “I wanted to be something more than that. In the end, the Democratic voter spoke and for me it ended there.”
When Schoenke sat in his living room in Laytonsville, he saw what started out looking like a scene from the anti-war marches in the ’60s and ’70s evolve into something so much darker. “It was just unbelievable that [the rioters who broke into the Capitol building] could get in to be on the floor and be in the chair,” he says. “I was overwhelmed and frightened for this country. It was personal, too. I saw a Confederate flag carried in a hallway I walked in. I was in those offices [the rioters] broke into. I was in them often. I’ve been in the South. I know what that flag means. I know the deep feelings that are just below the surface.
“I know you’ve heard this, but if these were Blacks [rioting and breaking into the Capitol], you’d expect police to open their firearms [and] there’d be dead people everywhere,” he says. “[But on January 6] it just seemed like the police were putting their weapons aside. I live in a country where we like to think that we have law and order. Did [the rioters] violate laws? They did. They should have been arrested. But when you have a president leading the charge, that makes it more difficult … a president who just lost an election but still got 70-million votes…”
Schoenke’s voice trails off. Politics wasn’t an entirely gentlemanly art back when he marched on the streets of Washington with his wife and kids but there was relative decorum. When he campaigned for McGovern, his party was taking on a rule-breaker, in Nixon, who tapped phones and planted false slanders in the press but not one who expressed love for an insurrectionist mob and only much belatedly offered any sympathy at all for an officer on the Capitol Police who was over-powered and beaten to death by those who’d call themselves “patriots.” Schoenke’s memories of his coach, a close friend of one president, giving a rival candidate season tickets as a peace offering seem quaint, outdated in the nation’s current and toxically partisan culture wars.
A series of disappointments prompted Schoenke to walk away from politics: an unreturned call here, an empty promise there. In this century, he lost campaigning for John Kerry in 2004 and won with Obama in ’08, but then retreated to Laytonsville to care for Nancy when she fell ill. Since her death last year, there’s a terrible void — a test even for someone as relentlessly optimistic as Schoenke. And then on January 6, he watched this awful scene play out. “I sort of just shut down for a long time when Nancy was so sick but since February of last year, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do,” he says. “Do I want to get back in, to get on the front lines again? Can I do anything? It’s a real question. Am I now in a generation that should try to help and maybe support rather than lead the charge? I’m debating it. I certainly have the time, the money and hopefully the energy to get out there and start swinging.”
Left unstated the fact that Ray Schoenke is just a year older than the man who will place his hand on a bible and take his oath of office behind forbidding barricades. Getting back into the game will doubtlessly be a challenge, but he won’t lack for confidence and true belief. It was about the cause, never just about the winning. That’s where the loyalty has always kicked in.
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