North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
Quarterbacks traditionally wear jersey numbers in the single digits or teens. Heath Shuler was an exception. The talented passer from Bryson City wore No. 21 during his days at Swain County High School and the University of Tennessee, a choice that helped him stand out in a crowd.
Not that he needed any help getting noticed.
Shuler threw for 7,098 yards and 103 touchdowns in his prep career, leading Swain County to a 40-5 record and three consecutive Class 1A state championships. He amassed 3,626 yards in his senior season of 1990 that ended with him throwing four touchdown passes in his final game with the Maroon Devils, a title-clinching 40-14 route of Robersonville Roanoke.
Although he was born and raised in North Carolina, Shuler grew up a Tennessee fan because of his hometown’s proximity to Knoxville and his ability to listen to the Volunteers games on the radio. So when it came time to go to college, there was little doubt which way he would go when he came down from the Great Smoky Mountains.
After spending his freshman year with the Vols as a backup, he took over the starting job in 1992 and made an immediate impact by leading a last-minute game-winning scoring drive to beat Georgia on the road.
It was a performance that catapulted Shuler to star status, and he set several school passing records that were ultimately surpassed by Peyton Manning. He threw for 2,354 yards and 25 scores as a junior in 1993, helping Tennessee to a 9-2-1 record and finishing second to Florida State’s Charlie Ward in the Heisman Trophy voting.
“There have been many elite football players in the University of Tennessee’s history, but Heath Shuler ranks among our very best,” coach Phil Fulmer said. “He was ahead of his time as a quarterback, excelling as both a passer and a rusher. His toughness always stood out, and he was a terrific leader.”
Shuler left school following his junior season and was picked by the Washington Redskins with the third overall pick. But his NFL career got off to a rocky start when he held out for the majority of his first pro training camp. And things went downhill from there. He started for two unsuccessful seasons before being benched in favor of Gus Frerotte, then he was sent to New Orleans along with his seven-year, $19.25 million contract.
A decade after he retired from football in 1997, Shuler reemerged in the national spotlight as a U.S. congressman representing the same Swain County district in which he grew up from 2007-13.