Heard on the Hill

That congressional intern? He might play in the NFL

NFL player’s association continues off-season externship program for sixth year

NFL safety Michael Thomas, seen here during his Capitol Hill externship in 2018, returned in 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Internships can put you in some tight spaces, even if you’re a lineman.

Now in its sixth year, the NFL Players Association’s externship program gives football pros a chance to explore other careers during the off season — including in the basement recesses of Capitol Hill.

Among the 2019 participants was Ryan Hunter, an offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs who just finished up his rookie year in the NFL. A pre-law graduate of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, he had his eye on an internship at the Justice Department. But he decided to come to Congress instead.

“I kind of sat back and wondered if this was what I wanted to do,” Hunter said. Then he realized he could learn from some very smart lawyers on the Hill. “Most of them graduated from law school — from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Georgetown.”

He ended up working for Sen. Josh Hawley, the freshman Republican from Missouri who ran for office while serving as his state’s attorney general.

“I figured working with someone who has been a high-profile attorney working on huge cases, as well as being a freshman senator, was a great opportunity,” Hunter said. “And you know, the Missouri connection with the Chiefs never hurts either.”

Of course, working for a freshman senator is not exactly glamorous, as they spend their first months working in makeshift office space.

“We were in the basement of Dirksen Senate building, so we didn’t have the nice offices” that veteran senators have, Hunter said. “There were 20 or 30 of us crammed in these three little rooms, just working all day, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., pretty much. But it was nice to see the way the government works, as opposed to the way it’s portrayed in the media.”

All told, 66 players took part in the externship program this year, with placements across business and politics, including a handful in congressional offices on both sides of the Hill.

Brandon Parker, communications manager for the NFLPA, said the Congress connection is possible in part because the union has its base of operations in Washington, D.C.

It’s part of the broader effort to make sure that players are ready for life after football.

“It’s easy to think that a guy is making millions of dollars, even though the average player is making more so in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Parker said in an interview. “To the average American, yes, that’s a lot of money, but once that paycheck stops ... in your late 20s or 30s … how do you make that money go much longer, or how do you extend yourself to know that life just doesn’t stop when you stop playing football?”

Hunter said the internship, which ended March 8, gave him a new appreciation for the work done by congressional staffers.

“These people work harder than anyone I think I’ve ever seen in my life. They’re in meetings every 20, 30, 40 minutes, they’re always researching different policies,” Hunter said. “[The senator] trusts and believes in these people that work for him to be his voice.”

And Parker said the union wants that expanded appreciation to work both ways.

“The biggest thing we want people to understand as a union is that these guys are workers that have working rights and deserve the same benefits and rights that any other American worker does,” Parker said. “These guys have passions and interests, and they do a lot to pour back into the communities that they play in front of all the time.”

The program has been so popular with players that it can even attract repeat customers. Michael Thomas, a New York Giants safety, returned for a second year with Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.

“Michael Thomas has been really big in social justice reform,” Parker said. “We try to pair the players with congresspeople that have those similar interests or work on committees that cater to that.”

“After interning last year, I was like, I got to come back, because I saw firsthand what she’s doing,” Thomas said of the congresswoman in an interview with CBS News. “A lot of things that we were fighting for, from criminal justice reform, bail reform, education, reentry with juvenile detentions and stuff like that, she’s already had bills written.”

From the archives: NFL player externs on the Hill

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