When long-time Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne retired, he was bugged by a desire to remain active.
John Ensign, a Las Vegas veterinarian, felt a little pressure from Bill Clinton.
Sheriff Dave Reichert had chased robbers and serial killers in King County, Wash., long enough that he wanted to take on new challenges.
Rush Holt, a physicist at Princeton University, mastered plasma physics, but he couldn’t figure out Newt Gingrich.
The rumblings these four men felt were similar, and each found the same outlet: they ran for Congress.
“I thought I was going to follow politics as just a citizen,” Holt said.
Today, the four – Osborne, Reichert and Holt in the House of Representatives and Ensign in the Senate – are on a short list of members of Congress who never expected to be there, but now stand out from the lawyers, business leaders and career politicians who crowd the Capitol’s halls.
More than 40 percent of the 109th Congress consists of lawyers. Many members come from business, and more than half served as state legislators.
Meanwhile, Osborne, a Republican, is the only college football coach. Holt, a Democrat, is one of two physicists. Ensign, a Republican, is one of two veterinarians. Reichert, a Republican, is one of three sheriffs.
Senate Historian Richard A. Baker credits television as the tool allowing those outside the legal profession to enter politics.
“Over the last 30 or so years, an ambitious veterinarian or heart transplant surgeon can jump past all that. It makes the system more accessible to a wider range of backgrounds,” Baker said. “Some spark plug can get up there and say, ‘It’s time to change things in Washington, and I’m the one to do it.’ ”
Osborne, Ensign, Reichert and Holt all cited the motivation to make a difference that sparks most politicians, but the transition can be a challenge.
Ensign, who ran a 24-hour animal hospital in Las Vegas before being elected to the House in 1994 and the Senate in 1998, likened campaigning to selling insurance.
“Nobody gave me a chance,” he said. “My parents didn’t think I could win. I don’t know if any of my friends thought I could win. I’m not totally convinced I thought I could win.”
Reichert, well-known in the Seattle area for the investigation and capture of the Green River serial killer, said he has had to adapt to new surroundings in his first few months in Congress.
“To me it’s like walking into a bar fight. As a police officer, when I walked into a bar fight, or a domestic violence call, the first thing I’d do is walk in and just kind of look around a little bit,” he said. “You’re not going to jump into the middle of a bar fight not knowing who the good guys are. So you’ve got to figure out where everybody is first.”
The four congressmen said their backgrounds have given them an edge on certain legislative topics. Osborne often works on education reform. Ensign pays special attention to health care. Reichert said his experience translates well to homeland security. Holt, meanwhile, takes on an array of science legislation.
Reichert has been nicknamed “Sheriff” among his colleagues, but he, Osborne, Ensign and Holt all said their pre-Congress careers have never left them pigeonholed as one-dimensional.
“At first, when you arrive, people look at you as a football coach,” said Osborne, who retired with a 255-49-3 career record, “but after a short time people are interested in how you look at issues. People start looking at what you do as a congressman, and being a football coach isn’t as important.”
That a man who spent his life in football _ a mere game, some might say _ became a member of Congress is a testament to the representative structure of the body, even if it is a bit lawyer-heavy. Regardless of background, everyone can participate.
“I often ask school students when they come to visit in Washington, ‘What’s the greatest invention in history?’ and they, knowing that I’m a scientist, usually come up with various technical suggestions,” Holt said. “I say it’s our system of government. I really think it’s an ingenious invention.”
Other members of Congress who had careers outside the norm include Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, of Tennessee, and Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., who are surgeons. Rep. John Hostettler, R-Ind., is a mechanical engineer. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., hosted a radio talk show.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., worked in microbiology. Reps. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., and Terry Everett, R-Ala., owned newspapers. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., is a physicist.
Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., is a veterinarian, and Reps. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, and Tim Holden, D-Pa., are former sheriffs.