As an offensive lineman in the National Football League for a dozen years, Ray Schoenke succeeded on the gridiron. He was named to the Washington Redskins’ 50th anniversary greatest team.
But even as he played, he knew there was more to life than football.
He started working part time in the insurance business while playing. A few years after retiring from football, he formed his own insurance business that grew into a multimillion-dollar enterprise with Fortune 500 clients.
He was politically active in Democratic politics, chairing Athletes for McGovern in 1972 during his playing days and running for Maryland governor in 1998. He also was active in community groups, such as the Special Olympics, becoming its mid-Atlantic director.
His time away from the football field sometimes led to confrontations with coaches. He and the late Hall of Fame Redskins coach George Allen “clashed because of my political involvement,” said Schoenke, 72, speaking at his 5-acre spread in Laytonsville. He has a bee farm, basketball and tennis courts and a pool hidden from a two-lane road by a generous natural wall of trees and shrubs. “But he figured out how to deal with me. ... I learned a lot from him and other coaches like Vince Lombardi about how to motivate people and get them to perform their best in some pressurized situations.”
Schoenke is one of five leaders who will be inducted Oct. 29 as the second class of the Montgomery County Business Hall of Fame. The event at The Universities of Shady Grove will include an address by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.
Other honorees are Sol Graham, CEO of Quality Biological; John S. Hendricks, executive chairman of Discovery Communications; Carmen Ortiz Larsen, CEO of Aquas Inc.; and James A. Soltesz, CEO of Soltesz Inc.
Schoenke has demonstrated a high level of activity and leadership in the Montgomery County business community, said Lawrence N. Rosenblum, chairman of the hall of fame program and a partner with accounting and consulting firm Grossberg Co. LLP. His company and Monument Bank co-founded the program, which raises money for student scholarships.
Born in Hawaii, Schoenke eventually moved with his family to Texas, where he graduated from Weatherford High School and was an all-state lineman. At Southern Methodist University, he earned a history degree and was an academic All-American. He was drafted by both the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL and the AFL’s Oakland Raiders in 1963.
The SMU Lettermen’s Association awarded him the Silver Anniversary Mustang Award in 1999 for his community contributions. “Mr. Schoenke’s achievements speak for themselves. His efforts and civic activities made him a perfect candidate for our award,” said Brad Sutton, a spokesman for the SMU athletic department.
While some professors encouraged him to go to grad school, Schoenke said he couldn’t leave the gridiron then. “My dream was to play professional football,” he said.
Schoenke played under another Hall of Fame coach, the late Tom Landry, in Dallas, then was released after two seasons.
In 1966, he landed with the Redskins, launching a decade-long career that included an NFC title and a Super Bowl appearance against the undefeated Miami Dolphins.
“I give a lot of credit to Tom Landry for firing me,” Schoenke said, describing Landry as “very serious.” “It was one of the best things that happened to me. It showed me how short life can be in the NFL.”
When, as a Redskin, he faced the Cowboys, Schoenke gave something extra. “I got a lot of game balls against Dallas,” he said.
By the 1970s, Schoenke was making some key business contacts. He launched Schoenke & Associates, an insurance brokerage, in 1978. “By the time I retired from football, I was making about twice as much from working part time in business than I did with the NFL,” he said.
In 1975, the average NFL salary was about $50,000; today it is around $2 million.
His company was based in Montgomery County and recruited employees locally, while adding offices in Dallas, St. Louis and Honolulu. National accounts included MCI, MBNA, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Marriott International, and Norfolk and Southern Corp.
“Other people knew more than me in certain areas,” Schoenke said. “But I wasn’t afraid to take risks in a high-risk business. I was good at the first-time meeting when you only had five minutes to make an impression.”
In 1998, he sold the 45-employee business to Dallas-based Clark/Bardes Holdings in a $17 million deal. Schoenke & Associates was “known in the industry for their creativity and world-class services,” said former Clark President Mel Todd.
“To build a national firm and work with some of the biggest corporations in the country, it was a great ride,” Schoenke said.
Schoenke liked football and business, but said his “real love was politics.” He had long been active in Democratic Party politics as a donor to candidates and an activist for the likes of George McGovern and Jimmy Carter.
In 1998, he thought former Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening wasn’t doing enough to further the business climate and educational opportunities, and ran against him.
He spent about $2 million of his own money on the campaign, but dropped out a few months before the primary after not seeing much progress in polls. “I realized there was a lot more to it than I had imagined,” Schoenke said. “I pulled out and endorsed the governor.”
He later founded the American Hunters and Shooters Association, which he saw as a bridge between urban liberals and rural gun owners. The organization hosted numerous events in support of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
He also got involved when NFL owners locked out players in 2011 and worked for better benefits for older players who have not benefited from today’s much higher salaries.
Schoenke is dealing with the aftermath of a recent fire that gutted a home on his land. The blaze leveled the home, but he recovered a few remnants, like a bronze statue of him leading former Redskins running back Larry Brown downfield.
“It charred the piece, but I may leave it like that and not restore it,” Schoenke said. “It shows the grittiness of the era I played in.”