Former Virginia Tech football star Aaron Rouse makes a quick rise in the General Assembly

In just his second session in Richmond, he now chairs a major committee and has tackled two key pieces of legislation — legalizing “skill” games and retail cannabis.

It’s not too far-fetched to say that Aaron Rouse’s career took an unexpected turn when the former NFL star decided to dedicate his life to public service. But to the Democrat from Virginia Beach, his quick ascent from his stint as a city councilman in his hometown to his election as a state senator is all part of a greater purpose. 

“I think everything has a season, and we’re all on God’s timing,” Rouse, 40, said in a recent interview at his office on the fifth floor of Richmond’s General Assembly Building. “That transition from a local level to state has helped me out tremendously, and it’s been a rather smooth process, I’m not just stepping into this blindly.”

And in Aaron Rouse’s world, football and politics really aren’t all that different; they at the very least intersect. 

“There is a tremendous crossover,” Rouse said, easing into the chair behind his desk. “What you find is that your priority goal is to win, it’s the same focus. We all have different backgrounds, different interests, perspectives, duties and responsibilities. But when we step on this field, we’re on the same team, and we are all shooting for the same goal. 

“The only difference is, in football I could hit people,” he said, chuckling. 

While Rouse isn’t the only professional footballer who sought out a political career after retirement — Napoleon Harris, a former linebacker for the Oakland Raiders, Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs, has served in the Illinois state Senate since 2013, for example — his remains a unique story in Virginia. 

A former defensive player for the Virginia Tech Hokies, the 6-foot-4 Rouse embarked on his NFL career in 2007, when the Green Bay Packers selected him in the third round of the draft. He later played brief stints for the New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals, as well as the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League, followed by one season for the Virginia Destroyers, another UFL team. 

During his four years at Virginia Tech, Rouse started off as a linebacker and later moved to the safety position. Bud Foster, the Hokies’ defensive coordinator during the early 2000s, remembers Rouse as “a big athletic guy” with a bright future. 

“Our first impression was this was going to be one of the elite football players in the state of Virginia,” Foster said in a phone interview. “He had a great junior season, and he hit a lull in his senior year, which happens sometimes. But that’s also a little bit of who he is, that’s part of his character. He buckled his chinstrap a little tighter and went to work.”

Foster said that Rouse always was “an everyday guy, he was always taking care of business,” on and off the field. “He was dependable, trustworthy and a guy you could count on. He is intelligent, he has all kinds of physical qualities, and I think these are the kind of qualities that led him toward where he is right now.” 

In 2018, Rouse was elected to the Virginia Beach City Council, where he served one term. After ending his bid for mayor during the early stage of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, Rouse announced in the spring of 2022 that he would run for the Virginia State Senate in the 2023 election. 

But after Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, was elected to Congress, Rouse became a candidate to succeed her in the January 2023 special election, during which he narrowly defeated Republican Kevin Adams, flipping the seat. 

One year later, as his second legislative session is underway, Rouse chairs the powerful Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, and he has sponsored high-profile legislation, including a proposal that would  create a marketplace for adult-use cannabis and another that would establish a regulatory framework and tax structure for skill games in Virginia.

Aaron Rouse in action for the Virginia Tech Hokies. Courtesy of Rouse.
Aaron Rouse (36) in action for the Virginia Tech Hokies. Courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Foster said he wasn’t surprised by his former player’s fast rise in the political landscape. “He made us really, really proud. He is kind of like one of our children, growing and developing, and moving forward and doing great things in the community.”

Rouse, Foster said, is stern and has strong beliefs. “Throw out Democrat and Republican, he will do what’s best for the people. He is going to be open-minded, but whatever he gets his mind set on, he’s going to accomplish it,” he said. 

“He is going to do his research, and he is going to be prepared and knowledgeable. I think he has grasped the responsibility of what it takes and the importance of being in this role, and he’s going to do the very best that he can to represent the citizens of the commonwealth.”

Rouse said that his time as a city councilman has prepared him for the job in Richmond. “I understand what it takes to get very important and heavy legislation through all the hurdles,” he said. He added that during his time on the council he was instrumental in helping to pass a pay increase for city workers, to expand the employment program and to pass a multimillion-dollar bond referendum.

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