When one remembers the name “Joe Theismann,” memories of his gruesome career-ending injury in 1985 suddenly come to mind.
An all-out blitz that had New York Giants pass rusher Lawrence Taylor landing awkwardly on Theismann’s lower right leg in the fall of 1985 resulted in one of the most gruesome sights on an NFL gridiron.
Despite the harrowing end to Theismann’s 12-year NFL football career, he remains one of the best quarterbacks in Washington Redskins franchise history.
Theismann, the 1983 NFL MVP, racked up 25,206 passing yards and 160 touchdown passes during his memorable tenure in Washington.
With Theismann under center, the Redskins played some of their best football in the early 1980s. It was a run that culminated in a Super Bowl trophy following the strike-shortened 1982 NFL season.
Truly, Joe Theismann was one of the pillars behind Washington’s resurgence in the 1980s.
Joseph Robert Theismann was born to parents Joseph and Olga in New Brunswick, NJ on September 9, 1949.
Theismann has a mixed European heritage. His father Joseph is Austrian while his mother Olga is Hungarian.
The elder Joseph Theismann ran an Esso gas station seven days a week. He also helped run his brother’s liquor store. On the other hand, Olga worked for Johnson & Johnson.
Theismann attended South River High School in South River, NJ. He excelled in baseball, basketball, and football for the South River Rams. Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame wide receiver Drew Pearson was his teammate on the Rams football squad.
Joe didn’t watch college football on Saturday afternoons during his formative years in the Garden State. Instead, he was busy throwing footballs at a tire he had hung from a goalpost at his high school.
Either that or he threw footballs with his dad in their front yard. If his dad had work commitments, he threw with his mother. Theismann told Sports Illustrated’s Ray Kennedy in the fall of 1980 that she had one heck of a throwing arm.
On #NationalJoeDay, we must recognize NJSIAA and @NFHS_Org Hall of Famer Joe Theismann, a South River legend who starred as a QB at Notre Dame and with the Washington Redskins, where he was a NFL MVP and Super Bowl champ. @Theismann7 pic.twitter.com/EXAGe9ecq3
— NJSIAA (@NJSIAA) March 27, 2019
Flipping the Script
Joe Theismann never backed down from a challenge. When he was a scrawny, 5’10”, 148-lb. quarterback in his senior year, he had already intended to commit to the North Carolina State Wolfpack.
North Carolina State’s nuclear reactor piqued his interest because, when he was in high school, he wanted to become a nuclear engineer.
However, Theismann was skimming through the sports pages one day and found an article saying he would get killed if he played for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Theismann was livid. He decided to commit to Notre Dame right there and then.
Fast forward some four years later, Theismann would set 23 school records for the Irish. It was ironic considering Theismann, a Methodist, had no inkling to go to Notre Dame—one of the most renowned Catholic schools in the country.
Joe Theismann was just getting started. He left New Jersey after his high school days and helped resurrect one of the best college football programs in the country at the turn of the 1970s decade.
College Days with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Joe Theismann attended the University of Notre Dame from 1968 to 1970. He majored in sociology and eventually graduated with a B average. Ironically, Theismann is a slow reader who detests reading, per Kennedy.
Theismann suited up for Ara Parseghian’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team for three seasons.
As soon as Theismann set foot on South Bend, IN soil for his first scrimmage in the summer of 1968, he ran into six other quarterback hopefuls who all stood at least 6’4″. Theismann, who stood 6’0″ tall, remained undaunted.
“I decided that very day I was going to be the best of the bunch and the best in Notre Dame history,” Theismann told Sports Illustrated some twelve years later.
Theismann also experienced a life-changing moment as soon as he met Notre Dame sports information director Roger Valdiserri in 1968.
When Valdiserri summoned Theismann into his office before the latter’s true freshman season, he asked him how he pronounced his surname.
The freshman Irish quarterback from New Jersey replied, “Thees-man.”
Valdiserri told him it wasn’t the case anymore. From that point onward, his surname would rhyme with “Heisman.” Hence, the “Joe Thighs-man” era had officially begun, per Sports Illustrated.
The re-christened signal caller took over the quarterbacking reins from the injured Terry Hanratty late in the 1969 NCAA campaign.
Got this letterman banner as a gift. It’s just terrific. All of that history . It is truly one of a kind pic.twitter.com/WEZt763Jxz
— Joe Theismann (@Theismann7) June 18, 2018
After passing for 451 yards, two touchdowns, and five picks in 1968, Theismann had 1,531 passing yards, 13 touchdown passes, and 16 interceptions a season later.
The Irish went 8-2-1 in Parseghian’s sixth season as head football coach in 1969. Unfortunately, ninth-ranked Notre Dame lost to the top-ranked Texas Longhorns in the 1969 Cotton Bowl, 21-17.
Cotton Bowl Redemption
The legend of Joe Theismann grew as college football ushered in a new decade in 1970.
One of Theismann’s best memories as Irish starting quarterback was his scintillating 526-yard performance in Notre Dame’s 38-28 season-ending loss to their bitter rivals, the USC Trojans, on November 28, 1970.
Despite the sorry loss, Theismann set a new school record for passing yardage (526) and completions (33) in a single game.
Fortunately, better things were in store for Theismann and Irish in their rematch with Texas in the 1970 Cotton Bowl.
Theismann had three touchdowns in the first 17 minutes of the game. Notre Dame went on to win 24-11 and end Texas’s 30-game unbeaten streak.
Joe Theismann became a First-Team All-American following the 1970 NCAA season. He finished second to Stanford Cardinals quarterback Jim Plunkett in the Heisman Trophy voting that year.
Theismann concluded his three-year tenure with the Irish with 4,411 passing yards, 31 touchdowns, and 35 interceptions.
Toward the end of Theismann’s college football career in South Bend, he met his first wife, Shari Brown.
One of his teammates told him a beautiful blonde—Theismann’s weakness—worked as a secretary in Notre Dame’s sports information department.
Theismann took his word for it and eventually had someone take publicity photos with Brown every day. The two were married in Theismann’s senior season.
Joe Theismann made good on his promise to become one of the best signal callers in Notre Dame football history.
Theismann eventually established an enduring legacy as quarterback of the Washington Redskins in his 12-year NFL career.
Regrettably, that promising career would end resoundingly following one of the most controversial moments on the pro gridiron.
Pro Football Career
The Miami Dolphins selected Joe Theismann as the 99th overall selection of the 1971 NFL Draft.
Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Minnesota Twins drafted Theismann in the 39th round that year.
By the time Theismann was about to enter the pro football ranks, he was 21 years old and weighed 177 pounds. He told Sports Illustrated nine years later many teams passed on him because of his size.
The Dolphins saw something in Theismann that made them draft him in the fourth round. They envisioned him backing up starter Bob Griese.
However, Theismann wanted to take the field right away. Since he didn’t have that opportunity in Miami, he took his act north of the border and signed with the Canadian Football League’s (CFL) Toronto Argonauts.
Theismann told Kennedy in 1980 that Canadian immigration authorities stamped “entertainer” on his visa.
In that regard, he had always wanted to work in the entertainment industry—particularly television, movies, and sportscasting. He eventually began this journey during his playing days in the National Football League.
Theismann suited up for the Argonauts for three seasons from 1971 to 1973. He earned approximately $50,000 annually.
Theismann had 6,093 passing yards, 40 touchdown passes, and 47 interceptions during his three-year tenure in the CFL. He earned two CFL All-Star selections along the way.
While Theismann had a decent football career in the CFL, he could’ve won two Super Bowl rings with the Dolphins.
After Bob Griese fractured his leg in the 1972 NFL season, Earl Morrall replaced him as the starter. Miami promptly won consecutive Super Bowls in 1972 and 1973.
Theismann had his own gold pinkie ring made encrusted with his No. 7 and three diamonds to remind him of the two Super Bowl rings he could’ve worn, per Sports Illustrated.
The NFL At Last
Theismann received his shot at redemption in 1974.
The Washington Redskins acquired Joe Theismann’s rights from the Dolphins in exchange for Washington’s 1976 first-round draft selection (which eventually became linebacker Larry Gordon) prior to the 1974 NFL campaign.
Theismann would spend his entire legendary 12-year National Football League career in the nation’s capital.
As soon as Theismann came on board, publishers reprinted his book Quarterbacking, started a restaurant named after him, filmed various commercials, and appeared in events without playing a single down for the Redskins.
Consequently, his teammates didn’t warm up to him.
Theismann played some special teams in his first two seasons with the Redskins. He ran for 17 punt returns and averaged 9.5 punt return yards from 1974 to 1975. Theismann savored the short time he was on Washington’s special teams unit.
After languishing on the Redskins’ bench for four seasons under head coach George Allen, Joe Theismann finally got what he had wanted all along: to become a starting quarterback in the NFL.
New Redskins head coach Jack Pardee made Joe Theismann his starting signal caller beginning the 1978 NFL season. Theismann succeeded Billy Kilmer, who led Washington in passing yardage the past seven years.
“After all those frustrating years on the sidelines, being a starting quarterback in the NFL is a dream come true,” Theismann told Sports Illustrated in October 1980. “Yeah, I paid my dues—with interest. You can’t believe the torture, the mental anguish.”
Before Theismann took over the reins as starting quarterback, he confided to Kennedy he didn’t learn much from Redskins quarterbacks Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer. Worse, he never even spoke with Kilmer during their time together in Washington from 1974 to 1978.
Redskins locker room with QBs Sonny Jurgensen, Joe Theismann, and Billy Kilmer. Head Coach George Allen and Offensive Coordinator Ted Marchibroda, circa 1974 @Redskins pic.twitter.com/XMzdsqughd
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) August 19, 2018
For his part, Kilmer told Sports Illustrated that he and Jurgensen tried reaching out to Theismann in quarterback meetings. However, Theismann, the third-string signal caller, seemed indifferent toward them.
Finally Connecting with the Team
From that point onward, Kilmer and Jurgensen left Theismann alone to his thoughts on the Redskins bench in his first year with the Redskins in 1974.
As Theismann gained more experience as a starter, he showed exemplary leadership skills and eventually won his teammates over.
One teammate who lauded Theismann’s signal-calling abilities was Redskins defensive tackle Diron Talbert. He told Sports Illustrated in 1980 that he and his teammates didn’t just consider Theismann a great leader and brother. They felt that he was the future of the Washington franchise.
Talbert’s assessment was spot on. Theismann was no longer the scrawny 177-lb. quarterback who entered the pro football ranks in 1971. Theismann, who could bench press 225 pounds, had added 15 pounds to his muscular frame.
According to Kennedy, Theismann loved showing up the Redskins’ linemen in the weight room. Whenever he saw them struggling to squat in the 350- to 400-lb. range, he’d do 405-lb. reps in front of them and then nonchalantly head for the exit.
One year after Theismann took over starting quarterback duties from Kilmer, he kept tabs on his growing injury list.
In Theismann’s sixth NFL season, he had broken his nose seven times, separated his left shoulder, broken a total of five ribs, sustained a hip pointer, tore his cartilage, bruised his metatarsals, sprained his toes, and separated his left collarbone.
While those may sound repulsive to the casual football fan, they were nothing compared to the career-ending injury Joe Theismann sustained in 1985.
Theismann earned roughly $150,000 per season during the pinnacle of his pro football career in the early 1980s. He already dabbled in real estate—including a condo unit in Fort Lauderdale, FL—and he owned a broodmare in Kentucky.
Joe Theismann, Jack Kent Cooke, John Riggins and Joe Gibbs celebrating Washington's first Super Bowl victory. pic.twitter.com/8dKx98KZVQ
— David Menassé (@Frekiwolf) January 31, 2021
A Ring for the Redskins
The Redskins were a mediocre team that won an average of eight games per season from 1978 to 1981. Since Theismann joined the NFL ranks in 1974, they had missed the postseason six times in eight years.
That would all change in the strike-shortened 1982 NFL season.
Theismann’s 2,033 passing yards and 13 touchdown passes helped the Redskins win eight of nine games that year.
Washington went on to beat the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII, 27-17. It was the Redskins’ first Super Bowl title and their first championship since the 1942 NFL season.
Joe Theismann had finally earned his first and only Super Bowl ring. He also earned the first of his two straight Pro Bowl selections and won the Bert Bell Award and the NFL Man of the Year Award following the 1982 season.
Washington became a juggernaut in Theismann’s final three seasons in the NFL. The Redskins averaged twelve wins per year under head coach Joe Gibbs from 1983 to 1985.
They made it to Super Bowl XVIII but lost in blowout fashion to Jim Plunkett—the same Jim Plunkett who edged out Theismann in the Heisman Trophy voting thirteen years earlier—and the Los Angeles Raiders, 38-9.
It was one of the worst showings of Theismann’s pro football career. He completed just 16 of his 35 pass attempts, threw two picks, and got sacked six times by a ferocious Raiders defense.
Joe Theismann's career resume:
– 2x Pro Bowl
– 1983 1st Team All-Pro
– 1983 NFL MVP & OPOY
– Super Bowl 27 Champ
— Pro Sports Outlook (@PSO_Sports) September 9, 2021
If there was any consolation for Joe Theismann, he earned NFL MVP and NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors after racking up 3,714 yards in the air, 29 touchdown passes, and 11 interceptions in 1983.
End of the Line
Joe Theismann, who was always good for a quote, bit his lip in the months following the humiliating loss to the Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII. He just wanted to focus on playing football and winning the ultimate prize: the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
“I used to call him ‘King Quote,'” The Washington Post’s Gary Pomerantz told Sports illustrated’s Bruce Newman four months later. “When I talked to Theismann, I had to be sure to bring along the 90-minute tapes. He did the rest.”
Theismann began dating That’s Incredible! co-host Cathy Lee Crosby in the spring of 1984. Their relationship lasted seven years.
Theismann’s silent approach with the media didn’t work as the 1985 NFL season unfolded. He threw for just eight touchdowns and 16 interceptions through the Redskins’ first eleven games that year.
It was the 36-year-old Theismann’s worst season since he took over Redskins starting quarterback duties from Billy Kilmer seven years earlier. He also hardly resembled the NFL’s Most Valuable Player he was just two years ago.
Things quickly turned from bad to worse for Theismann, who became the focal point of one of the worst injuries in National Football League history.
Theismann’s Washington Redskins squared off against their bitter NFC East rivals, the New York Giants, on Monday Night Football on November 18, 1985.
With the score tied at 7 in the second quarter, Washington executed a flea-flicker play. Theismann handed the ball off to running back John Riggins, who pitched the pigskin back to the Redskins quarterback.
At that point, Theismann scanned downfield but couldn’t find any open receivers. Giants linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson quickly converged on Theismann.
After Carson’s right hand grazed the Redskins quarterback, Taylor seized Theismann by the shoulders. As Taylor made a move for Theismann, the former’s momentum made his body swing under Theismann’s trunk.
Alas, Taylor’s knee struck the quarterback’s lower right leg and fractured both his tibia and fibula. The injury was so gruesome that one of Theismann’s leg bones pierced his skin.
“You could hear it,” Theismann told The New York Times’ Richard Sandomir after he first watched video replay of his injury 20 years later. “The pain was unbelievable. It just went so suddenly. It sounded like two muzzled gunshots off my left shoulder.”
According to ESPN’s Kevin Stone, the extent of the bone damage was so severe that Theismann’s right leg was slightly shorter than the left one after it healed.
Theismann told Sandomir in 2005 that he recalled being conscious on the RFK Stadium field moments after his injury.
Moments later, the Redskins’ team doctor told Theismann he reset his tibia as he lay on the gridiron. Six paramedics then placed him on a gurney and took him to a dimly-lit portion of the stadium.
Jay Schroeder replaced Theismann at quarterback the rest of the way. Washington prevailed over New York, 23-21.
The injury forced Theismann to retire from the National Football League at the age of 36.
Theismann had 25,206 passing yards, 160 touchdown passes, and 138 interceptions in twelve seasons with the Washington Redskins from 1974 to 1985.
While many people considered Joe Theismann’s fate a tragedy of epic proportions, he put things in proper perspective some 34 years later.
“It was a blessing,” Theismann told USA9.com in January 2019. “I’d become somewhat of a self-absorbed individual and didn’t really care much about a lot of things except myself.”
Theismann used that turning point in his life to make himself a better person over the years.
Despite the way his pro football career ended, he has also never held a grudge against Lawrence Taylor.
Taylor wrote in his book My Giant Life (via ESPN.com) that he and Theismann never had issues with each other in subsequent years.
In fact, Theismann and Taylor have been playing golf together during their retirement years, per WUSA9.com.
Joe Theismann has two sons, Joey and Patrick, and a daughter, Amy, with his first wife Shari. They divorced in 1985. He is currently married to his third wife, Robin Smith.
When Theismann abruptly retired from the National Football League in 1985, he embarked on a sports broadcasting career that lasted nearly three decades.
Theismann became a football color analyst for ESPN Sunday Night Football and ESPN Monday Night Football during that time frame. He also did Thursday Night Football coverage for NFL Network.
Joe Theismann has also appeared as himself in several movies since the 1980s. His filmography includes B.J. and the Bear, Cannonball Run II, and The Man from Left Field. Theismann also appeared in the 2013 television series Necessary Roughness.
The 2009 film The Blind Side featured Theismann’s career-ending injury from 24 years earlier.
Where Is He Now?
Theismann’s seven-year relationship with celebrity Cathy Lee Crosby ended bitterly in 1991 when they sued each other in federal court over property they had purchased when they were still together.
At the time of the dispute with Crosby, Theismann was already married to his second wife, former Miss Connecticut Jeanne Caruso.
A tabloid magazine featured a photo of Theismann with sales clerk Robin Smith disembarking from a plane in Los Angeles, CA in February 1994. It turned out Jeanne Caruso-Theismann discovered her husband had given an airplane ticket he’d originally bought for her to Smith instead.
— Stephon Ferguson (@StephonFerguson) February 26, 2015
Joe and Jeanne Theismann filed for divorce in the spring of 1994. Joe eventually married Robin Smith, and they remain together to this day.
Theismann became a member of the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003. He’s also a member of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Hall of Fame, the New Jersey Hall of Fame, and the Washington Redskins Ring of Fame.
Joe Theismann has also been named as one of the 80 Greatest Redskins.
His restaurant, Theismann’s, has been serving customers in the Alexandria, VA area since 1975. Its specialties include filet mignon, baby back ribs, pan-roasted salmon, chicken Louisiana, and beer-battered fish & chips.