Legendary Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann was at the top of his game in the mid-1980s. He had taken his team to the Super Bowl just two years prior and had just signed a new five million dollar contract. He could never have imagined how quickly his fortune would shift when on Nov. 18, 1985, he suffered a comminuted compound fracture of his leg after being tackled and dog piled by New York Giants linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson during a Monday Night Football game. Voted the NFL's "Most Shocking Moment in History" and "The Hit That No One Who Saw It Can Ever Forget,” the injury sent Theismann into retirement at the unripe, young age of 36.
In subsequent years, he’s become a successful sportscaster on ESPN and NFL networks, spokesperson for Colonial Penn, enlarged prostate, and abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) or a potentially-fatal ballooning of the abdominal aorta, and remains the owner of longstanding Joe Theismann's Restaurant, in Alexandria, Virginia.
Theismann broke from his hectic Super Bowl week schedule to chat with Healthline about his life-changing injury, today’s more protective game rules, the importance of regular physicals, and even Tim Tebow and Joe Paterno.
Before your major injury, what was the norm in terms of post-game aches and pains?
I spent 15 years in pro football before I got seriously hurt, so we use that as the line of demarcation. I broke my right hand twice, dislocated my left elbow, tore up my left knee, broke one bone in my right leg in 1972, had my front teeth knocked out, had a sciatic problem shortly after getting into the game, had turf toe, hip pointer, a broken collar bone, cracked ribs, concussions — a myriad of things. But if you ask if I would go back and play the game — in a heartbeat. I knew that I had chosen a profession where I’d be beaten, battered, and bruised. Instead of complaining, I knew it was part of the job description. You’re going to be sore; you’re going to ache.
How would you recover?
Mentally, how you approach a situation, determines how you deal. For me, I knew I’d be sore. But after the game I would take over-the-counter Tylenol and aspirin, and that Monday I’d be working out and getting my muscles moving again. I’d get a treatment massage, get in the whirlpool, hot and cold. If you take that approach and do something about the soreness, the recovery time is much sooner.
What do you remember of the night of your injury?
It was 10:05 p.m. I can close my eyes and see the big Longines clock. I remember everything that happened, all the people around me. I heard both bones break. It sounded like two muzzled gunshots over my left shoulder. From my knee down, the pain was excruciating. But it was such a short period of time. From my knee to my foot, my leg went completely numb. When I was transported from the gurney into the ambulance, they forgot to pick up my right leg and I remember asking the attendant, ‘Can someone pick up my leg?’
[At the hospital] they set up a TV for me with a coat hanger so I could watch the rest of the game. All the while they were working on my leg. The union was good, but because it was an exposed fracture, it was important to fight the infection… so the seriousness of the infection was more serious than putting the bones back together. It was a question of time whether the bones would heal. The bags of well wishes, people outside the window… it was surreal. And it helped — the encouragement. Now when someone has a fracture similar to mine, I call them up, talk them through it, and tell them what to expect going forward.
What was your recovery process like?
I’ve never fully recovered. There is so much about the right leg, where it affects the symmetry of the body because the leg’s healed 3/8’s of an inch shorter. As a quarterback, legs are important in the throwing mechanism, and having lost 25 percent of my power compounded my not coming back. I walk on the outside portion of my right foot, which is my body’s attempt to gain back the length that I lost.
When you rehab a major injury, you tend to ignore other parts of the body, so I was trying to be conscientious, to maintain upper body strength. I ate the right foods and drank the right drinks, and did whatever I could to make that leg stronger but not ignore the other parts.
Not a lot of people remember that you attempted a comeback. Why didn’t it come to fruition?
In June of 1986, I went out and tried to show the team that I could do the things that I did before. Mentally, I felt like a tough individual. I was going to overcome everything. I did physical therapy, treatments, trying to come back, but was never able to. I showed up at Redskins Park, and there were 13 doctors, and Lloyd’s of London insurance people there. I went on the field to work out for an hour, and after 10 minutes of running around and throwing the ball, I turned around and everyone was gone. I jogged inside and said, ‘I’m not done yet.’ They said, ‘Oh yes, you are.’ That aspect of my career was over.
I was always an optimist, and went into broadcasting after that. I even signed two consecutive three-year contracts and it was written into the contracts that if the team wanted me, then I could come back. But it was over.
How did the injury change you?
Before, I was a self-centered, self-serving egomaniac. I thought that the success of the Redskins related to my success. I felt like I didn’t need anyone. I felt like a star, making a lot of money. But when all the things that I thought were important in life were gone, it forced me to look at what I’d become, and it was not a pretty picture.
People say ‘What a tragedy,’ but not by any long shot; it was a blessing. It continues to let me try to be a better person every year. I was the fourth highest paid player, with a five million dollar contract, and then, in a heartbeat, it was gone. People say that adversity introduces you to yourself — and it sure did.
What are your thoughts on some of the new rules (such as the defenseless player rule, or the helmet to helmet rule) aimed at protecting players’ bodies in the NFL today?
I think it’s important. Having had concussions, and knowing the effects as you grow older, I’m in favor of protecting the athlete. But I think it’s gone too far in the quarterback situation. If you push someone to the ground, they call it ‘roughing.’ But if you come in and don’t maim a guy, make it a five-yard penalty; but you have to draw a distinction between roughing and pushing and touching. It’s one rule that really needs to be looked at, but because of the value of the quarterback to the game, I don’t know if it ever would be. Helmet to helmet, absolutely. You have to protect a defenseless athlete. But ticky-tacky calls on roughing — it needs to be better officiated, and you have to give officials the tools to do it. We’re not flag football. It’s a contact sport, a violent sport, and there are violent collisions in the game — and you can’t take that out of the game.
Why was it important for you to be involved in enlarged prostate awareness?
I was diagnosed with an enlarged prostate about seven years ago. I got physicals all my life — but when you reach your late 40s and 50s it’s important to get physicals every year. We see prostate issues more and more claiming people’s lives, where maybe if they were tested more, they could have treatment and prevented them. So if every hour and a half you have to go to the bathroom, there could be a problem.
You’re also a spokesperson for abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA). Why is that an important issue?
No one has talked about it yet over a million people walk around with it. Some survive and some die, but if the balloon bursts there’s a 90 percent chance you’re going to die. There is a simple ultrasonic test that takes 10 minutes to find out if there’s a problem. It’s your body, your life, and it doesn’t take a lot of time.
What do you think about mixing religion and sports?
I believe that people’s religious views are personal, but it’s been a part of it forever. There are so many players giving praise to god when they score a touchdown. I said a prayer before every game. I would go to chapel, I attended Latin mass every Sunday in Notre Dame, and I’m not even Catholic. The reason there was such a big fervor about Tim Tebow and Tebowing is because what he did on the football field was so dramatic and the way he played the game so unconventional, so he captured the eye of football fans and also brought more people to football this year than anyone. He’s become the vehicle that’s delivered it to many people. I believe that my injury was divine intervention, because I remember everything that happened, as if god would not let me forget. I served a purpose on the field, but now I can help others in different ways.
Joe Paterno just passed away amid horrible scandal. What do you predict that his legacy will be?
I really hope his legacy will be the most winning coach in college football. He recruited me back in 1966 when I was a senior in high school, and it might have been his first or second year at Penn State. Two years ago I was in Hawaii, sitting at a pool and talking to him about football, life, the recruiting process, and his philosophy. It was so enlightening for me to sit with someone I respect. That’s what his legacy should be. Did he do enough? We don’t know. Joe was part of [the Sandusky scandal], but I don’t believe that that will be his legacy. His legacy will be that of the greatest college football coach that ever walked the earth. But when diagnosed with cancer, he knew that it was a battle he couldn’t win.
Do you think that his tarnished reputation precipitated his passing?
It’s so hard to say. When I talked earlier about how our mental state determines our physical state — I think he was beaten up mentally by accusations surrounding Sandusky, so after that, you don’t know. But would cancer have gotten him anyway? Probably.
Since your injury, you have built a successful career as a sportscaster. If you weren’t an NFL commentator, what would you be doing?
I would like to be an interviewer. If someone said, ‘Joe, you pick out who you want to talk to and we want to film this’ — presidential candidates, artists, I’d love to learn as much as I could about different people. It’s fascinating and broadens your horizon as an individual. It also enlightens people to what they didn’t know about other individuals. Your character is who you are and your reputation is who people think you are. I’d love to have the opportunity to interview people and bridge that gap. I’ve been a misunderstood individual. People perceived me as cocky and egotistical, but I just happen to have a great belief in my abilities. Ever since my injury, my belief in myself hasn’t waned. I just don’t tell people about it anymore.
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