Interview: Theismann Played in a Tough Era, With the Injuries to Prove It

By Ross Forman

Editor’s note: Ross Forman has written about the National Sports Collectors Convention for 25 years – from the hoopla around the Pinnacle card of Nolan Ryan that was a limited giveaway and, by the end of the show that year, was selling for $1,000, to the hysteria around the autograph (or lack thereof) that National officials proposed for Steve Bartman to sign at the show one year in Chicago in exchange for $25,000. Ross will be in Atlantic City, N.J., covering the 2016 National, too – with a full post-show report on his unique findings on the floor and the wild antics in the Tristar Autograph Pavilion.

This is one of Forman’s installments of On The Road To The National, profiling several high-profile autograph signers along the way both in print and online for SCD. Enjoy Ross’ feature story on Joe Theismann below.

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Growing up, Joe Theismann had three photos that he cut off the cover of Sport Magazine: pictures of Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr and Joe Namath. Theismann used thumbtacks to hang those photos in his room.

“Thankfully I got to know all of them very well,” Theismann said of the quarterback legends.

“Joe was my ultimate hero – who didn’t want to be Joe Namath?” Theismann said. “Bart and Johnny were icons in the game. Joe was the rebel – and who didn’t want to be the rebel?”

So who was the best of those three?

“Oh, I can’t answer that,” Theismann replied without hesitation.

Theismann also was, himself, one heckuva quarterback. He played in the NFL and the Canadian Football League (CFL) after starring at the University of Notre Dame. Theismann played 12 seasons for the Washington Redskins, where he was a two-time Pro Bowler and one of the main reasons the Redskins made appearances in Super Bowl XVII (winning) and Super Bowl XVIII (losing). He also was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003.

20160409_135156-1“The opportunity to play (in the NFL) when I did is what stands out most,” said Theismann, who grew up as a N.Y. Giants fan and later was a Jets fan.

Football was much more physical back in his era, he said, noting that he lost three front teeth, has had his nose broken seven times, his collarbone once, his ribs twice, his right hand twice, as well as a serious knee injury and a gruesome-looking, career-ending leg injury.

On Nov. 18, 1985, Theismann suffered a compound fracture of his leg while being sacked by Giants linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson during a Monday Night Football game. The injury was voted the NFL’s “Most Shocking Moment in History” in an ESPN poll, and the tackle was dubbed “The Hit That No One Who Saw It Can Ever Forget” by The Washington Post.

“I’ve had a few (injuries), a few knicks and knacks along the way,” Theismann said, laughing.

“It was a different time, a different era when I played, when there were very distinct teams that were very dominant, such as the (San Francisco) 49ers, the Giants, (the Dallas) Cowboys and the Redskins.”

Theismann was drafted in the fourth-round out of Notre Dame (99th overall) in 1971. He played for the Toronto Argonauts from 1971-73, then went to Washington from 1974-85. He was the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in 1982, the NFL MVP in 1983 and was named one of the 70 Greatest Redskins.

He threw 3,602 passes in his NFL career, completing 2,044 of them, with 160 touchdowns.

Art Monk was on the receiving end of many Theismann passes – and Theismann would want Monk in his sights if he could select one receiver for one play in one must-win game.

Theismann“As I look at all of the great ones who have played the game, including Jerry Rice, who was the greatest wide receiver to ever play the game … I still feel like Art Monk was Jerry Rice before Jerry Rice. So I’d still take Art; he could do so many things so well,” said Theismann, who noted that Fred Biletnikoff and Bob Hayes also were two who “definitely have impacted the game at the wide receiver position.”

Under The Golden Dome and How His Name is Truly Pronounced
Theismann slipped into the starting role with three games to play in his sophomore season after Terry Hanratty was injured. Then as a junior in 1969, he led the Irish to a No. 5 ranking and Notre Dame appeared in the 1970 Cotton Bowl Classic. As a senior, Notre Dame again played in the Cotton Bowl Classic.

Theismann was an All-American and an Academic All-American at Notre Dame, and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003.

“Notre Dame was a very special place in all of our hearts for all of us who had a chance to play there,” Theismann said. “Running out onto the field my sophomore year … seeing the students, the band, the fans, that was amazing.

“Being able to play at the University of Notre Dame is very special.”

So what’s with the name? Specifically, the pronunciation of your last name?

Well, after a successful junior season, Theismann was called into the office of the school’s sports information director, Roger Valdiserri, who asked the quarterback how his last name was pronounced.

He replied, “Thees-man.”

Valdiserri countered, “No, it’s Theis-man.”

Theismann disagreed, and the two went back and forth until Theismann called his dad to ask about the pronunciation.

Theismann asked his dad for the correct pronunciation and his dad’s first reply was, “Are you OK?”

The elder Theismann then said, “Thees-man.”

Valdiserri said, “Joe, there’s a trophy out there called the Heisman Trophy, given annually to the best college football player – and we think you have a chance to win it. But we’re not just going to count on your athletic ability, or the reputation of the university, but we think that by simply changing the pronunciation of your last name, so it rhythms with Heisman, we can get you that trophy.”

“That’s how I became Joe Theis-mann,” he said.

Five years later, Theismann asked his dad once again how their name was pronounced, and dad replied, ‘Theis-mann.’

“It changed the pronunciation of my name, and my entire family name,” he said, laughing.

Ultimately, Theismann finished second in Heisman voting to Jim Plunkett of Stanford.

IMG_9940The Hobby
When Theismann appeared at a Tristar Productions show in 2016, he was sporting some sweet bling: rings from Super Bowl XVII and Super Bowl XVIII.

Theismann is one of the most gracious, outgoing, polite signers. And posing for selfies is never an issue with the QB legend.

“I am a collector and think the hobby is great,” he said. “Back when I was broadcasting, I would run into a lot of people, not just from football, but from baseball, the WWE, musicians and others. People have long asked for my autograph, so I started asking them, too, and I just started putting together a nice collection. Now my wife is a little upset because we have an entire room in the house filled with sports memorabilia. She always asks where we’re going to put this stuff, and my reply always is, ‘We’ll have to build a bigger house.’

“I think the hobby is exciting and it’s great to see this industry continue to grow and grow and grow. People at  shows, they aren’t just collectors, but rather, they are fans. And if it wasn’t for people here at shows, we wouldn’t be where we are today, making it fun to play. Without the fans, we’d just be at an empty park, an empty stadium.”

At shows, Theismann always is talking with other celebs in the backstage area at signings, such as Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson and others.

“I’m a big sports buff, so these guys were my heroes,” he said. “Seeing them at shows renews our friendships, which is exciting.

“I’m just like everyone who comes to shows – I walk the show floor; I love to look at the memorabilia. I buy memorabilia at shows. I know there are people who like coming to shows to see me and the other guests. Well, I’m the same way – I like spending time with the other guests, too.”

Theismann’s card trail dates back to his 1975 Topps rookie (No. 416).

He also has appeared on cards from AW, Upper Deck, Fleer, Pro Line, Pro Set and others.

Theismann is slated to sign autographs on Thursday, Aug. 4, at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Atlantic City, N.J. Also signing on Thursday of the five-day show, which runs Aug. 3-7, will be Walt Frazier, Boomer Esiason, Bucky Dent and Rich Gossage, among others.

For more information about The National and the  Tristar Autograph Pavilion, which features autograph appearances by about 135 celebrities, go to: www.tristarproductions.com/National/.

 

Want More Joe Theismann? Here’s a bit more:

  • Quoting Theismann: “RFK (Stadium) and Oakland Alameda County Coliseum were the two identical stadiums. They were baseball stadiums (configured) for football, so the fans were so close to the field, which is what I really liked.”
  • Theismann carries a 2 golf handicap. “I am far beyond passionate about golf; I am obsessed. I love the game of golf; it’s a great test mentally, and also for patience.”
  • Theismann said there are plenty of current QBs who he enjoys watching. “I think Aaron Rodgers is the greatest pure passer that the game of football has ever seen,” he said. “I think Tom Brady is just unbelievable how he can take the level of a football team and take it to another level. Peyton Manning was the same kind of quarterback, and I’m glad he had the chance to go out on top. Brett Favre and Dan Marino also belong in any conversations about the greatest QB ever. I’ve always gone back and forth between Tom Brady and Dan Marino as they are the greatest two quarterbacks who have ever played this game. I also enjoy watching Drew Brees, and Andrew Luck is talented, too.”
  • On why he only had a single bar on his face mask: “Well there are two reasons, and the first one is the one that most know and have heard: When I handed off the football, I didn’t like the two bars. The other reason is, I played with (with quarterbacks) Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgenson, and both of them wore single bars, so that’s what I did, too.”

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