By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 18, 2005
The scar, about four inches above his right ankle, is hardly visible, and when former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann lifts his pantleg, the slight bend in his right leg is barely discernible. Still, they are constant reminders of The Hit That No One Who Saw It Can Ever Forget, the hit that, in ESPN polling, was the runaway winner as the most shocking moment in NFL history.
Twenty years ago tonight, in the second quarter of a "Monday Night Football" game between the New York Giants and Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium, linebacker Lawrence Taylor ended Theismann's NFL career with a tackle that snapped the bones in Theismann's right leg.
"People break legs all the time in football. It involves the cracking of a bone, but most times, you can't see it," said Dan Dierdorf, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman who later became a "Monday Night Football" analyst and was watching the game on TV. "That night, what you saw was so graphic, and when you watch something that's so far out of the normal, you just gag, but you almost can't help watching it again and again."
To this day, Theismann says he has not seen a replay. He said Taylor has told him he has not watched it, either.
The Redskins were 5-5, coming into the game after a loss to Dallas. Although the Giants were 7-3, Theismann recalled having a hot hand early in the game, completing seven of his first 10 passes. In the second quarter, on a play called in from Coach Joe Gibbs, he had handed off to running back John Riggins, who started toward the line of scrimmage. An instant before Giants linebacker Harry Carson hit Riggins, he wheeled and pitched the ball back to Theismann on a flea flicker pass.
"I remember handing the ball to John, getting it back and then looking downfield," Theismann said in a recent interview. "I couldn't find Art [Monk] deep, and then I looked to my right for [tight end] Donnie [Warren]. At that point, I was feeling some pressure, and the next thing I knew, I heard what sounded like a shotgun going off -- Pow! Pow! -- and felt this excruciating pain. Then I was on the ground."
Taylor, a Hall of Fame linebacker, knew immediately after hitting Theismann that the quarterback was in deep trouble. Taylor immediately leaped up and, in a move out of character for football players, frantically signaled to the sideline as he raced toward the Washington bench to get the Redskins' medical people on the field.
Within seconds, the Redskins' orthopedic surgeon, Charles Jackson, was on the field, along with Gibbs and Redskins trainer Bubba Tyer.
"It was at that point, I also found out what a magnificent machine the human body is," Theismann said. "Almost immediately, from the knee down, all the feeling was gone in my right leg. The endorphins had kicked in, and I was not in pain. I remember looking up and seeing Bubba being on my left side. I looked at him and said, 'Please call my mom and tell her I'm okay.' Joe was kneeling on my right side. He's looking at me and he says, 'You mean so much to this club, and now you've left me in one heck of a mess.' "
Theismann's right leg was mangled. He had a compound fracture of the tibia, meaning the bone had snapped in two, with one end protruding from Theismann's skin, and a shattered fibula.
Tyer recalls that Theismann told him, "Bubba, I've really done it now," and that, when he got to him, the quarterback already had a calm about him that he has noticed over the years in many other seriously injured players. "I was on the sidelines with my back to the play trying to reduce someone's [jammed] finger," said Jackson, who had joined the team only about a month earlier. "I just remember L.T. coming over and grabbing me. I hadn't seen the play, and when I went out on the field, I looked down at Joe's leg and his bone was sticking through his sock. Remember, I've only been doing this for three weeks, and I'm saying to myself, 'Oh, man, what have I gotten myself into here?' "
As Jackson and other medical personnel worked on Theismann, Jackson's primary concern was making certain that dirt, pieces of grass and fiber from Theismann's sock were removed from the wound to decrease chances of infection and improve chances of fixing the bone properly in surgery. Theismann's leg was encased in a pressure cast up to his knee, and he was placed on a stretcher.
As he was wheeled off the field, two of the people who helped push the stretcher, Tyer recalled, were fans who had come down from the stands, unchallenged by security. His departure from the stadium was accompanied by an ovation from the crowd, applause that, Theismann said, "I'll never forget as long as I live. . . . The big Longines clock at RFK Stadium was at 10:05. Everything is so vivid in my mind."
Carson remembers that, as Theismann was being taken off the field, "Joe being Joe said to all of us, 'Don't worry guys. I'll be back.' I looked at him lying there and I said 'Joe, you'll be back, but you won't be back tonight.' At least he still had his sense of humor."
Said Theismann, "Once they put me on that gurney, I think I said to [backup quarterback] Jay Schroeder, 'Go get 'em, kid.' Then as they were wheeling me up behind the ambulance, I heard another roar. Art had just caught a long pass. Then we went to the hospital. When we pulled up there, as they were transferring me from the ambulance to a stretcher, they actually forgot to pick up my right leg. It just kind of flopped down. I remember saying to the attendant, 'Hey, can you just grab the rest of me?'
"They started prepping me for surgery, but I wanted to see the rest of the game. So they brought in this little black and white TV with a coat hanger for an antenna. Late in the game, when the Giants missed an attempt on fourth down, I told the doctors, 'Okay, go do what you have to do.' "
Back at RFK, Schroeder, who had played in only three games and thrown eight passes in his career, led the Redskins to a 23-21 victory, completing 13 of 21 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown. He went on to lead the team to five victories in the last six games and a 10-6 record that still wasn't good enough to make the playoffs.At Arlington Hospital, Jackson began what he called a "meticulous surgery" on Theismann's leg. "You started off with a gallon of saline solution, and you just kept washing it and washing it," he said. "The problem was that the membrane around the bone had been stripped away. It took awhile before we felt comfortable putting one bone against the other. Then you have to cast it so it doesn't move. We put him in a long leg cast with a window so we could constantly clean the wound."
Initially, Theismann did not doubt that he would play again. He had returned to the field only eight weeks after breaking his right leg in a Canadian Football League game in 1972.
"I felt like it was just a broken leg," he said. "That's why I chose never to watch the footage of the play. There are two aspects to rehabilitation -- the physical and the mental. I felt that if I never knew how bad the leg had been broken, the mental hurdle to the rehab wouldn't have been as big. I just felt why couldn't I do it again?"
This time, there was no way. The compound fracture in the tibia had led to insufficient bone growth when his leg healed, leaving the right slightly shorter than the left. For an NFL quarterback, it was the end of the line -- although Theismann admitted that took several years to sink in.
Theismann had other things on his mind as he recovered. He had gone through a messy and costly divorce only two years earlier. He was in a serious relationship with entertainer Kathy Lee Crosby, and had recentlypurchased a farm in Northern Virginia. Theismann was concerned about how he would continue to make the same kind of living without playing the game. He was in the first year of a four-year, $6 million contract.
When Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke signed him to the deal, he had handed him the business card of a Lloyd's of London representative and insisted that Theismann take out an insurance policy that would at least pay off part of the contract if he was injured. He also told him not to deduct the cost of the premium on his tax return, so that if he was injured, he would not have to pay taxes on the settlement if the policy paid off.
"When it came time to cash in the insurance policy, we had doctors and attorneys out at the old Redskins Park," Theismann said. "They wanted to see me work out to see if I could play again. I went out on the field to throw, and as I moved to my right, I was moving okay. When I tried to move to my left, I think I looked like Peg Leg Pete. The workout was supposed to last about 30 minutes. There were 15 people watching me when I started. When I turned my back at one point, I looked around and they were just about all gone. I said, 'Hey, wait, I'm not done,' and whoever was still out there said to me, 'Yes, you are.' "
Lloyd's paid about $1.5 million. Two years later, Theismann was still trying to persuade teams to give him a shot, but no one was interested in a 37-year-old quarterback coming off a badly broken leg. Even when Theismann launched his career as a football analyst at CBS, his initial contract with the network, and then two years later with ESPN, included clauses that he could get out of the deals if he signed a contract to play football.
That never happened. Instead, the injury redefined Theismann's life. "I have friends who will say, 'Ah, he hasn't changed that much,' but I have. I really have," he said. "I've tried to understand the value of family and friendship. I had gotten so self-consumed trying to be Joe Theismann, the football star, instead of Joe Theismann, the person. I lost touch with what was important in life, and I certainly didn't pay the game itself the respect I should have."
Theismann has remarried and remains a popular and highly compensated motivational speaker. This year, he was placed on the preliminary list of 126 players eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Starting next season, he will be the analyst on "Monday Night Football" when ESPN takes over the broadcast from ABC, its parent company.
Theismann has stayed friendly with Taylor, who called him in the hospital the day after his initial surgery 20 years ago. When Theismann told Taylor he had broken both major bones in his right leg, Taylor wrote recently that he had joked, "That's because I don't do anything halfway. If I'm gonna break them, I'm gonna break them both."
Taylor was unavailable for comment for this story.
"I once told him we were always going to be linked together because of that night, and he told me it had an impact on his life, too," Theismann said. "He said it drove home the point to him that no matter how great you are, it can be over in a heartbeat, and you never know if tomorrow will be the last day you ever perform."