Joe Theismann, 33, of the Washington Redskins, is the number one quarterback in the National Football Conference. During 12 games this year he completed 161 passes for 2,033 yards. In the three recent playoff games, he completed seven of every 10 passes he threw. Only one of his passes has been intercepted in the last five games.
Born in New Brunswick, N.J., Theismann is a 1971 graduate in sociology from the University of Notre Dame. For three seasons he played for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, joining the Redskins in 1974. He became the first-string quarterback in 1978.
He is on the corporate board of Children's Hospital, where his daughter underwent open-heart surgery, and has worked for a variety of charities. Last week he was named the National Football League Man of the Year by the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the basis of his contributions to his community as well as his playing ability. He owns two area restaurants.
Theismann has been married for 12 years to Cheryl Lynn Brown. They have three children -- Joey, 11; Amy, 9; and Patrick, 4 -- and live in Vienna.
Q: When the 'Skins were last in the Super Bowl, I did a piece for the paper about the sadness and disappointment in this city over that loss, but I wound up saying, what the hell, it's just a game. Is it more than a game?
A: I'll probably wind up saying that many times during the week. "Well, it's just another football game." Mentally, I have to prepare myself that way. "It is just another football game." But you can't get away from the magnitude and the attention and everything that goes into a Super Bowl championship. If you can't feel that, then you're just not alive. Beating the Cowboys is great. I believe the fans wanted it even more than the players. Joe Gibbs tries to keep everything in perspective for us. (But) to say that the Super Bowl would be just another football game -- I really couldn't say that.
Q: You said in one of the many interviews that you've had in the last 48 hours that you felt that maybe the fans were more emotionally exhausted from the game than the players. Which leads to the question, if it's not just a game, what is it that football represents in the lives of fans and the life of a city? What's the metaphor?
A: I think it's an escape from some of the harsh realities. From the doldrums of a job. From the day-to-day, nine-to-five. Drive home an hour and a half through rotten traffic. Cuss out every driver on the road. Get mad at somebody.
Now you got a chance to get mad and get happy. All of it in the same event. I think our fans just get totally engulfed and involved in it. I've talked to many people in working capacities in the city of Washington, and the one thing that I always find holds true is that whether we win or whether we lose, it sets the tempo of the week. If we win, the week flies by. Everybody's happy. I don't care if there are 15 car accidents, they wind up yelling at one another and they say, "Are you going to the 'Skins game?" Or if we lose, it affects everybody. You can have a fender bender and it turns into a major fight. Just because of what happened on Sunday.
Unemployment's high. You look at baseball during the Depression. It flourished. It was an escape from the harsh reality that things are rotten. They don't want to use the term depression right now, but I don't know what the hell else you can call it. It ain't so hot out there. And yet people are looking to the entertainment world for a laugh, for an exciting feeling, for a wonderful moment. This country -- 5 percent of the people have most of the money. Ninety-five percent of the people don't. Five percent of the people, they own the organizations which entertain you. They have the ability to pay the best entertainers large amounts of money to entertain the masses. That's why -- not necessarily giving in a monetary way, but giving of yourself back to the community is important. Because without that community, you're nothing. That's the way I really look at it. To give you an example, I can never repay Children's Hospital for giving me back my daughter. That's one of my passions, Children's Hospital. Right now with federal funding being cut back, we try to do our best to raise money to keep the doors open.
Q: You said that for the team it is more than a game, and you've defined how. How about you in particular? Isn't there a special responsibility that a quarterback has in a situation like that?
A: You know the old adage in football. First the owner gets mad at the coach and then the coach gets mad at the quarterback. If things go well, everybody puts your name out front. If things don't go well, you're next to be out of a job. I enjoy the risk of the position. But one thing I've managed to do the last two years under Joe Gibbs is accept no more burden than I really have to. I try to take a look at the offensive scheme. If I can do a little bit more in a situation, then I try and do it. But if I don't have to, then I won't. Because I can rely on 49 other guys to get the job done. Our system of offense alleviates much of that burden from my shoulders.
Q: Joe, if you win a Super Bowl game and you're the quarterback, do you enter a position of legend?
A: It becomes a unique fraternity.
Q: And that's something that you'll carry with you always and your kids will be able to say, "My dad won the Super Bowl." What about failure?
A: I never look for failure.
Q: Or defeat?
A: I never look at defeat. I don't look at the other side of it. I deal with it when it happens. I think if I can go out there and give 100 percent and I can look myself in the mirror and say I left it all out there on the football field, then I don't feel like I have to face defeat. I try and prepare myself mentally and physically for the greatest game of my life every week. Everybody says, "Well, you just can't do that. Physically it's impossible." I don't believe that. Sometimes physically it's difficult because you're beat up. But still you have to try. You know, my wife calls me the eternal optimist.
Q: Let's talk about motivation for a moment. Especially during the strike, the economics of professional football was on everyone's mind. Do they make enough money? Do they make too much money? The thing that strikes me, seeing someone like you or some of your teammates, is how young you all are. Especially some of the lads here who are 22, 23, 24 years old. I don't know how many professional football players have a career of 10 years, five years, but there are one hell of a lot of them out there who -- after the cheering stops and the publicity, the adulation of the fans -- are out there somewhere selling cars. What do they take away from it?
A: One of the major reasons for divorce in professional athletes is the cold turkey that they have to go through -- once all the adulation, all the back-patting, I'll-buy-you-a-beer, I'll-buy-you-dinner, come-in-front-of-the- line, stops. I can tell you firsthand when I came from Canada in 1974 to the Washington Redskins nobody knew Joe Theismann from boo in the city of Washington. In the city of Toronto I could get into theaters for nothing. I could eat dinner for nothing. I could park and do anything I wanted. Then when I came here I'd sit down for dinner and nobody would turn their head. Nobody would look. Nobody would ask for an autograph. And it's a scary feeling. You find yourself starting to peek over your shoulder and going "Gee whiz, they don't know who I am." When you're young it affects you. I think the older you get the more you develop an awareness that that's the way the business is. A name today is not necessarily a name tomorrow.
For me, I consider myself lucky because I still have my family. You know, I can go home and I can be criticized and patted on the back by four people -- Sherry, Joe, Amy and Pat. There are no punches pulled. You won't have somebody come up to you in your house and say, "Gee, you played great," and then two years after you're out of the game say, "Boy, wasn't he a bum." I mean, you're going to be the same person for a long time for those people.
But that is probably the most difficult thing for a lot of young men, that transition period. That's what we tried to do during the strike. You go from $100,000 to nothing. And let's face it: Not everybody in football is going to put their money away. So here's a guy who's played five years at $100,000. That's $500,000. I promise you if he hasn't been frugal, he's got nothin'. Now all of a sudden he's got this lifestyle and he's got this car and his wife's got all these minks and everything. And all of a sudden he can't support it. Well, what does he do? Where does he go? You wind up with guys in trouble with the law. You wind up with guys scrambling. You wind up with guys hustling. They're just trying to make a buck like you, but they've never really been trained for anything else. So God! How can you punish them? It's really been the system that we work in that's been the problem. That's something that we tried to correct. That's why we have this severance pay now when a guy leaves the game. So he can gradually work his way back into society. If he needs another year or two of college education he can go and get it and not sacrifice supporting his family.
Q: You mentioned your family. Do you think that it's true that a lot of football players are married not as individuals but as football heroes? What I'm getting at is --
A: Yeah, I know what you're saying, do they marry the name and not the person?
A: There is a lot of divorce in professional football because there's a lot of temptation. You're away from home. There is this hero worship that, you know, exists. There are groupies. I mean, all those things exist in football. And what the heck. Most football players, basketball players, baseball players, guys with big builds, good-looking guys, there's a lot of pressure on the individual.
I've been married 12 years now, and I've lived with Sherry for 14. I think in the beginning everybody said marriage is 50-50. It's not. It's 150 and 150.
Q: You're going to probably end your career as a millionaire, right?
A: Well, if I end it now I guess I would.
Q: But the ordinary guy's not. Are there any frictions, cliques, factions on this team?
Q: Any racial tensions?
A: No. This is the closest football team I've ever been associated with in my life. Everybody cares and genuinely, I believe, loves one another. There's none of those things you mention.
Q: No jealousy?
A: No. The guys don't care what other guys are making. During the strike everybody got a sheet of paper that told everybody what everybody else was making. And to be honest with you, nobody cares. If anybody on this football team can put themselves in a position of supply and demand and get as much money as they can -- if it's 10 times more than I am -- I don't care. Everybody will say, "Theismann, you're crazy. You don't mean that." I mean it. If a guy's good enough, and he's needed bad enough, if he can make tons of money, hey, that's what it's all about. It is a business.
Q: Joe, I don't know a game plan from a stock market tape, but one impression you could bring to this business is that you build up these huge physical specimens and through your coaches and through your rote of practice -- do it over and over and over -- that you send out onto the field some automatons who don't need to be particularly brainy. "Do what I told you, do what I told you."
A: Is that a question or a statement?
Q: I'm saying this is an impression and it is a question. To what extent do brains, imagination, intellectual flexibility get into this game of football?
A: Because of the complications that have arisen on defense and on offense -- there are so many more things presented to you, there are so many more dimensions of football that have been developed -- you cannot be dumb. You cannot be a robot and play professional football today for any length of time. Your ability may get you by for a year or two, but if you can't think, there's no way you'll ever make it in football.
Our game plans are extremely intellectual. You've got to understand. There's a lot of common sense, but there still has to be a brain there to absorb it. It applies not only to the wide receivers and the backs -- the so- called guys in the skilled positions -- but even more so to our offensive and defensive linemen. I think the majority of those men have to have intellectual capacities that are extreme.
Q: What is a game plan?
A: A game plan is basically an idea that a coach presents to a football team -- a philosophy of how to attack the other team's different positions. Defensively we try to attack 11 men distributed across the football field in various situations. Offensively, they try to stop us. It's their way of thinking of how to succeed against the other team.
Q: Does a game plan tell you these are the first four plays you're gonna run in this game? The second four? The third four? Or does it evolve as the day goes on?
A: Both. You have an initial game plan, but you have the flexibility to be able to adjust if necessary. I've always felt if you have to adjust too much when you're playing, then you did a lousy job of getting ready. You just can't make up for a week's work in 15 minutes sitting in a locker room saying, "Well, we had it all wrong, guys." That doesn't happen anymore.
Q: Some of your players before the (Dallas) game said "We don't care who we play." Is that generally true for a thinking man's team, that it doesn't matter who the opponent is?
A: I think that's a true statement. Doesn't matter who it is. I think that's bred from winning. You can be lucky in three or four football games, but luck doesn't run over a two- year period like that. You have to be doing something right. That means that your work habits are right, your preparation is right, your coaching is right, your teaching is right, all those things are in the right direction.
Q: Joe, you're 33 years old?
Q: And your professional life expectancy is what?
A: I passed it about eight years ago.
Q: Maybe two, three, four years?
A: I haven't really set an ending date.
Q: Of course, but there is an ending date.
A: There is a time. But it's still the love. It's the passion. I've decided that when the game becomes just a business to me, when I'm in football just to play football and make money, then I'll just say goodbye and thank you. I've seen too many guys stay around too long, just for the dollars. The dollars are nice and they're wonderful. But I think you work so hard to build yourself to a certain point that there's no sense in taking it any further than you have to. That's the reason why I've started to get involved in a lot of outside businesses, because I would like to make that transition gracefully. I don't want to go cold turkey.
Q: You've made a lot of money. You've got a lot of scrapbooks. So this year, if you get the (Super Bowl victor's) ring -- you've already been selected for the Pro Bowl -- is this the best year of your life?
A: Probably the most rewarding year of my life was 1976. When the good Lord chose to give me back my daughter and teach this man, there's a lot more to life than material things. This is anticlimatic to having my baby Amy back. I don't ever want to go through an earthshaking experience like I did then. When I found out she was okay, and when she looked up at me and she said, "Daddy," my world turned. My whole life turned. That was the greatest moment in my life.