From a wheelchair, Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said yesterday that he plans to return for the 1986 season.
"This is not the way I envision saying goodbye to the game of football," Theismann said during his first public appearance since he suffered a compound fracture of his right tibia and fibula Monday night early in the second quarter of the game with the New York Giants.
"And it's for that reason that I've pretty much set my jaw and want to come back and compete for my job next year."
Theismann, who entered the Arlington Hospital news conference on crutches, wearing a bathrobe he received as a gift in Japan, said there was no doubt in his mind he would come back at age 36 for a 13th National Football League season.
"Right now, my mental state is I'm going to prepare for the 1986 season," he said after he slid into the wheelchair. "This will probably be the first time in 15 years of football (three in the Canadian Football League) that I'll be anxious to go to minicamp . . . I just want to get myself physically ready because I believe mentally I'll be able to play the game again."
Theismann, who was accompanied by television personality Cathy Lee Crosby, his fiance, and Dr. Charles Jackson, the Redskins' team doctor, during the 30-minute news conference, said he has seen the replay of his injury once -- and never wanted to see it again.
Theismann's right leg was crushed during a sack by linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Gary Reasons. He has undergone two successful operations to repair the breaks and the wound, and is wearing a toe-to-thigh cast. Jackson said the alignment of the reset broken bones is "excellent."
Theismann likely will stay in the hospital until next Thursday or Friday. He is expected to begin rehabilitation in three months and might be able to begin playing in six months, Jackson said.
"Cathy Lee didn't want me to see the tape, but, like an idiot, I was insistent, and I wanted to see what happened to me," Theismann said. "I caught it (Wednesday night) lying and watching TV . . . I'm watching it, watching the guy slide down, and then all of a sudden, when I see the angle my leg goes into, I turn the set off real quick.
"I've had the experience of seeing it. I've had the experience of feeling it. And I don't care to see it again."
After taking a pitch from running back John Riggins on a trick play, a flea-flicker, Theismann said he noticed linebacker Harry Carson rushing in on his right but decided to step into the pocket anyway to try to throw to wide receiver Gary Clark along the right sideline.
"As it turns out, I stepped up and got my foot caught under a pile of people, and then it just seemed like the whole right side started to collapse and work down towards my leg. Then, all of a sudden, I heard a 'pow-pow.' And then before I hit the ground, I just yelled, 'My leg's broken.'
"It was amazing. It seemed like it was a matter of minute parts of a second that people were actually off of me. Usually, you're stuck in a pile and it hurts even more, but the pain was more than I've ever gone through in my life . . . whether it be athletics or hitting myself with a hammer."
Theismann, who praised Taylor, the Giants and his teammates for their quick, sympathetic reaction to his injury, said his tibia broke through his skin, but then "went back in on the field.
"I don't think the good Lord's ready for me to give this game up yet, so He said, 'I think we'll help a little bit and put it back for you a little bit early and let Charlie (Jackson) do the rest,' " Theismann said.
Later, asked what his New Year's resolution would be, he smiled and answered quickly, "Ask Coach Gibbs to take the flea-flicker out."
Theismann, who almost always has enjoyed talking with the media, was his usual self yesterday, making fun of Joe Theismann and his admittedly "lousy" season.
For example, he said he wasn't sure if the Redskins would take him back, even if he shows up healthy at the doorstep of Redskin Park.
"I don't know if they want me back, the way I've been playing," he said, smiling. "I think they just figure, 'Good, we got him out of the way, let's start out with the new, fresh guy.' "
When asked about the media's treatment of his injury, often leading with it over the Geneva summit, he said, "I'm just glad they didn't have a press conference the same time I did, 'cause none of you would have showed up."
Yet, twice yesterday, his blue eyes welled with tears when he spoke of the ovation he received as he was carried off the field at RFK Stadium on a stretcher, an ovation from fans who once booed him.
"The criticism prior to the game was criticism I brought on myself," he said. "I wasn't having a good season. I was playing lousy football . . . and the fans let me know in the only way they know how. But the ovation that I got leaving that stadium . . . it's the kind of thing I'll always remember."
Like any good fan, Theismann kept asking for the score of Monday's game in the ambulance and in the hospital, even stopping along the way to the operating room to watch a few plays on a hospital TV.
With 4:21 to play, and the Redskins in the lead, 23-21, Theismann thought replacement Jay Schroeder had things under control and finally went under an anesthetic for surgery.
"I certainly was proud of the job that Jay did Monday night," Theismann said.
But he added this warning: "It's going to be interesting to see what happens now that he's had a week to think about football . . . I think he's going to do great, period. But I think each week as it goes on, the impact of the position that he holds may get to him a little bit . . . But he'll do a great job, I'm sure."
Time and time again, the subject of his return to football popped back into conversation. Theismann said he bases his optimism on his recovery from a broken right fibula in 1972 as a member of the Toronto Argonauts. Theismann "broke it completely" in the first game of the season. He returned in the 10th game.
"After looking at the X-rays and talking to (Jackson) about the prognosis for recovery and what I'm going to have to go through, I'm excited about next year already," he said.
But, he added, "It probably is the best thing for my punting career," referring to a one-yard punt in the September loss to Chicago.
Theismann said he wouldn't mind competition for the quarterback position next season, something he hasn't had since he became entrenched as the starter in 1978. It's likely any quarterback battle would hinge on Schroeder's performance the remainder of the season.
"I love the pressure," Theismann said of his job.
He had been lucky up until Monday night, always avoiding serious injury as "the hittee, not the hitter." Yet Theismann, ever the optimist, refused yesterday to say he had run out of good fortune.
"I don't think my luck ran out," he said. "Maybe my luck just began. It gives me a chance to start another chapter of my life."
But to hear Theismann tell it, that chapter will be nothing more than a rewrite of the last. He said to make any other plans, especially in television, regarded as his eventual new career, would be to undermine his rehabilitation.
"I would defeat the healing process of my leg in the mental state I want to go to," he said. "At this point, my No. 1 goal is to remain a part of the game of football."
Moments later, just before he pulled himself out of the wheelchair and onto his crutches to go back to his room, he again said he has only one thing on his mind.
"I couldn't entertain leaving the game right now," he said through tears. "I can't leave."