Anyone who saw the play more than eight months ago still sees it. Some images are that strong. Three New York Giants linebackers ruined a Redskins flea-flicker play last Nov. 18 and hit and tugged at quarterback Joe Theismann with such force that he fell in a twisted, contorted way.
Because the Redskins yesterday waived Theismann, who failed his preseason physical sometime in the past week, that season-ending injury has become a career-ending injury.
Redskins safety Ken Coffey, on the injured list at the time, watched the play from the RFK Stadium bleachers and said his immediate reaction was: "Oh, dear God . . . "
Up in the executives' box, Bobby Mitchell, the Hall of Famer who is the Redskins' assistant general manager, felt shock. "I just said 'Holy cow, that's it.' Someone in the box asked me what I meant by that, and I just said, 'That's it.' I was too stunned to say more," Mitchell said yesterday.
Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor held his head in disbelief after he delivered one of the three blows to Theismann on the play. "I heard a crack. It went through me," Taylor said after the Monday night game. "It felt like it happened to me. It made me sick."
A national television audience turned queasy. This time, the camera angles were too good. A team and a city tilted in disbelief. Theismann, who had missed only one start in eight seasons as the Redskins' starting quarterback, was carried off the field on a stretcher and rushed by ambulance, with fiance Cathy Lee Crosby at his side, to the Arlington Hospital.
Later that night, X-rays determined that Theismann had suffered a compound fracture of the fibula and tibia in his right leg. Words he spoke only three days before the game rang out eerily: " This is probably my worst year in football. Let's not say the worst season, because it's not over yet. Let's wait until it ends, whenever that is . . . "
Theismann, 36, remained in the hospital for more than a week. He wore a variety of casts for nearly three months, then a brace. Reports of his recovery, initially optimistic, began to crumble. In fact, the right leg had become about a quarter-inch shorter than his left leg because of the injury. The 1986 season was coming around, but the leg wasn't.
When Theismann, the Redskins' all-time passing leader, failed the team physical this week, it was not surprising. Nor was it surprising when Theismann officially was released yesterday after 12 years with the team, fading into club history just like Sammy Baugh, Billy Kilmer, Sonny Jurgensen and the rest.
Theismann may yet collect on a $1.4 million insurance policy with Lloyd's of London, and he may yet collect that color commentary job with CBS Sports, but he will collect no more passing records.
Several Redskins veterans who were contacted yesterday said they saw the play on videotape once, then never again.
"I have a weak stomach," Redskins linebacker Rich Milot said. Safety Curtis Jordan said Theismann's injury "is probably the most talked-about football injury since Darryl Stingley's." Stingley is the New England wide receiver who suffered paralysis when hit by Oakland defender Jack Tatum in a 1978 game.
Coffey said, "I remember saying at the time of the injury 'I hope it's not his knee,' figuring it couldn't be any worse than a player hurting his knee. It turned out, it was a lot worse."
Mitchell added, "The newsreels kept running that play, over and over and over. Everbody said, 'It's so gruesome you've got to see it.' It was very painful to look at, but I guess it shows that we all have got a little sadistic stuff in us."
Fate turns in a blink in football. Theismann had proven to be the perfect quarterback for Coach Joe Gibbs' offensive system, leading the team to two Super Bowls and a 39-10 overall record from 1982 through 1984. Theismann produced four of the top five highest-rated seasons of his career under Gibbs and was named the league's most valuable player for the 1983 season. Theismann could roll out and sprint out, which gave Gibbs options he never had while coaching Dan Fouts in San Diego.
Until November, Theismann had managed to avoid injury. Quarterbacks are the guys holding the ball everybody wants, after all. It's no wonder, then, that the quarterback in Philadelphia, Ron Jaworski, now carries a steel plate in his leg, the Chicago quarterback, Jim McMahon, lacerated his kidney two years ago, and the 38-year old quarterback of the Los Angeles Raiders, Jim Plunkett, has had to endure a rotator cuff tear, four separations and three operations on his left shoulder alone.
How remarkable was Theismann's durability until Nov. 18 of last year? Put it this way: In 11 1/2 seasons with the Redskins, leading up to his career-ending injury -- from punt returner for George Allen to starting quarterback for Jack Pardee to MVP quarterback for Gibbs -- Theismann missed only one start. And he managed to serve as holder on field goals and extra points in that 1980 game.
Compare this with the fact that Lynn Dickey, in 10 seasons as Green Bay's quarterback (1976-85), missed 40 games because of injuries to his leg, hip and shoulder.