This week’s 30th anniversary of Joe Theismann’s unforgettable “Monday Night Football” injury has prompted a host of remembrances of the incident. That broken leg has been framed as unforgettable, as disgusting, as the sad end of Theismann’s career and as one of “Monday Night Football’s” most memorable moments.
The former quarterback himself has a different, and pretty unusual, spin: his injury, he said on Wednesday, was a blessing.
“That night really changed my life tremendously — to the positive,” Theismann said during a lengthy appearance on ESPN 980, 30 years to the day after Lawrence Taylor ended his career. “It was not a tragedy. So many people come up and say ‘Joe, it was such a tragedy that you got hurt that way.’ Actually, it was a blessing, because I had served my purpose. I look at it this way: we all serve a purpose on this earth for the good Lord’s reasons. I’d served my purpose. I had become a nationally known individual. Now it was time to go out and talk to people about their lives, what are they doing, how can they help someone else. And for me, that’s what that night meant to me.”
Theismann, of course, has said things like this in the past. He’s said virtually everything there is to say about his injury, because people can’t stop writing about it (present company included.) Washingtonian recently published a comprehensive oral history of the injury. Pro Football Talk did an anniversary piece. ESPN.com compiled a list of things you might not have known about the injury, and also John Keim’s reflections. Ten years ago, The Post published a 20-year anniversary piece, and the New York Times convinced Theismann to watch the play for the one and only time in his life.
That’s just a tiny fraction of the work on the subject, and it seemed like there was a sufficient amount of leg anniversary coverage this week, but one reader e-mailed me to complain that The Post hadn’t marked the 30th anniversary. Hence, this item. But it turns out that you can still learn new things about that night, like this, from Theismann’s radio interview.
“The pain was excruciating,” he said. “I’ve had people come up and say ‘Did it hurt?’ And my suggestion to anyone, if you want to know what it felt like, go hang your foot over a curb and let somebody drive a car over it and you’ll get an idea of the severity of it. But the amazing thing about the human body is it hurt tremendously in an instant, and then from the knee down, my leg went completely numb.
“And here’s how crazy it was: as they were loading me into the ambulance, I watched Art [Monk] catch that pass down the sidelines from Jay [Schroeder]. We drove to the hospital, they took me from the ambulance gurney to the hospital gurney but forgot to pick up the lower part of my right leg. So they’re lifting me off the stretcher, and my right leg just drops down like a wet noodle. And I turned to the attendant, I said ‘Excuse me, can you just pick up the rest of me please?’ Didn’t feel a thing. Did not feel one thing.
“And then we got into the hospital and the surgeons started to prep me, and I asked them to bring in a television. So in the prep room, just outside the glass where I was being prepped for surgery, I watched the rest of the game. It was a black and white TV with a coat hanger stuck in it, and I watched the rest of the game. I wasn’t going to let them do anything to me until I found out we won. And I think Phil [Simms] threw an incomplete pass on fourth down, and I turned to the doctor and said ‘Do what you’ve got to do.’ “
Apocryphal or not, that’s good broken-leg storytelling. Theismann said he still has seen the play just that one time, with the Times, but that he’s heard Sandra Bullock talk about it many times (with his eyes closed) during the first scene of The Blind Side. The injury, and the lack of a rod inserted in his leg, made the limb a little shorter than it had been, and it eventually “affected my hip, my knee, my back.” And he said that the moment remains fresh for him, even as it enters its fourth decade.
“I kid you not guys, I can close my eyes sometimes and lie in bed or lie on a bench in a gym, and I can smell the smells and hear the voices and see that big clock at the end of RFK Stadium and all the faces around me — Bubba [Tyer] and Joe [Gibbs] Dr. Jackson and everybody, and I can feel the moisture on my back. It’s as real for me today, 30 years later, as it was this night 30 years ago.”
And for all of that, Theismann insisted that the injury was more good than bad.
“It actually changed my life, and I believe it changed my life for the better,” Theismann said. “I had become quite full of myself. I had thought that the world revolved around me; the team was only successful because of me. When it was happening, I didn’t know it, but in retrospect, as I look back, that’s the direction I was going in. And you know, the good Lord enters our lives in different ways. He closes doors and opens doors, and sometimes it’s tough to find that second door.
“But as I look back on my life and where I was going, yeah, I was on top of the world — the football world — but I really wasn’t as a person. I’d started to not appreciate people, relationships. So many different things in my life took a back seat to Joe Theismann the football star. And after that was all taken away from me; what I thought was important in my life was stripped away. It wasn’t there anymore. And I had to take a real hard look at who I was as a person.
“And if I was going to be able to go forward with my life, there were things that I needed to do to change. There’s ways I needed to change the person that I was. And I continue to stay on that journey, to try and be a better human being, to be a better person, to treat people better, to respect people, to understand more about who I am, where I want to go, what I need to do, how I can give something back.”