Big Sky Conference

Theismann spreads inspiration through life of validation


GREAT FALLS — Joe Theismann’s career is defined by one of the most gruesome scenes in primetime television history. More than three decades since Lawrence Taylor snapped Theismann’s leg in half during one of the most memorable moments in Monday Night Football history, the former NFL MVP refuses to let himself think what if.

That infamous night in 1985, Washington Redskins All-Pro left tackle Joe Jacoby did not start. Taylor, one of the fiercest pass rushers in NFL history, came around the blindside Jacoby usually protected and exploded into Theismann, snapping his leg so violently that one of the bones punctured through the skin. The landmark moment humanized the animalistic Taylor as he franticly waived to the sidelines, signaling for medical attention. The injury also ended Theismann’s career, taking his life down a different path that Friday night led him here in the Electric City.

Joe Theismann

“I’m not a what if guy,” Theismann said as he addressed a dozen media members here on Friday afternoon. “What if I was 6-foot-7? I might be a small forward in the NBA making $100 million guaranteed and we wouldn’t be siting here. I’d probably be on my 36th hole. Every one of us is dealt a hand. You play the hand you are dealt. What are you going to make of it? What are you really looking for in life? Don’t ever let anybody tell you you can’t be or have anything you want. There are a lot of people who don’t want you to be successful. They want you to be mediocre like them. Sorry, average has never appealed to me.”

The Notre Dame alum was drafted by the Miami Dolphins and the Minnesota Twins in 1971 but spent the first three years of his professional football career playing for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. By 1978, he was the starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins and by 1982, he helped the team to their first Super Bowl championship. In 1983, he was the NFL MVP.

But Theismann’s career is most remembered, especially as time marches on, for that night in D.C. in 1985 when his career ended.

“I’ve been a world champion, an MVP, a Man of the Year, a Pro Bowl MVP. I guess you could say I had a decent career as a professional football player but the injury is something that people always will remember,” Theismann said. “If it didn’t happen on Monday Night football, I don’t know if people would be positioned where they are to say, ‘Wow.’ It’s not just football. It’s everybody. It’s been viewed on YouTube seven or eight million times.

“When I do a presentation, a lot of young kids don’t know me except for as the guy who really broke his leg bad, the guy who made people sick and throw up. When a Kevin Ware or Paul George get hurt, I get phone calls. A lot of people remember where they were the night it happened. I remember that night like it was yesterday and I will tell that story tonight how it influenced and changed my life completely. I had it all, man. I had everything, the whole nine yards and it was boom, gone.”

 The devastating injury opened up a whole new avenue for Theismann. He helped call Super Bowl XIX with Frank Gifford and Don Meredith in 1985. By 1988, he was a commentator for CBS during Sunday Night Football broadcasts. By 2006, he was in the booth for Monday Night Football. He has also spent the better part of the last two decades as a motivational speaker in the corporate world and for college players.

Joe Thiesman #1In a round about way, the broken leg led him to Great Falls, where he is the featured speaker at Friday night’s Triangle Classic. The fundraiser banquet hosted by the Great Falls Montana State Bobcats booster club is in its 14th year. Theismann is the latest in a star-studded collection of guest speakers that also has included Dick Butkus, Eric Dickerson, Brian Urlacher, Dan Fouts and Jim Kelly.

“I really appreciate this opportunity to talk to the Montana State football team with Coach (Jeff) Choate in his new
assignment in taking over the head coach of this football team,” Theismann said. “The freshmen are embarking on a new aspec to their lives. The seniors are now going to close a chapter in the book of their lives.

“The thing I want to impress on all of them is to seize the opportunity that is out there. Life is nothing but opportunities. I’m just sitting here watching the Masters and if you have a three-foot putt for birdie, you have to make it.”

Theismann’s son in law has a home in Bozeman where he visited a few weeks ago to take his grand children skiing at Big Sky Resort. He has also visited Missoula on several occasions.

“It seems like Montana is the state I’m winding up in when I travel this way and it’s just wonderful,” Theismann said. “It’s so fresh and clean and a beautiful place to be. I like it out this way.”

Theismann spent his morning playing golf at the Meadowlark Country Club here. He shot a 69, including seven birdies. He exclaimed enthusiastically when asked about his round, but quickly scolded himself for his two bogeys on Par 5s.

“It was a tremendous morning,” Theismann said. “I’ve had a great time in Great Falls.”

Theismann said earning validations have defined his athletic career. When he was a star at South River (New
Jersey) High, validation was playing well against rival New Brunswick High at Rutgers Stadium on Thanksgiving. In college, beating Texas in the 1971 Cotton Bowl or throwing for a Notre Dame record 526 yards in a torrential down pour against rival USC earned validation. When he reached the NFL, the barometer for success became the rival Dallas Cowboys.

Joe Thiesman #6“We spend our lives seeking validation,” he said while sitting in the Lewis & Clark room at the Heritage Inn here.

 Theismann is one of 18,000 former NFL players that are part of a class action lawsuit against the league over the lack of safety precautions taken to prevent serious head injuries during the 20th century. The game of football has give Theismann a great deal but he suffers from post-concussion syndrome. While playing the game, he broke his nose three times, broke his hand, his ribs and snapped his leg. But he does not deter people from letting their kids play the sport that brought him so much joy.

“Would I play the game again? Absolutely,” Theismann said. “I’d do it in a heartbeat.

“There’s so many positives to youth athletics. There’s the interaction with other people. There’s the nutritional aspect of it because you have to keep your weight at a certain place. You have the educational part of it because you have to memorize plays. You have to rely on that person next to you. You learn how to win, you learn how to lose. One of the things people never do is they never learn how to win.

“We all strive for success in our lives. But what will you do when you get there? That’s what I want to emphasize to these kids tonight.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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