Washingtonian

the Oral History of Joe Theismann's Broken Leg


Joe Theismann, now 66, at RFK Stadium on August 21, 2015. Photograph by John Loomis.

If you lived in Washington in the '80s and were old enough to stay up for Monday Night Football, you remember it—the night Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann broke his leg.

It was November 18, 1985. The Redskins were competing in the toughest division in football, and the New York Giants were in town for a matchup that had playoff implications. Theismann, who had led the region’s beloved franchise to a Super Bowl victory in 1983, was sputtering through the most miserable season of his life. He’d gone from winning the league’s MVP award to being rated its second-worst passer. Fans were almost out of patience. But in the locker room before that night’s game, Theismann had the distinct feeling that something big was about to happen. As he marched toward the lights, he was determined to prove that even at age 36, “Hollywood Joe,” as he was known, still had good years ahead of him.

The trouble began only a quarter through the game. Theismann got the ball near the 50-yard line, but he couldn’t find a receiver. Meanwhile, two vicious Giants defenders were streaking toward him from opposite directions. He moved upfield to try to escape. But Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor—the most terrifying pass rusher of his generation—pounced on him from behind.

Taylor’s 243-pound frame crashed awkwardly into Theismann’s right leg. Just like that, the two major bones below his knee snapped and one came jutting through his skin.

For millions of sports fans, the image of Taylor sacking Theismann at RFK Stadium is as fresh today as it was 30 years ago. Back then, before cable packages and DVRs and TV-when-you-want-it, Monday Night Football was a shared national experience. Games were broadcast coast to coast; America dropped everything and tuned in. The stadium’s 53,371 fans weren’t the only witnesses to the collision between Taylor and Theismann—the entire country was watching. Never before had such a gruesome injury been seen by so many.

“When I go to speak someplace,” former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs says, “almost every time there will be somebody who will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I remember the night Joe got hurt.’ ”

Extraordinary as it was then, the event’s notoriety has only grown in the decades since. This is the story behind the most horrific professional sports injury of all time and the athletes, movie stars, and media celebrities who turned it into an unlikely cultural touchstone.

Theismann just before and after the moment the New York Giants' Lawrence Taylor sacked him and broke his leg. Photographs before injury and on the stretcher by Arnie Sachs/Newscom. Center photograph by J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo.

Joe Theismann, Redskins quarterback: “All of a sudden, I heard, out to the left, it sounded like two muzzled gunshots. Pow! Pow! I didn’t realize where it came from.”

Lawrence Taylor, Giants linebacker: “I knew right away. I heard the leg pop, and he was in a shitload of pain. I remember just trying to get off of him ’cause I knew it was bad, real bad. I started waving to the [Redskins’] bench to get the training staff out on the field.”

Joe Jacoby, Redskins offensive lineman: “You could hear the popping noise from the sidelines.”

Bill Parcells, Giants head coach: “Our players were reacting in a very adamant way—motioning strongly to the Washington training staff to get out there. It was almost as if one of their teammates had gotten hurt. My first impression was ‘This doesn’t look good.’ ”

Jeff Bostic, Redskins offensive lineman: “Joe’s just laying on his back motion-less. From maybe four or five inches above his ankle, his foot and leg are at about a 15-to-20-degree angle from each other, and he’s got this bone popping through his sock.”

Frank Herzog, Redskins radio play-by-play broadcaster: “There was this deathly quiet in the stadium. Oh, God—it was awful.”

Clint Didier, Redskins tight end: “The referee said something to Joe, and Joe nodded his head yes. So the referee picked up Joe’s leg to move it, and blood shot up and hit the referee in the chest. I remember watching the referee jump back as the blood shot from Joe’s leg, and I said, ‘That’s all I need to see.’ ”

Bob Goodrich, who produced the game for ABC: “I saw the play on the monitors in the production truck. I was stunned. When you first see it, you think, ‘Oh, my God. He may be paralyzed. He may lose his leg.’

“We knew we had to be careful about what we aired, so we showed a quick re-play and then went to commercial to decide what to do. Because Monday Night Football was nationally televised, we had many more cameras than you’d have for an average Sunday-afternoon game. In fact, we were the first network to use reverse camera angles for every game. The director and I thought the reverse angle was the best way to describe what happened. We played it for ourselves two or three times, and we played it for the announcers [Frank Gifford, Joe Namath, and O.J. Simpson] to make sure we all agreed. They said, ‘Make it a little slower so we can show it and analyze it.’ ”

The footage shows Taylor sacking Theismann at the 42-yard line, the quarterback’s lower right leg twisting and snapping like a twig.

Herzog: “It was the first time American sports fans saw something this bad this graphically.”

Frank Gifford, on the air: “And again, we’ll look at it with the reverse angle, one more time, and I suggest, if your stomach is weak, you just don’t watch.”

ABC showed the replay twice while Theismann was still on the field.

Herzog: “I can still see it in my mind, seeing that leg go. You never forget it.”

Bubba Tyer, Redskins head trainer: “When we reached Joe on the field, his head was moving and he was talking to us.”

Theismann: “I’ve been asked many times, did it hurt? It absolutely did hurt. The pain was excruciating—both bones were shattered.”

Tyer: “For having such a severe injury, he was very calm. I’ve noticed over the years that the guys with the more severe injuries—like when guys blow their knees out completely, they look up at you and say, ‘Hey, Bubba, I’ve done it now.’ And then you see guys with minor sprains that are hooting and hollering and can’t stand the pain.”

Theismann: “It was an open fracture, so it came through the skin. And it gave me an appreciation for just how great the human body is, because by the time the trainers and the doctors got to me, I had no feeling from the knee down. My leg was completely numb.”

Dr. Charles Jackson, Redskins physician: “He’s lying down and his knee is facing straight up, and his foot is flat with the ground. So there is a tendency to want to straighten the leg out. But if it’s an open fracture, you can’t do that because of the risk of infection. What you don’t want to do is take a piece of dirt and pull it back up into the marrow of the bone. So we left his leg the way it was and splinted him right there on the spot.”

Harry Carson, Giants linebacker: “Guys took their helmets off, and they were kneeling and kind of praying for him. We all started talking to Joe because we didn’t want him to go into shock.”

Joe Gibbs, Redskins head coach: “He was yelling at everybody. He was telling Lawrence Taylor, ‘I’m going to get you for this!’

I tried to joke with him to make light, maybe take his mind off it. I said, ‘Well, it’s a fine, fine mess you’ve left me in.’ And then he’s yelling at me!”

Carson: “They got him on the stretcher, and they started to carry him off the field, and Joe being the cocky Joe that he could be on the field, he said, ‘Don’t worry, guys. I’ll be back.’ And I said, ‘Joe, you might be back, but you won’t be back tonight.’ ”

Frank Gifford, on air: “[Redskins fans] were booing a short while ago. And now there is an ovation for Joe Theismann, who I’m sure has played his last play for the 1985 season.”

The game’s second quarter had just started. The score was 7–7.

Charlie Taylor, Redskins PR director: “I ran upstairs to the press box in time to see one of the very next plays after the injury—a deep pass from backup quarterback Jay Schroeder to Art Monk. If I had to pick five of the loudest moments in RFK history, the completion of that deep pass would be one.

“Everybody had just been sitting there holding their breath for like 30 minutes, thinking the world had just ended. When they realized that football was going to continue and the Redskins were going to try to win the game, they just let out every ounce of energy they had stored up in their bodies.”

Bennett “Stretch” Williams, assistant equipment manager: “We load Joe into the ambulance, and we’re about to close the door. All of a sudden I hear, ‘Stretch?’ I said, ‘Yeah, Joe.’ He told me to go get Cathy Lee Crosby, his girlfriend at the time [and the former host of TV’s That’s Incredible!]. I said, ‘Joe, you’re bleeding and you’re about to go into shock—let’s get you over to the hospital.’ He says, ‘We’re not leaving without her.’

“I look up at the ambulance driver and I say, ‘Get him to the hospital.’ The driver says, ‘He’s the boss—he’s the patient. We gotta wait for her.’ The ambulance driver just wanted to meet Cathy Lee—a good-looking blonde.”

Ted Koppel, former host of ABC’s Nightline: “My wife and I were in the Redskins owner’s box as guests of Jack Kent Cooke; Cathy Lee Crosby was seated nearby. I was kind of looking around waiting for someone to get up and take Cathy Lee downstairs, and nobody did.

“The replacement quarterback was in, and the focus was on the game, not on Joe and Cathy Lee. So I just went over to her and said, ‘Would you like me to take you downstairs? I’m sure they’re putting Joe in an ambulance, and you’ll probably want to go with him.’ ”

Cathy Lee Crosby: “I rode in the back with Joe to the hospital. Along the way, I joked to him, ‘Well, it looks like your punting career is over.’ ”

Charlie Taylor: “ABC’s [cameras] were following the ambulance out of the stadium from an aerial shot, and then they got local news crews to go to Arlington Hospital, and they were shooting when he got there. They were treating it like it was O.J. [Simpson] or something. That’s how big of a thing it was.”

Theismann: “When we pull up, they start to move me from the ambulance gurney to the hospital gurney. As they lifted me, I saw the lower half of my right leg fall off the end of the gurney. It’s sort of dangling, just like hanging there. I said to one of the attendants, ‘Can one of you pick up the rest of me, too?’

“They put me in a prep room. I asked them for a TV so I could watch the rest of the game. They brought in a black-and-white TV with a coat hanger, and I caught some of it.”

Dr. Jackson: “We had him on the operating table about 40 minutes after he left the stadium. In a procedure like this, the first thing you do is clean the wound—you clean it, you clean it, you clean it. Next, you cut away anything—like bits of skin—that looks like it might not live. You then put the bone back into its anatomical position. Finally, you put a packing in the wound, suture a couple of stitches in there, and put a big sterile dressing on it and put it in a cast.

“Joe went to bed with his cast elevated under a little splint. Cathy Lee took the bed next to him.”

Back at RFK Stadium, the Redskins beat the Giants, 23–21, on a 14-yard pass to tight end Didier with eight minutes left to play.

Theismann: “I missed a heck of a football game.”

X-ray courtesy of Joe Theismann.

Theismann: “The next morning, my nurse comes in and says, ‘Mr. Theismann, Mr. Taylor is on the phone—would you like to speak to him?’ I said, ‘Give me the phone. LT, is that you?’ He says, ‘Yeah, Joe, how you doing?’ I said, ‘Not very well.’ He says, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Well, you broke both bones in my leg, for crying out loud.’

“He said, ‘Joe, you’ve got to understand something—I don’t do things halfway.’ ”

The injury was the biggest story in Washington. “RFK Stadium probably has never been as quiet during a Washington Redskins game as it was at 10 o’clock last night when the public address announcer said quarterback Joe Theismann, who had started the last 71 games for the Redskins, had suffered a compound fracture of his lower right leg,” the Washington Post reported on its front page that day. “At 1:30 this morning at Arlington Hospital, the team’s orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Charles Jackson, made an even more chilling announcement after 40 minutes of surgery: Theismann’s right leg will be in a cast for three months, meaning that his season is over.”

Sandy Sedlak, Theismann’s assistant: “I showed up to work at Joe Theismann’s Restaurant in Alexandria, and there were TV crews asking to talk to customers. Then I went to the hospital, and there were hundreds and hundreds of fans.”

Charlie Taylor: “Within 24 hours, I had received requests for Joe to appear on ABC’s Good Morning America, NBC’s Today show, and the CBS morning news. People magazine and Sports Illustrated wanted to talk to him.”

Dale Morris, stadium operations director: “I get a call from a local novelty-store owner who tells me that somebody was trying to sell the jersey Joe Theismann wore for the game. I’m thinking, ‘Who has Joe’s jersey, and what are they doing with it?’ I called the authorities. As it turned out, the jersey had been cut off of Joe when he was in the ambulance, and one of the ambulance personnel got ahold of it and tried to sell it [for $1,500]. Here you are thinking about getting this man to a hospital, and somebody steals his jersey.” [The paramedic denied trying to sell it: “It was not so much that I was thinking it was mine to keep,” he said, “but mine to hold for a moment.”]

Debra Proud Abell, Arlington Hospital director of public relations: “At the hospital, fans pretended, ‘Oh, I’m Joe’s uncle,’ to try and get in and see him. I had this list of the people he was willing to talk to by phone, so we knew which calls to put through and which people to allow in. We also had security guards by his room.”

Jeff Bostic: “I had to call the room to get permission to come up, and Cathy Lee Crosby answered. I said, ‘I’d like to see Joe.’ Well, he took ketchup or something and poured it on his cast, and when I get to the room, I hear ‘Ahhhhhh’—he’s moaning in pain.

“I said to Cathy Lee, ‘Is he okay?’ And Joe’s like, ‘Ha ha ha ha!’ He’s laughing. I said, ‘You jerk!’ ”

Abell: “We were being bombarded—media were there the whole time, and they all wanted scoops. But Joe and Cathy Lee Crosby had decided there was no way he was going to talk until he did the big press conference later that week.”

Following Theismann's surgery, fans inundated the hospital with cards and flowers. Photograph by Focus on Sport/Getty Images.
Four days after the injury, Theismann met the press with girlfriend Cathy Lee Crosby. Photograph by Nate Fine/Getty Images.

Despite all the attention on Theismann’s injury, the Redskins had to stay focused on making the playoffs. Practices resumed, and the team prepared for the next week’s matchup.

Rick Donnalley, Redskins offensive lineman: “We broke into position groups to watch the footage of the game on an old-time film projector. Normally, we watched every play from two different camera angles and the coaches break down the plays. But when we got to the play where Theismann got hurt, we switched the light bulb in the projector off and the screen went black. We didn’t talk about it.”

Four days after the injury, in a press conference at the hospital, Theismann vowed to return for the 1986 season. “There has never been a question in my mind I would play again,” he said. “I am excited about next year already.”

Keoki Kamau, Redskins assistant trainer: “Joe, of course, once he could walk, was walking all over Redskins Park. Nothing was going to hold that guy down. We started rehabilitation with some real simple things—asking him to move his foot, from a sitting position, point your toe to your nose. And then you get to walking, and now you can ride the bike. You can walk on the treadmill. We spent a lot of time in the big pool at the Marriott in Tysons Corner.”

Theismann: “When you are hurt like I was, you’re almost a pariah. Players are cordial—they say hi—but they’re going on with the business of their life. It becomes very lonely.

“I remember being on crutches and going into the practice facility and walking up to my locker. Now, for 11½ years that locker was a home for me. I had my chin strap there. Family pictures. Mementos, things that fans had sent. They’re all up there. And sitting in my locker was [new backup quarterback] Steve Bartkowski. My 11½ years as a Washington Redskin were in a cardboard box in the equipment room. It was devastating. Everything you thought you were is gone.

“But I didn’t believe it was all gone, because I thought I was coming back.”

Kamau: “Everything was satisfactory with his rehabilitation, until we got to the point where we have to cross the bridge from living daily activities to professional-athlete daily activities.”

Theismann: “Maybe six months into my rehabilitation, I had a workout at Redskins Park. Everybody was there—the medical staff, the coaches, the Redskins attorneys, and people from Lloyd’s of London because I had an insurance policy that would pay out if an injury ended my career.

“And so I’m going to go out there and I’m going to prove to them I can come back and play. I get out on that field and I’m running to the right, I’m feeling pretty good, I’m sprinting, I’m dropping back, I’m feeling good. I’m feeling, you know, ‘Hey, I can do this.’

“But my right leg had healed a little shorter than it was before the injury. So when I drop back and start to go to the left, I look like Chester from the old television show [Gunsmoke]—I’m sort of bobbling along.

“I do it again and I turn around—we’re about 15 minutes into the workout, which was scheduled for an hour—and I look back towards the locker room. Everybody’s gone.”

Kamau: “As we were walking off the field, he put his arms around Bubba and me and goes, ‘Hey, I tried my best here, boys.’ He broke down crying because he had worked so hard.”

In July 1986, eight months after he took the hit from Taylor, Theismann failed a physical. The Redskins released him.

Lawrence Taylor: “Listen, I always played the game clean, and that play was clean. Unfortunately for Joe, he got caught between me and Harry [Carson], and the only place his leg could go was sideways.

“I certainly felt bad cause it ultimately led to the end of Joe’s career, and I always had a lot of respect for Joe; he was a tremendous competitor and friend. But I’ve never felt guilty because there was no intent to injure. It’s just one of those plays that unfortunately happens sometimes in football.”

Robert Thompson, Syracuse University professor of television and popular culture: “Most sports memories are generational, but some are perpetuated in popular culture and become kind of preserved in time. Lou Gehrig’s famous ‘luckiest man on the face of the earth’ speech in 1939 is still as much of a moment today as it was back then because it was featured in the 1942 movie The Pride of the Yankees.

“I think the same thing has happened with the Theismann injury. A lot of people watched it live, but it has gathered some of its power over time through its retelling in popular culture.”

“The Simpsons,” the endlessly rerun Fox cartoon that’s been on TV for 26 years now, first revived the injury on November 14, 1991, almost six years to the night after Theismann got hurt. In the “Saturdays of Thunder” episode, Homer sits on the couch drinking a Duff beer watching “Football’s Greatest Injuries” on videotape.

Marge: “Homer, could you turn off the TV? There’s a little test I want you to take.”

On the TV: [Crunch] “Ahhh!”

Homer: “Oh, great, you made me miss Joe Theismann!”

In 2002, ESPN polled its audience for the “10 most shocking moments in football history.” Readers ranked the Taylor/Theismann sack as the biggest shocker, ahead of O.J. Simpson’s arrest for murder.

E-mail to ESPN from Kevin Winter of Everett, Washington: “The first moment that came to my mind was Lawrence Taylor breaking Joe Theismann’s leg. . . . They kept replaying it and replaying it. The sight was ungodly, and while there are other moments that might shock a person, this one shocked the nation in prime time.”

E-mail to ESPN from Derrick Ingram of Lexington, Kentucky: “Undoubtedly, the night Joe Theismann had his lower leg snapped like a stale chopstick by LT in 1985. Not necessarily because it was as grotesque a sight as anyone has seen on live TV, but because it happened in front of about 70 bah-jillion people during Monday Night Football. Moreover, if you didn’t see it, you could damn well bet at least five people told you about it the next day.

“I saw it, and still can’t shake that image of LT rolling down on Joe’s leg, the sudden snap, LT jumping up holding his helmet with both hands looking horrified at poor Joe on the ground and frantically waving in the trainers to come fix what he’d broken.”

In 2006, the injury resurfaced in the biggest way yet—a bestselling book that became a hit movie.

Theismann and Tony Kornheiser (far right) on Monday Night Football in 2006. Photograph by All Messerschmidt/Getty Images.

Michael Lewis, author of The Blind Side: “I had started talking with NFL front offices who were interested in the statistical-analysis concepts I had written about in Moneyball. At one point, the San Francisco 49ers showed me studies that had uncovered something amazing: . . . The left tackle had gone from being this obscure lineman to being the second-highest-paid player on the field. I asked Bill Parcells, ‘How did the left tackle get more and more valuable?’ And he says, ‘Lawrence Taylor.’

“Taylor was the first real edge pass rusher to consistently threaten the quarterback’s blind side. After his arrival, NFL teams had to invest more money in the left tackle because they needed to protect quarterbacks—most of whom are right-handed—from being hit from behind. [People all over the NFL] brought that play up. They were like, ‘Have you seen Joe Theismann’s leg get broken by Lawrence Taylor? That’s our most valuable asset, and it just got crunched.’ [It] really affected the way the NFL thought about that position. So I made that play the opening scene in my book The Blind Side, about [a young high-school player] Michael Oher and the left tackle position.”

John Lee Hancock, writer and director of The Blind Side movie: “I thought it was important that the Theismann injury be the opening scene of the movie, too, but because the footage was owned by the NFL, we had to get their permission to use it. The first thing the NFL lawyers said was ‘We would prefer you didn’t use the footage—it portrays football as a violent sport.’

“Instead, they suggested that we open the movie with a scene of a coach standing at a chalkboard explaining why it was so important to protect a quarterback’s blind side. I said, ‘Anytime a teacher got chalk and went to a chalkboard in class, I fell asleep.’ They had a couple of other notions that were equally bad, and finally I said, ‘Guys, this Theismann clip is the best way.’

“In the end, the NFL let us use it, but we had detailed negotiations over how we would present it. We actually had to speed up the footage because they didn’t want us to show the slow-motion clip that ABC had shown live.”

Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx, part owner of the Washington Redskins: “My daughter Molly was executive producer of The Blind Side, and she wanted to reach out to Joe Theismann to see if he was comfortable with the clip being in the film. I’ve known Joe for years, so I called him and said, ‘Molly and Alcon Entertainment have this wonderful film, and you have a short but very essential role in this. Are you okay with this?’ We sent him the script and he agreed.”

Theismann:“Fred Smith told me he had the script changed so I would be described as a ‘legendary’ quarterback in the movie. I thought, ‘Thank you very much. I appreciate that.’ ”

“The Blind Side,” which opened in November 2009, reportedly became the highest-grossing sports movie of all time.

Theismann: “From the day I got hurt, people have always come up to me and asked me about the injury. All the time. They ask, ‘How’s the leg?’ And I say, ‘It’s a little crooked, it’s a little short, but I’m able to use it.’ And whenever someone suffers a severe leg injury in sports, I always get phone calls from reporters to discuss it. But because my injury happened 30 years ago, The Blind Side reintroduced me to a different generation that had never seen it on television.”

Theismann led the Redskins to a Super Bowl victory in 1983. Photograph by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images.

Theismann: “Leaving football was incredibly painful, and I didn’t handle it well. I sulked. I pouted. I went through the ‘why me?’ stages. I’ll tell you, there is nothing in life that can match stepping on a football field and getting ready for a Super Bowl. There is nothing in life that can match running out of that tunnel in RFK Stadium in front of our fans.

“I was blessed to be able to do it, and all of a sudden it was gone. I started having the realization: Was I nothing but football? Did football define me? Who would I be if I couldn’t play football?”

Dexter Manley, Redskins defensive end: “When I saw Joe Theismann go down, I was filled with trepidation. I thought, ‘This could happen to me. What am I going to fall back on?’ At the time, I was functionally illiterate and I was snorting cocaine.

“When I first came to Redskins Park as a rookie, I used to walk around with a copy of the Wall Street Journal. I couldn’t read it—I was emulating what I wanted to be. It took me a long time to learn the plays, and if the coaches implemented something new, they would have to do a walk-through with me so I could learn it. Watching Joe Theismann go down, it made me realize I needed help.

“After the season, I checked into a rehabilitation program, and that winter I began taking reading classes at the Lab School of Washington. When the staff told me I was on a second-grade reading level, I just cried and cried. But I studied at the Lab School from 1986 to 1991, and I continued taking classes when I left the Redskins. Now I can read the Washington Post. I have a job. And as of June 17, I’ve been nine years clean from drugs. If it wasn’t for Joe Theismann, I would have never addressed my issues. I’m sorry he had that injury, but it brought on a whole new horizon for me.”

Theismann never left the game. He became a sportscaster, doing analysis for ESPN and the NFL Network. But the notoriety of his injury came to overshadow his own place in sports history.

Louisville Courier-Journal, April 1, 2013: “Chane Behanan sat on the bench sobbing late in the first half of his University of Louisville basketball team’s NCAA Midwest Regional final against Duke Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. He’d just witnessed teammate and best friend Kevin Ware suffer a gruesome open fracture in his right tibia . . . .

“ ‘It hurt me—hard,’ Behanan said. ‘I don’t remember the last time I cried.’ . . .

“The Cardinals led 21–17 with 6:39 to go in the first half when Duke’s Tyler Thornton rose up on the right wing for a 3-pointer. Ware raced out from the lane and leaped to contest the shot. . . . [W]hen Ware landed, his right leg snapped below the knee. As he rolled over onto his back, it flopped at almost a right angle.

“ ‘My heart just dropped when I saw it,’ Thornton said. ‘I was freaked out. He lifted his leg in the air and I saw where his leg was broken. It was bent in a weird way that it shouldn’t have been.’ ”

Theismann: “If anybody can relate, I think people understand that I could. So I sent a tweet out: ‘Watching Duke/ Louisville my heart goes out to Kevin Ware.’ And it went viral. CBS played the tweet during halftime, and how many millions of people were watching that? I got calls from The Doctors show in LA, I did the Today show, CNN. I did all these different shows because of the graphic nature of the injury.”

Kevin Ware: “I had heard [Theismann’s] name, but I really didn’t know who he was. I found the video of his injury on the internet and watched it; I was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ He sent me a text sending his best wishes, and we had several text conversations over the following weeks. He told me about the whole rehabilitation process and how hard I was going to have to work. But it was a lot of positive energy. He told me, ‘It’s not the end of your career or anything like that. Don’t start doubting yourself.’ It helped a lot.”

Two years later, Ware returned to the NCAA basketball tournament, helping lead his Georgia State team to an unlikely first-round win.

Theismann:“What the injury did for me, it basically became my identity. I’m basically the godfather of broken legs.

“If somebody breaks a leg, I usually get a phone call from the media. And by remaining relevant in this way, it gives me a chance to hopefully help people through a very difficult time. Doctors will clear you when your body is physically ready to go, but then you have to clear yourself through the mental hurdles. And that’s really where I try to offer assistance if I can.

“It’s not just limited to the world of sports. There was a surgeon I talked to about a year ago who had a skiing accident, and one of his family members reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, can you give him a call?’ I’m more than happy to try and help anybody.”

In 2014, Theismann had a cameo in the Super Bowl episode of the Andy Samberg cop comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” (The joke: He broke his other leg.) Next spring, his injury will provide the plot for “The Throwback Special,” a novel by Chris Bachelder. In the book, a group of 22 men get together every year and restage the fateful play.

Bachelder: “Why has this play remained so resonant 30 years after it occurred? I was 14 years old when I first saw it, and one of the things I’ve noticed talking to people about it or my book, if it’s a man who’s around my age, the reaction is fascinating. They may grimace or cringe or grab their leg, but they’ll also smile.

“But their laughter is not callous. It’s not cruelty about Theismann’s injury. The smiling or the laughter is about pure nostalgia. As one of my friends says, ‘Those players were ours.’ In a way, football was ours. And it’s never yours again. You can remain a fan of sports for the rest of your life, but it never feels like it’s yours again the way it does when you’re that age.”


Senior writer Luke Mullins can be reached at lmulli[email protected]


This article appears in the October 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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