Ten things you might not know about Joe Theismann's injury 30 years ago

November 18, 2015, 10:05 AM

— -- There are a lot of things that are fairly well known about Joe Theismann.

It's common knowledge that when he was at Notre Dame, the pronunciation of his name was changed from "Theesman" to rhyme with a certain trophy awarded to the country's best college football player (he finished second in the Heisman voting in 1970). It's no secret that he started his pro career in the Canadian Football League. Football fans are well aware that he quarterbacked the Washington Redskins to victory in Super Bowl XVII and that he moved to the broadcast booth when his playing career was over. 

But there's one thing that everybody knows about Joe Theismann, and that thing occurred exactly 30 years ago.

On Nov. 18, 1985, New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor pounced on Theismann from behind during the second quarter of a Monday Night Football game at RFK Stadium. It wasn't until the reverse angle of the play was shown that it became clear why Theismann didn't get up after the sack and why Taylor frantically signaled to the sideline for help. The blow caused a gruesome break of Theismann's right leg between the knee and ankle.

The incident has gone on to be more than just another ugly sports injury. Last year, ESPN named the play the No. 2 moment in Monday Night Football history, behind only the Fail Mary. In 2004, when ESPN commemorated the 25th anniversary of the company's founding with a list of the 100 most memorable moments of the era, Theismann's injury came in at No. 75

While the injury has become an iconic moment in sports and television history, some of the circumstances of the play and its aftermath have faded from memory after three decades. With that in mind, here are 10 things you might not know -- or might not remember -- about the play that ended Theismann's playing career 30 years ago.

1. An old trick: The play on which Theismann was injured was a flea-flicker. He handed the ball off to running back John Riggins, who turned and pitched it back to Theismann, who wanted to throw downfield but was almost immediately trapped between Taylor and fellow linebacker Harry Carson. The Giants' pass-rushers weren't fooled, perhaps because the Redskins had used the same play on other occasions, including twice during the 1982 postseason. In the divisional round, the flea-flicker resulted in a 46-yard Alvin Garrett reception that set up a touchdown in the Redskins' 21-7 win over the Minnesota Vikings. Washington tried it again Super Bowl XVII, but Lyle Blackwood intercepted Theismann's pass at the Miami 1-yard line during the Redskins' 27-17 win over the Dolphins.

2. Missing piece of protection: Four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Jacoby, who would have been partially responsible for blocking Taylor, was not playing because of a knee injury. Russ Grimm, a Hall of Fame left guard, slid over to replace the massive and agile Jacoby. Grimm had help on Taylor from tight end Don Warren on the play, but Warren was no match for the speed and power of Taylor's outside rush. It's hard to say whether Jacoby would have made a difference on that play, but it's worth noting.

3. Famous girlfriend: Theismann's girlfriend at the time was actress Cathy Lee Crosby, who was at the game and rode with him in the ambulance to the hospital ( she told People Magazine she "joked that his punting game was finished" during the ride). Crosby is best known for co-hosting the early-'80s TV show "That's Incredible!" with John Davidson and NFL Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton, but she had her own athletic credentials. She was a former tennis player who competed at Wimbledon in 1964, losing in the first round in singles and doubles.

4. Washington won the game: The score was tied 7-7 when Theismann was hurt in the second quarter. Jay Schroeder took over, and the rookie's first pass resulted in a 44-yard completion to Art Monk. Thanks to three Joe Morris touchdown runs, the Giants took a 21-14 lead into the fourth quarter. But Schroeder capped off Washington's rally with a touchdown pass to Clint Didier. Schroeder, who entered the game having thrown just eight career passes, finished 13-for-20 for 221 yards in the Redskins' 23-21 victory. The win improved Washington to 6-5, and the team surged under Schroeder to a 10-6 record but missed the playoffs.

5. Coming out uneven: Both bones in Theismann's lower right leg -- the tibia and fibula -- were snapped by Taylor's tackle. One of the bones broke through the skin. There was so much bone damage that when the leg healed, it was a little shorter than it had been before the injury.

6. Million-dollar advice: Following the suggestion of Washington owner Jack Kent Cooke, Theismann had taken out an insurance policy that would reimburse him if he suffered a career-ending injury. It reportedly paid him $1.4 million. Theismann had been scheduled to earn a reported $1.2 million in 1986. 

7. He wanted to come back: Theismann started in broadcasting while he was still playing -- he helped call Super Bowl XIX for ABC in January 1985 -- and jumped into his new career in 1986 after he failed a physical and Washington released him. He held out hope he could return to football for several years, and his first contracts with CBS and ESPN contained stipulations that he could leave if he got the opportunity to play again.

8. D'oh: Putting to rest any doubts about the injury's cultural importance, the incident was referenced in a 1991 episode of "The Simpsons." After being interrupted by Marge while watching "Football's Greatest Injuries," Homer exclaimed, "Oh, great, you made me miss Joe Theismann!"

9. He saw most of the movie: The book and movie "The Blind Side" use the play as a jumping-off point to explain the importance of protecting the quarterback. Theismann saw the movie the day after it opened in 2009, but says he closed his eyes while the play was being shown. "There were a lot of sighs and oohs and ahhs," he told the Washington Post. "And once they stopped, I opened my eyes."

10. He eventually watched the play: Theismann avoided watching video of the injury for 20 years. Initially he thought that seeing exactly what happened could create a mental hurdle that would slow down his recovery. He continued to avoid it (can you blame him?) even after he came to realize he'd never play again. (Taylor has also said he had no desire to ever see it.) Theismann finally agreed to watch it with a New York Times reporter at the end of 2005.