Whatever Happened to ….. Joe Theismann
A Grey Cup and Two Super Bowls
By the time the 1971 NFL draft came along, Theismann felt confident that he would be drafted in the first round. However, he was not selected until the fourth round and that was by the Miami Dolphins.
Contract negotiatons didn’t go well. The Dolphins’ first offer was $17,000 a year. When the team owner, Joe Robbie, got involved in the negotiations, the offer went up to a three year contract, $35,000 the first year, $45,000 the second year, and $55,000 for the third year as well as a $35,000 signing bonus broken down over three years. It sounded good to Theismann. “I said on Miami television ‘Come hell or high water, I am going to be a Miami Dolphin.” But there was a problem. There was a rider attached to the contract which was written by Robbie that said that Theismann had to give back the signing bonus if he failed to make the 40 man roster. This would hold for all three years of the contract. Theismann said that he hadn’t agreed to that and he wouldn’t sign. Arguments between him and representatives of the Dolphins resulted. “Don Shula flew up to South Bend but I wouldn’t budge. I really think he carried a grudge against me ever since.”
Finally, the Dolphins agreed that the bonus was not related to the contract and that he didn’t have to give it back. But by then the whole affair caused Theismann to be disillusioned. He decided to sign with the Canadian Football League Toronto Argonauts. Before the NFL draft the Argonauts offered him $50,000 a year for three years and a signing bonus of $50,000.
Theismann’s first year with the Argonauts the team went to the Grey Cup, the CFL’s version of the Super Bowl. They lost to Calgary. “The thing that was so interesting about playing in the Grey Cup was that the country was divided,” said Theismann. “The east were for the team that came from the east and the west was for the team that came from the west. In the Super Bowl it was a city versus a city with corporate America watching. The game also gave me my first world championship game experience. It was a great thing. I was a big shot nationwide. I did commercials, endorsed clothing lines, and more.”
The second year he broke his leg in the season’s opening game and was lost for most of the season. Then a contract dispute developed between Theismann and the Argonauts. The team’s general manager, John Barrow, offered him $75,000 but Theismann turned it down believing that he could get more from an NFL team.
Ultimately George Allen, who was the head coach and general manager of the Redskins at the time traded draft choices to the Dolphins for the rights to Theismann and soon after Theismann signed a contract to play with the Skins.
Theismann’s career stats with the Argonauts were:
Year Attempts Completions Yards Percentage TD Int.
1971 278 148 2440 53.2 17 21
1972 127 77 1157 60.6 10 —
1973 274 157 2496 57.3 13 13
When Theismann joined the Redskins Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer were sharing the quarterback position. There was no room for anyone else. Theismann’s demeanor seemed to alienate both Jurgensen and Kilmer. “Billy wouldn’t say ‘boo’ to me,” said Theismann. He was on talking terms with Jurgensen.
When I did an article on Billy Kilmer (can be seen at: http://capitalnewsservice.net) I asked him about Theismann. He confirmed that the two didn’t get along. “Theismann started off on the wrong foot,” said Kilmer. “In 1974 he was brought in and there was a players’ strike so the rookies played two or three exhibition games without the veterans in camp. Theismann had a good game in one of those exhibitions and a reporter with the Washington Post asked him, ‘What do you think is going to happen when Jurgensen and Kilmer come back to camp.’ And Theismann said, ‘I’m going to put those two old men on the bench.’ And it was quoted in all the newspapers. I called Sonny and said, ‘Did you see what he said?’ Sonny laughed and said, ‘Yeah, well we’ll have him catching punts at the end of the year.’ And my God, we did.”
Theismann started his career as a punt returner for the Redskins in a game against the New York Giants. “I was standing next to Herb Mul-key and Kenny Houston and both of them were our punt returners,” said Theismann. “But both were nicked up. So I leaned over to George (Allen) and asked him if he wanted me to go in and return a punt. He was distracted talking to somebody else and just waved me in. I went on to the field, Allen finished his conversation and noticed me out there. He turned to Special Teams Coach Paul Landham and asked, ‘What’s he doing out there?’ And Landham replied, ‘You told him to go and return the punt.’ And George said, ‘No I didn’t. Get him out of there.’ Well, once you cross the white line you aren’t coming back.” And returning punts was basically Theismann’s career with the Redskins.
In 1976 he was so disillusioned he asked Allen to trade him to the Seattle Seahawks or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, two expansion teams that had been created that year. Of course, we all know that there was no trade.
George Allen left the Redskins in 1978 and Jack Pardee was hired as head coach. It was Pardee who gave Theismann his first opportunity to start.
Theismann said that he owns a debt of gratitude to pardee for giving him the opportunity, but it was the Redskins quarterback coach at the time, Joe Walton, who taught him how to play quarterback. “Walton taught me the fundamentals of how to play quarterback,” he said. But it was Teddy Marchibroda who was the Redskins quarterback coach in 1974 when Theismann joined the team who introduced him to NFL football. “At that time there were six basic coverages in the NFL,” said Theismann. “Teddy handed me a reel of film that showed those coverages and he told me to study it for a month and then we would start talking about offenses. So he had me studying defenses first. It was the first time I studied the game in such depth.”
His NFL career really started when Joe Gibbs became head coach in 1981. However, things did not go well the first season. Theismann felt that someone in the Redskins organization was bad mouthing him to Gibbs and as a result Gibbs was indifferent toward him. “I think someone had filled Gibbs with a bunch of baloney that I didn’t love football, that I had other business enterprises, which I did, but it didn’t diminish my love for the game.”
All sorts of rumors were flying about how long Theismann would be the Redskins quarterback. The team had drafted Tom Flick to replace him and a trade with the Detroit Lions for Eric Hipple almost occurred. “I believe the deal was close to happening but Hipple had a great game against the Giants on a Monday night and the Lions backed out of the deal,” said Theismann.
Theismann believes that the feelings he had toward Gibbs and the feelings that he thought Gibbs had toward him contributed to the team’s bad 0-5 start. “My career was on the line and I was desperate,” said Theismann. So I went to see him at his home. We sat down and talked. I explained how important football was to me. Gibbs said that he wanted somebody who was totally committed to the position and running his offense.”I told him that I would give up everything I was involved in if Gibbs wanted me to. I was just asking for a fair chance.
“Well, that was the turning point of my career and the Redskins under Joe Gibbs,” continued theismann. “The next 11 games, we were 8-3. The following year we were 12-1. In 1983 we were 16-3. In 1984 we were 11-5. And we were 4-4 in 1985 when I got hurt.”
That refers to the game against the New York Giants when Lawrence Taylor of the Giants sacked Theismann for a loss during a flee flicker play and Theismann suffered a compound fracture of his leg. The injury ended his career.
But he was saved from possible problems that may often plague others in pro sports who are forced to retire due to injury. He listened to advice given him by Redkins owner Jack Kent Cooke. When Cooke first signed Theismann to a deal, he handed him a business card from a Lloyd’s of London representative and he urged Theismann to take out an insurance policy that could at least pay off part of the contract if he was injured. Cooke also told Theismann not to deduct the cost of the premium on his tax return. That meant that if he was injured, he would not have to pay taxes on the settlement if the policy paid off. Theismann took the advice and got a policy. It ultimately paid him $1.5 million.
During his career with the Redskins from 1974 through 1985 Theismann participated in two Super Bowls — winning one of them. He was selected to two Pro Bowls (1982, 1983), was an All-Pro selection three times (1979, 1982, 1983), NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1983, Bert Bell Award winner in 1982, Walter Payton Man of the Year in 1982, one of the 70 Greatest Redskins and was enshrined on the Redskins Ring of Fame at RFK Stadium.
His career stats for the Redskins look like this:
Year Att. Comp. Yards Comp% TDs Int.
1975 22 10 96 45.5 1 2
1976 163 79 1,036 48.5 8 10
1977 182 84 1,097 46.2 7 9
1978 395 187 2,593 47.3 13 18
1979 395 233 2,797 59.0 20 13
1980 454 262 2,962 57.7 17 16
1981 496 293 3,568 59.1 19 20
1982 252 161 2,033 63.9 13 9
1983 459 276 3,714 60.1 29 11
1984 477 283 3,391 59.3 24 13
1985 31 167 1,774 55.5 8 16
3602 2044 25,206 56.7 160 138
Life After Football
For a few years after his injury which forced his retirement, Theismann tried to hook up with another team. During this time he was in broadcasting doing NFL games first for CBS and then ESPN Sunday Night and later Monday Night Football. He also partnered with Frank Gifford to announce Super Bowl XIX for ABC. His career with ESPN lasted until 2007 when he was replaced by Ron Jaworski. He has worked the booth for some Redskins pre-season games. His broadcasts contracts included a clause that allowed him to leave the booth to play football if he could get a contract.
He also threw defensive drills for a variety of NFL teams until he was 55 years old. He did this work for Bill Belichick in Cleveland and New England, Kevin Gilbride in Houston, Norv Turner for a variety of teams, and threw the defensive drill the Wednesday before the Super Bowl for the Baltimore Ravins in 2000.
He loved working in the booth. “Broadcasting was so much fun,” said Theismann. “I had access to 32 NFL teams. That means that I had access to 32 different coaching and ownership philosophies. There was so much to learn as a broadcaster. To this day I still like to analyze the teams.”
Because of his interest in studying the different NFL teams Theismann is working on the development of a website through which he will showcase these skills during the coming season.
He also plans to start a quarterback camp to teach kids the fundamentals of playing the position. “College quarterbacks today don’t know the fundamentals of throwing, footwork, or running a game. I want to teach that,” he said.
He is also a motivational speaker, does promotional work for Kelloggs as well as for GlascoSmithKline concerning prostrate health.
His first marriage with Shari Brown Theismann ended in divorce in 1984. He has been married to Robin Smith Theismann for more than 11 years. He has three children from his first marriage — Joe, Jr., who is an assistant golf pro; Patrick, who works for a company that converts paper data into digital for the government; and Amy, who is a mother raising four kids. He also has seven grandchildren.
He and his wife have three homes — one in Leesburg, Virginia; another in Memphis and the third in Florida.
When asked if he had any regrets, Theismann concluded, “My only regret is that I didn’t get a chance to play for Don Shula. I don’t think I handled the situation with the Dolphins and the Argonauts well. But the experience gave me knowledge and experience and made me wiser as far as negotiatons are concerned.”