Whatever happened to … Joe Theismann
The professional football career of Joe Theismann is something like a road with many different forks. If he went left instead of right or right instead of left, things could have been different. He attended Notre Dame University. But it could have very well have been North Carolina State University. He was drafted by the Miami Dolphins and his first few years in professional football were played in Toronto for the Argonauts in the Canadian Football League. But he could have been a pitcher or shortstop for the Minnesota Twins. He played his entire career in the National Football League for the Washngton Redskins. But he could have been traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Seattle Seahawks or the Detroit Lions.
An Athletic Rat
Things got started for Joseph Robert Theismann on September 9, 1949. His dad owned a gas station and his mom worked for Johnson and Johnson health products. He has one sister.
He grew up in South River, a small town in New Jersey. Theismann described it as no more than a mile square. “It was my world,” he said. “I didn’t know of anything else. New York City was just 35 miles away but it could have been 3500 miles away. It wouldn’t have mattered any to me.”
He just fell into playing sports with the neighborhood kids. He had cousins living all around him who were also interested in sports. He played sports as much as he could. “I was an athletic rat. I loved everything that had to do with sports.” During the school season he couldn’t wait until Saturday mornings. “As soon as the sun was up, I was playing baseball or football all day long.” And in the Summer time he played when the sun came up until it set. Only two things kept him off the playing field when the sun was still up — Church on Sunday morning and the family dinner at 5:15. “Dinner was set on my dad’s work schedule. He had one hour for dinner. It took my dad 15 minutes to drive from work to the house. We had a half hour to eat. Then my dad took 15 minutes to drive back to work. If you weren’t at the table at 5:15, you wouldn’t eat dinner.”
And Theismann was raised as a Methodist. The family attended church every Sunday. After church he would play baseball or football. And, if it was football season, he would return home from the playing field to watch the late game on TV. For college that usually meant that he watched the University of Southern California or UCLA. For pro football, it meant that he watched the San Diego Chargers.
When he played baseball he was a pitcher. When he played football he was a quarterback. “I always had a strong arm,” he said. “So it was natural for me to play quarterback or to pitch.”
But his playing sports were not just limited to friends or extended family who were about his age. He played organized sports includng Pop Warner football. He also bowled with his dad and hit tennis balls with his mom.
When it was time to attend high school, he went to South River High School, only two blocks from his home. He lettered in football, baseball and basketball. He was a high school All-American in football.
Perhaps his fondest memory from his high school days occurred in his senior year. “We were undefeated in football my senior year. The big rivalry game was against New Brunswick High School on Thanksgiving Day at Rutgers Stadium at Rutgers University. After the game we tore down the wooden goal post. It was cut up into 1-foot long plancks and each of us got a planck and the team members signed each others planck. I still have that to this day.”
His football performance in high school attracted interest from many universities. His first choice was North Carolina State University. He actually signed the Grant and Aide agreement to attend the school. His head coach had been a back up to Roman Gabriel there and Theismann thought it would be “cool” to play for the school where Gabriel played. But after he had signed the letter of intent, he decided that he had to visit Notre Dame. The trip out to South Bend, Indiana and back to New Jersey were his first ventures on an airplane. “My dad picked me up at the Newark, New Jersey airport and immediately asked me what I thought. I said that I had to go to Notre Dame. I couldn’t give a reason why. I just felt like that was where I belonged.”
Setting Records at Notre Dame
The history and tradition of Notre Dame University had nothing to do with his decision to go there. But after he arrived and learned of the tradition, it impressed him and seemed to fortify the idea that he had made the right choice.
Soon after he arrived on the campus, he saw the movie “Knute Rockne: All American.” That is when he began to learn of the school’s tradition. “It had to impress a kid of my age. Heck, how many movies did they make about Notre Dame,” he said.
When he arrived at Notre Dame, Ara Paseghian was the head coach. The head coach of the freshman team was a gentleman named Wally Moore.
The freshman team had three games on its schedule. Two of the games were snowed out. So the team got a chance to play only one game. “It was against the freshman team at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh. Now here I am going to the school with the tradition of a fire and brimstone coach in Knute Rockne. So you would expect an inspiring pre-game speech from the coach and a lot of chatter and yelling during the game. Well, Wally was so excited, he lost his voice before the game. So there was no inspiring speeching and no yelling at the players. In one regard, it was refreshing and in another regard it was down right shocking.”
Theismann noted that the school had recruited 13 quarterbacks and Terry Hanratty was the starter and the back up was Collie O’Brien. O’Brien had quarterbacked the team against Michigan State University in 1966 which became the National Championship game. So it was obvious that Theismann would not be playing much in his sophomore year. But one by one the other quarterbacks recruited started moving to other positons and Hanratty was hurt in Theismann’s sophomore year. So Paseghian gave him the opportunity to start.
During his career with the Notre Dame from 1968 through 1970 the Fighting Irish had a won-loss record of 25-5-2. During that period the school was ranked number 1 three times. Notre Dame played in one bowl game — the 1971 Cotton Bowl in which they defeated Number 1 ranked Texas 24-11.
Theismann’s career at Notre Dame was good enough for him to be considered for the Heisman Trophy. And the P.R. machine of the school revved up to help get Theismann that award. All of his life into his college years, his last name was pronounced THEESMANN. But the P.R. campaign got Theismann to change the pronounciation of his name to THISEMANN to rhyme with HEISMAN.
To this day Theismann is ranked highly in school passing records.
Most Passing Attempts in a Game: 58 against USC (1970) 4th in school history
Most Completions in a Game: 33 against USC (1970) 1st in school history
Most Completions in a Season: 155 (1970) 6th in school history
Most Completions in a Career: 290 (1968-1970) 8th in school history
Yards per Attempt: 509 attempts 4,411 yards average: 8.7 4th in school history
Average Yards per Game in a season: 242.9 (1970) 2nd in school history
Yards per Game Career: 152.1 (1968-1970) 5th in school history
Touchdown Passes in a Season: 16 (1970) 6th in school history, 13 (1969) 10th in school history
Touchdown Passes in a Career: 31 (1968-1970) 5th in school history
Completion Percentage Career: 65.9% (1968-1970) 4th in school history
Passing Yards in a Season: 2,529 yards (1970) 4th in school history
Passing Yards in a Career: 4,411 (1968-1970) 6th in school history
Of course, Theismann said that his best game in college was against University of Southern California in 1970. He set the school record which still holds in the number of completions in that game — 33. “I remember it was the last game before the Cotton Bowl,” said Theismann. “The game was played at the Coliseum in Los Angeles and I threw for more than 500 yards. I loved playing in the Coliseum. But on that day it was hazy and the field felt right and the ball flew right.”
His worse game was the 1971 Cotton Bowl against Texas which was ranked number 1. “The first quarter and a half went okay,” Theismann remembered. “Then I hit the ‘funny bone’ on my right hand and the last two fingers on my right hand were completely numb. Every ball I threw went end-over-end. We won the game but I think I could have played a lot better.
“I went on to play in the Hula Bowl (college all-star game) right after the Cotton Bowl and my right hand was still bothering me,” continued Theismann. “John Walston was the coach and there were a great number of pro scouts there. But I couldn’t throw the ball. So I returned punts.”
The campaign put on by Notre Dame and Theismann’s play got him second place in the voting for the Heisman Trophy in 1970. He was beat out by Jim Pluckett of Stanford University.