Monday, November 10, 2003

Even by the often slimy standards of buying and selling sports memorabilia, this one seems outrageous. For a mere $215, you can own an unframed 16-by-20 photograph of New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor reaching from behind to drag down Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann on the night of Nov. 20, 1985, at RFK Stadium.

The photograph, according to the Web site, is “hand-signed” by both dragger and draggee, presumably to allay any fears that either had scrawled his John Hancock with a foot.

L.T. and Joey T?

You might as well have a picture co-signed by Bush and Clinton, Martinez and Zimmer or perhaps Lincoln and Booth.

On the play, Theismann suffered two broken bones (tibia and fibula) in his lower right leg, ending what had been a mostly superb career. He lay writhing on the ground, his shattered leg protruding at a grotesque angle, as the horrified Taylor signaled frantically to the Redskins bench for medical help and fans held their breath.

The usual sellout crowd at RFK Stadium was lucky to be viewing the carnage only from a distance. Discarding any semblance of taste, ABC’s “Monday Night Football” crew showed the horrible play over and over until many viewers either turned away and/or rushed to the bathroom.

How sickening was the sight? In a poll taken more than 15 years later on ESPN’s Page 2 Web site, the injury was voted the most shocking football moment of all time. Said one respondent, “I still can’t shake that image.” Said another, sarcastically: “Can we see it seven more times, please, ABC?”

Oddly, Theismann had missed only one game in eight years as the Redskins’ No.1 quarterback while leading the team to Super Bowl appearances the two previous seasons. He was the team’s all-time leader in passing attempts, completions and yardage, surpassing Redskins icons Sammy Baugh and Sonny Jurgensen. But at 36, his career was on the downslide. As the Redskins split their first 10 games of ‘85, the cocky quarterback was startlingly awful. He ranked 13th among 14 NFC starters with a pathetic passer rating of 59.6, and his 16 interceptions dwarfed eight touchdown tosses.

A month earlier, the powerful Giants had beaten the Redskins 17-3 in the Meadowlands, holding Washington to a meaningless fourth-quarter field goal by Mark Moseley. But in the rematch, Theismann’s passing sparked an early drive that ended with his 10-yard touchdown pass to Don Warren, giving the Redskins a 7-0 lead.

The Giants quickly tied it on a 56-yard TD scamper by Joe Morris, and now the Redskins had the ball on their own 46 early in the second quarter. On first down, Theismann called “50 Gut Pitchback,” a flea flicker on which John Riggins ran up the middle, stopped and tossed the ball back to Theismann for a pass.

The Giants’ alert defense wasn’t fooled. Linebacker Harry Carson and tackle Jim Burt shoved Theismann to the left, where Taylor was waiting. The All-Pro outside linebacker dragged down the luckless quarterback, falling heavily on his leg in the process. There was a loud crack, and bedlam ensued.

After his leg was strapped, Theismann was carried off the field on a stretcher, receiving a tremendous ovation from the fans. Backup Jay Schroeder came in cold, fired a 44-yard pass to Art Monk two plays later and eventually passed the Redskins to a 23-21 victory that kept their playoff hopes alive. But nobody who saw the game live or on TV remembers that. Theismann and Taylor were the story — a particularly scary one if you happened to be a quarterback by profession.

“I was at home, and I heard my mother scream, and then I saw the replay,” said Doug Flutie, then in the U.S. Football League. “It puts fear in your heart … makes you wonder what the heck you’re doing playing football.”

Theismann underwent surgery that night at Arlington Hospital to repair the damage. Dr. Charles Jackson was optimistic his patient might play again, but there was no way — and no reason to, considering Theismann’s yearlong slump and Schroeder’s late-season success.

As we know, Theismann went on to post-football success as a restaurateur and ESPN football analyst, among other activities. Taylor was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999, but his personal life was marred by cocaine use and uncertainty. Said former teammate Beasley Reece: “He’s a good person — a good guy who is a drug addict.”

As a player, the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder from Williamsburg was unsurpassed. His speed and relentless pursuit made him the bane of all quarterbacks. In 1986, he had 20 sacks while leading Bill Parcells’ Giants to the Super Bowl, and his total of 142 ranks among the NFL’s career leaders. But he does not view his devastation of Theismann as a highlight.

“It’s not a moment I want to remember or see again,” Taylor said some years ago, which makes you wonder why he agreed to autograph the picture, much less Theismann.

In his autobiography, Taylor said he was using drugs as early as his second year in the league (1982). His failed NFL drug test in 1987 drew only a warning because it was his first offense. The following year, he failed another and was suspended for 30 days. Yet he came back to help the Giants win the 1991 Super Bowl before his career ended in 1993 at age 34 following a ruptured Achilles’ tendon.

Theismann, a star at Notre Dame and in the Canadian Football League, started his NFL life as a punt returner while aging quarterbacks Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer wound down their careers. After the injury ended his own, Theismann reflected, “It showed me no matter how great you are, it can be over in an instant, and you can never take success for granted.”

These days, Falls Church resident Theismann collects football memorabilia himself and enjoys the enduring perks of being an ESPN football analyst and having been a Redskins star and the NFL’s MVP in 1983. At 54, he remains handsome and frequently garrulous, whether on the tube or in his restaurant. “I’m a firm believer in the idea that you do not have to age, mentally or physically,” he says.

But the awful memory of an awful moment endures, for both him and Taylor, though Theismann says they are friends.

When Taylor called him in the hospital after the injury, Theismann said, “Lawrence, you broke both the bones in my leg.”

Replied Taylor, possibly with an attempt at humor that rang too true: “Joe, I don’t do things halfway.”

In his Hall of Fame induction, Taylor thanked his parents and children “for understanding that people make mistakes.” He added, “The crime is not falling down — the crime is not getting up.”

Except on the night when Joe Theismann couldn’t.

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