See biography by M. Kriegel (2004).
He played football for the University of Notre Dame and was a runner-up for the 1970 Heisman Trophy which went to Jim Plunkett of Stanford University. Late in the season, his hallmates in Zahm Hall hung an enormous banner out of a 4th story window proclaiming, "Theisman for Heisman", (sic) changing the original pronunciation of his surname, "THEEZ-man," to rhyme with "Heisman", which he has used since. During his collegiate career, the smallish Theismann (6'-0", 180 lb/1.83 m, 82 kg) led the Fighting Irish to a 20-3-2 record. He still holds the school record for most passing yards in a single game with 526 against USC in a torrential downpour in 1970.
For his efforts as a collegiate player, Joe Theismann was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003. Prior to joining the NFL, he was a Canadian Football League star. After an injury ended his professional career, he settled with his family in Loudoun County, Virginia.
In 1971, he completed 148 of 278 passes for 2440 yards and 17 TDs (with 21 interceptions.) His 1972 season was shortened by injury, but he hit 77 of 127 passes for 1157 yards and 10 TDs. During his last season, 1973, 157 of his 274 passes were complete, for 2496 yards and both 13 TDs and interceptions. He was an all-star in both 1971 and 1973.
In 1974, the National Football League's Washington Redskins obtained Theismann's rights. Determined to make it to the NFL, Thiesmann left the CFL and joined the Redskins, where he volunteered to be the team's punt returner. In 1978, Theismann became the Redskins' starting quarterback after Billy Kilmer proved ineffective.
Theismann led the Redskins to a win in Super Bowl XVII and an appearance in Super Bowl XVIII and would go on to set several Redskins franchise records, including most career passing attempts (3,602), most career passing completions (2,044) and most career passing yards (25,206), while also throwing 160 touchdown passes, with 138 interceptions. On the ground, he rushed for 1,815 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was the NFL's MVP in 1983. He earned the Player of the Game Award in the second of his two Pro Bowl appearances.
In an era when most quarterbacks had long since used variations of a double-bar facemask (or even triple-bar facemasks) that afforded more protection, Theismann refused to use anything but a one-bar facemask throughout his career so as not to obstruct his vision.
At the time, the Redskins had been attempting to run a "flea-flicker" play. The Giants' defense, however, was not fooled, and they tried to blitz Theismann. Taylor sandwiched Theismann into Carson and inadvertently landed his hip on Theismann's lower right leg, fracturing both the tibia and the fibula.
"It was at that point, I also found out what a magnificent machine the human body is", Theismann said. "Almost immediately, from the knee down, all the feeling was gone in my right leg. The endorphins had kicked in, and I was not in pain."
As Theismann lay on the field, a horrified Taylor frantically screamed and waved for emergency medical technicians. Initially, however, many Redskins personnel thought Taylor's screaming and pointing directed at their sidelines was a taunt over the fact that he'd successfully stopped their play. Taylor has said that his animated behavior was largely a claustrophobic reaction to having been trapped at the bottom of the pile that followed his tackle. The Monday Night Football announce team (composed of Frank Gifford, O.J. Simpson and Joe Namath) deduced from the start that Taylor was calling for help.
While initially only the players on the field could see the extent of the damage to Theismann's leg, the reverse-angle instant replay provided a clearer view of what had actually happened - Theismann's lower leg bones were broken midway between his knee and his ankle, such that his leg from his foot to his mid-shin was lying flat against the ground, and the upper part of his shin up to his knee was at a 45-degree angle as the two linebackers brought him down on the sack. The image of his lower leg bending at such an unnatural angle has become one of the most infamous football injury images ever.
The injury ultimately forced Theismann into retirement at the age of 36. Theismann has never blamed Lawrence Taylor for his injury. Taylor has said that he has never seen film of the play and never wants to. Below is Frank Gifford's commentary of the play:
...Jim Brown and Franco Harris. First and ten, Riggins, flea flicker back to Theismann, Theismann's in a lot of trouble. And it was Lawrence Taylor who...slammed Theismann to the ground at the 42 yard line. The blitz was on, that's not necessarily a good play to have called and quickly Lawrence Taylor is up, saying Theismann is hurt. And I don't believe Lawrence Taylor would have reacted that way unless Theismann, is really hurt... He slammed him, to the natural surface here... The blitz was on, that is not a good call to have with the blitz on... Theismann has no chance at all to get downfield and let's take one more look at it with our reverse angle camera. He's looking deep and he knows he's in trouble. Lawrence Taylor number 56 right there. Carson is number 53. But it's Taylor, over Carson (at this time the leg is shown). And you can see the uh, right knee, the right foot. And I knew that something was uh... really bad when Lawrence Taylor leaped to his feet, and beckoned over to the Redskins bench; get your medical team in here quickly.
On March 26, 2007, ESPN announced that Ron Jaworski would replace Theismann in the Monday Night Football booth. Theismann rejected an offer to work on the network's college football coverage. He has since done a number of Washington Redskins pre-season games on CSN.
Following the 2007 NFL Draft, in which Brady Quinn fell to pick #22, Theismann, despite being a fellow Notre Dame alumnus, lambasted him in an interview on ESPN Radio. He was bothered by the appearance of Quinn's hair, tie, and the fact he was chewing gum.