When Joe Theismann went to pick up his high school diploma he could barely lift it. At 5'11" and 148 pounds he looked like a strip of lean bacon wrapped around a long straw, and when Notre Dame invited him to come and play quarterback, he said, "No, sir, I'd rather live." He figured those Irish Catholics must be looking to wipe out the German Methodists, starting with the tall skinny ones. Lordy, he said, they want to put me in for the Gipper. Let's win one for the recent Joe Theismann.
Aw, come on out for a chat, said Ara Parseghian, whose ancestors used to sell rugs to the Persians. O.K. said Theismann, but if any defensive tackles from Purdue show up at the airport I'm not getting off the plane. He went and Parseghian chatted, and Theismann wound up buying a bearskin to throw in front of the fireplace and four years of football at Notre Dame. Back home in Northern New Jersey a local paper head lined a story: LITTLE JOE TO GET KILLED AT NOTRE DAME. "I've got to admit it," he told friends, "that story really ticked me off."
When Theismann showed up at Notre Dame in the fall of 1967 to report in as a freshman, two assistant coaches, Johnny Ray and Joe Yonto, were at the airport to meet him. As he stepped from the plane, Ray grabbed Yonto's arm and said, "Who's that skinny kid?"
"That's the quarterback Parseghian recruited."
"Oh, no," said Ray, closing his eyes. "They're going to break his neck."
And then even Parseghian began to have misgivings. The first time the freshmen scrimmaged the varsity the Notre Dame coach took another look at the pipestem he had recruited and he winced. Parseghian moaned, "He really is going to get killed."
But Theismann survived, of course, although at times it was a toss-up, and he grew one inch up and 29 pounds around, and the only people getting killed were those big guys from Purdue and Michigan State and, like last Saturday, from Missouri.
As Parseghian says, now that he is no longer having nightmares about being pressed into duty as a pallbearer, "Don't ever underestimate Joe. He can pass and he can run, he's a great scrambler and a great leader. I know other quarterbacks that don't have size, like Lenny Dawson and Johnny Unitas."
Just to name two.
Missouri's mistake apparently was scoring on the Irish early in the third quarter, putting the Tigers ahead 7-3 and Notre Dame behind for the first time this season. That, as Theismann said later, really ticked him off. Until that moment the Irish had been cruising along on the slim lead of Scott Hempel's 22-yard field goal while trying to establish a running game against Missouri's big and quick eight-man front. In the first half Notre Dame's ground troops had picked up 160 yards but no points, and that is not quite the way to win votes in the polls. So when Missouri punched over its score—on a pass yet, Mike Farmer 10 yards to Mel Gray—Theismann abandoned war in the trenches and began putting the ball into the air.