SI Vault
Ray Kennedy
October 06, 1980
Washington's voluble Joe Theismann sports this gaudy ring on his pinkie, but he wants a real Super Bowl job
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October 06, 1980

A Mouth That Roars

Washington's voluble Joe Theismann sports this gaudy ring on his pinkie, but he wants a real Super Bowl job

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Defensive Tackle Diron Talbert, the last of the active Over-the-Hillers, speaks from the perspective of a 13-year veteran of Redskin wars, internal and otherwise. "Theismann has really become a great team leader," Talbert says. "He's become one of the guys, a brother. Still, Joe has stayed Joe. I like that. If you're a cocky kid, be a cocky kid. Be yourself. He's the Redskins' franchise."

And Little Joe has grown up in more ways than one. He has been resolutely pumping iron for the past three years and now tops out at 6'½" and a solid, chesty 195 pounds. Though he envies Bradshaw's arm, Joe the Throw is in the ICBM class himself; two years ago he uncorked a desperation pass against St. Louis that traveled 80 yards on the fly. Strong enough to bench-press 225 pounds, Theismann delights in showing up the massive linemen who go soft in the off-season. "When I walk into the weight room and see them straining at 350 or 400 pounds in the squat, I ask them to spot it at 405, do my reps and stroll off. Drives them crazy," he says.

Beyond muscle, Theismann has what Pardee calls "superb athleticism." An accomplished golfer, bowler and tennis, pool and racquetball player, Theismann entered the 1980 TV Superstars competition and, typically, trained for it like an Olympic hopeful. He ran three miles a day in five-pound boots and logged more miles on his baby-sitter's bicycle than a fleet of neighborhood paper boys. He finished first in the football division—beating more celebrated legmen like John Stallworth in the half-mile run—fourth among U.S. athletes and ninth in the world finals. He pocketed nearly $25,000 for his efforts.

Theismann, who once challenged Bob Hayes, the Olympic dash champion/Dallas Cowboy wide receiver, to a 60-yard race for $500 and lost by only two steps, says that nowadays "I can run the 40 in about five seconds flat. Put Too Tall Jones on my tail, and I'll turn it in four. Fear is a great motivator."

And playing the toy bulldog with the NFL grizzlies can be a shattering experience, as Theismann's "character bump," a nose that jukes left, then right, attests. In the name of valor, or more often an overblown sense of machismo, Theismann has sustained a range of injuries that has made him a favorite exhibit at sports-medicine seminars. In 1979, at a meeting sponsored by the Maryland Podiatry Association, Theismann said: "I have been knocked out three times, broken my nose seven times. I have a staple in my left shoulder that holds it together. I've broken three ribs on the left side, two on the right. I have a hip pointer. I have torn cartilage, thanks to the Atlanta Falcons, and a separated' left collarbone, courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys. I also have had bruised metatarsals and sprained toes. Other than that, I'm a healthy human being."

Spoken like the same foolhardy soul who, in 1974 and 1975, risked his career by volunteering for the hazardous duties of returner and downfield blocker on the Redskins' punt-return unit. "I didn't know it was dangerous at the time," says Theismann, who returned 17 punts for an average of 9.5 yards. "I did it because I was standing around on the sidelines doing nothing. Listen, nobody knows this, but returning punts is kind of fun."

For a long while, says Theismann, who also holds the ball for field-goal and extra-point attempts, "my sole claim to fame on the bubble-gum cards was that I once threw for a touchdown on a fake field-goal play. That's how bad it was."

Lately, convinced that Staubach shortened his career by "taking a lot of unnecessary hits," Theismann has begun sliding to avoid a crunching tackle. "There was a time when I didn't do my famous baseball hook slide," he says. "Yeah, when I was dumb."

Theismann claims that it wasn't ignorance but duty that made him impervious to the Notre Dame mystique in high school. Having been blessed with a receiver by the name of Drew Pearson, the South River Flash was recruited by some 120 colleges. He shunned Notre Dame because, for one thing, he's not Catholic. "I'm a Hungarian Methodist, and I'd never even heard of Knute Rockne and George Gipp and all those guys," he says. "I wasn't home watching college football on Saturdays. I was over at the high school, two blocks away, throwing the football at a tire hung from the goalpost. Or out in the yard throwing with my father. And when he wasn't available—he managed an Esso station seven days a week—I threw with my mother. She can wing it pretty good."

As a result, Notre Dame went begging, and Theismann signed with N.C. State, mainly because it was one of the few colleges with a nuclear reactor. "I wanted to be a nuclear engineer," he says. "I still don't know why." Then a Newark newspaper ran the story about Irish Coach Ara Parseghian's being interested in Theismann. Little Joe pasted the scoffing headline—LITTLE JOE WILL GET KILLED AT NOTRE DAME—to his bedroom wall "as a reminder" and packed his bags for South Bend. "Maybe I'm the wrong one to challenge," he says.

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