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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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Maybe so. Theismann was confronted by six other freshman quarterbacks at the first Notre Dame practice session. "Six!" says Theismann. "All of them 6'4". I decided that very day I was going to be the best of the bunch and the best in Notre Dame history."

Roger Valdiserri, the Irish sports information director, must have known something. Shortly after Theismann's arrival in South Bend, Valdiserri called Joe into his office to lay the foundation for a classic publicity ploy. "Son," Valdiserri said, "how do you pronounce your name?" "Thees-man," said Theismann. "Nope," said Valdiserri. "From now on it's Thighs-man, as in Heisman."

Thighs-man lived up to his billing. In his senior year, going against mighty USC in a driving rain that had turned the field into a quagmire, he passed for a school-record 526 yards. In 1970 he broke Staubach's Cotton Bowl passing records, and in a return engagement with Texas the next year, he passed for one touchdown and ran for two more in the first 17 minutes as Notre Dame snapped the Long-horns' 30-game winning streak and knocked them out of their No. 1 ranking. As Parseghian was fond of saying, "Never underestimate the magic of Joe Theismann."

Cheryl Brown didn't. As Theismann recalls, "One of the guys told me there was this great-looking blonde secretary working in Valdiserri's office. I got this weakness for blondes, so I walked over and got a publicity picture from her. Every day I'd stop by and get a picture. Finally I had a stack of them and had to come up with a new excuse." Joe and Cheryl were married in his senior year, which he figures served Valdiserri right. "He changed my name, so I changed hers," says Theismann. "I got even."

The 1971 pro draft was a downer. Theismann, who was the 99th pick (by Miami) behind seven other quarterbacks, including Leo Hart (59) and Karl Douglas (78), still rankles at the suggestion that bigger is better. "I don't know where they get that size thing in football. It's a myth," he says. "They say a small quarterback can't throw over a 6'5" defensive lineman. How many times does he have to if his own line is functioning? When people say that size is a factor, I ask them to name five great quarterbacks who are 6'3" or more. They can't do it. Size is no factor."

So it was off Toronto for three very successful Canadian Football League seasons until, in 1974, the Redskins traded a first-round draft choice to the Dolphins, whose offer Joe had spurned in '71, for the rights to Theismann. Arriving in D.C., Hollywood Joe was quickly upstaged. Not once, but twice. What is it like, he was asked at the time, playing third string behind Jurgensen and Kilmer? "It's like when you have three wheels for a bike and you only need two," he said. "One has to lean against the wall. Well, here I am."

Kilmer recalls, "Sonny and I both wanted to start, of course, but when Theismann joined the Redskins, we didn't care which one of us did as long as it wasn't him."

No stranger to being the target of name-calling, Theismann managed to pick up a new title on his first day with the Redskins: scab. "That was the year of the players' strike," recalls one former Over-the-Hiller. "Because Joe considered himself technically a rookie, he walked into camp and began practicing. The veteran players were walking the picket line. That started Joe's problems, the questioning of his leadership role." Theismann counters, "I had a job to earn. I wouldn't be any good to the Redskins and the strike wouldn't be any good to me if I didn't make the team."

He made the team, all right, but getting in good with his teammates was another matter. "Let's get this Theismann situation straightened out," says Kilmer. "It wasn't my fault that he didn't get along with me. He didn't want to. When Joe became a Redskin, Jurgensen and I tried to help him. We knew we wouldn't last forever. In quarterback meetings we would try and explain things to him, but he seemed indifferent toward us. So we said the hell with him if that's the way he was going to be. Have you ever heard of a Notre Dame quarterback who didn't think he knew it all?"

Theismann has all too often heard about the long green line of Irish quarterbacks who failed to make it big in the pros—Angelo Bertelli, Bob Williams, Frank Tripucka, Ralph Guglielmi, Terry Hanratty, John Huarte. "Well, Johnny Lujack and Daryle Lamonica didn't do too badly," he says, "and all I can say about the old line, 'All you Notre Dame quarterbacks are the same—destined to be backups,' is yes, until now."

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