Theismann's broken leg 30 years later remains life-changer

Joe Theismann never suspected how many benefits would come from the worst moment of his life.

"One neat thing is, I'm in the dark with my eyes closed," he said, "and Sandra Bullock is saying my name."

It sounds like every man's dream. Then you realize why Theismann's eyes were closed and what he was hearing.

"Legendary quarterback Joe Theismann," Bullock said, "never played another down of football."

It was the opening scene of "The Blind Side." The director of the 2009 film wanted to illustrate how vital it is to have a good left tackle _ the player who normally protects a quarterback's blind side.

What better way than to show the most catastrophic failure in football history?

It happened 30 years ago this Wednesday. Lawrence Taylor swooped in and blindsided Theismann.

For millions of people, it's not even necessary to describe what happened next, but on the off chance you don't know, Theismann's right leg was broken.

Boy, was it broken.

The scene from "Monday Night Football" became sports' version of the JFK assassination. One man's shattered shin does not compare to those tragedies, but everybody remembers where they were when it happened.

"It was sort of a collective pain and shock we all felt," Dr. Siva Vaidhyanathan said.

He's now a professor of modern media studies at the University of Virginia. On Nov. 18, 1985 he was watching the game with his dorm buddies at Texas.

"Monday Night Football" was America's campfire. In that pre-digital age, everybody gathered around it.

As Theismann's leg snapped like a breadstick, you could hear gasps from Bangor to Maui. That shared experience sparked a lot of landmark questions.

How should TV show such gruesomeness? How should football react? How should fans feel?

For the man crumpled on the turf at RFK Stadium, the moment posed the biggest question of all.

"The thing I held most dear was stripped from me," Theismann said. "It forced me to do a lot of soul-searching and look at myself honestly."

In that sense, the Big Break might have been the best thing that ever happened to him. Those silver linings were nowhere in sight as he looked up and saw the Longines clock on the scoreboard.

"It was 10:05 p.m.," Theismann remembered.

He'd started 71 straight games for Washington, was an NFL MVP and Super Bowl champ. He was dating TV star Cathy Lee Crosby and pretty much owned the town, if not the world.

The Redskins called a flea-flicker from their 42-yard line. Theismann handed off to John Riggins, who took a step and pitched it back to his quarterback.

Theismann stepped up as the pocket collapsed. Giants linebacker Harry Carson was zeroing in from the right side. From the blind side came L.T.

It had to be L.T.

"He was the most dominant defensive presence of his era," Vaidhyanathan said. "He was known for being merciless and ferocious and violent."

If Karl Mecklenburg had ended Neil Lomax's career during a 1 p.m. Sunday game, it would have been a quarterback falling in the woods. But here, two of the NFL's most prominent characters collided on the sport's biggest stage.

Then there was the gross-out factor.

Theismann's shin turned into a 45-degree hinge as Taylor's 240 pounds came down. It sounded like two gunshots as the tibia and fibula snapped. One of the bones jutted through his sock.

Taylor frantically motioned to the Redskins' sideline for help. He turned, looked down at his victim and raised both hands to his helmet in horror.

Theismann was on his back. His right knee was raised, but his lower leg was flat on the ground.

A referee bent over and tried to steady the leg. Blood spurted and hit him in the chest.

Almost none of this had been apparent on live TV, but ABC was pioneering the reverse-angle camera in 1985. Producers in the control truck saw the replay on the monitors.

ABC showed a quick replay and cut to a commercial. During the break, producer Bob Goodrich discussed the next move with the announcing crew of Frank Gifford, Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson.

They showed the replay again in slow motion.

"We'll look at it with the reverse angle, one more time," Gifford said, "and I suggest if your stomach is weak, you just don't watch."

The rest of America got a look, but this was before scoreboards turned into huge video screens. The announced crowd of 53,371 sat in silence. Some fans had miniature TVs and gasped on cue.

Theismann said the pain was unbelievable at first, but numbness quickly set in. He was always loquacious, and that personality emerged as trainers and doctors splinted his leg.

"I'm going to fine you for this!" he yelled at Taylor.

Carson had been talking about retiring after the season. Theismann told him not to because he wanted to face him again.

"Joe, you might be coming back," Carson said. "But you won't be coming back tonight."

As he was carted off the field, Theismann really thought he'd be back in 1986. The thought of not being Joe Theismann, Superstar simply did not register.

He certainly got the '80s version of TMZ treatment the next few days. A TV helicopter followed the ambulance to Arlington Hospital, where news crews quickly gathered.

Forty minutes after leaving the stadium, Theismann was wheeled into the operating room. Taylor called the next morning and asked Theismann how he was doing.

"Not very well," he said.

"Why?" Taylor replied.

"Well, you broke both bones in my leg, for crying out loud," Theismann said.

"Joe, you've got to understand something," Taylor said. "I don't do things halfway."

Fans flooded the hospital with cards and flowers. There were so many interview requests, Theismann held a news conference. He entered in a snazzy hospital gown and crutches and vowed to play again.

After three months in a cast, he began serious rehabilitation. Three months later, the Redskins scheduled a workout.

Theismann had an insurance policy that would pay if an injury ended his career. Doctors, lawyers and team personnel gathered at the Redskins' facility to gauge Theismann's progress.

"I felt good," he said. "I was ready to put on a show."

His 36-year-old arm was still golden, but his right leg was now slightly shorter than his left. He didn't so much run as wobble.

Theismann pressed ahead as the ache in his knee intensified. The workout was scheduled for one hour.

Fifteen minutes in, Theismann looked back, and almost every observer was gone. He put his arm around a trainer, started walking to the locker room and cried.

Football had defined who he was. The good life also had blinded him to what he'd become.

"I was an egomaniac, self-centered. I didn't realize that had happened," Theismann said. "Now I can go back and appreciate the good fortune and the people who helped me accomplish things."

It wasn't a quick journey. Theismann was depressed for about three years.

What helped lift it was what triggered it. The encounter with L.T. gave him a new identity.

"The world knows me for the injury," Theismann said. "I'll forever be known as the Godfather of Broken Legs."

People whose bones had been shattered started reaching out to him for help and advice. His teammate, Dexter Manley, saw what happened that night and had a revelation.

Manley was a functional illiterate and closet cocaine addict. He told the Washingtonian magazine that watching Theismann's life change so fast scared him into rehab.

"If it wasn't for Joe Theismann, I never would have addressed my issues," he said. "I'm sorry he had that injury, but it brought on a whole new horizon for me."

Same for Theismann, who became a motivational speaker and broadcaster. He even did "Monday Night Football" for a while. Leading up to that assignment, the New York Times wanted to do a story on the 20th anniversary of the injury.

The writer insisted they watch a replay of the game. As the fateful play neared, Theismann became queasy.

He'd never seen it.

"I vowed to never see it again," he said.

That's why he closed his eyes at the start of "The Blind Side," but the movie introduced Theismann to millions who weren't alive in 1985.

One was Kevin Ware, a guard for Louisville's basketball team. In a 2013 NCAA Tournament game against Duke, he jumped to block a shot and came down wrong.

Millions of viewers immediately suffered Theismann flashbacks. It even gave Theismann Theismann flashbacks.

"Watching Duke/Louisville, my heart goes out to Kevin Ware," he wrote on his Twitter account.

It was retweeted almost 10,000 times, and Theismann phoned Ware to offer encouragement.

CBS televised the Louisville game and showed two replays of Ware's fall, both from wide angles. It didn't show it again, and most other networks either didn't show the play or blurred over the injury.

Millions reflexively turn away at such sights, but Theismann's injury also has been viewed more than 3 million times on YouTube.

Which audience should be served?

It's an ongoing debate among TV executives, critics and viewers.

"A case can be made that we should not shy away from the brutality of football," Vaidhyanathan said. "We should be blunt about it. We need to see and feel the effect."

It's easy to pretend America's true pastime doesn't come with a price. Head trauma takes years to develop. Torn ACLs don't spurt blood over the nearest referee.

On Nov. 18, 1985, millions of fans finally witnessed the damage their favorite sport can do.

"We cheer and cheer and push and push and celebrate until they have an insurmountable injury," Vaidhyanathan said. "Then we politely clap as they're taken off the field.

"What does it say about the way we embrace violence? It's sort of bizarre and should be discomforting."

Theismann's discomfort isn't theoretical. The shortened leg caused back problems. His right foot is usually numb, and he barely can push off with that leg.

"It altered my body completely," he said.

He gave up racquetball years ago but has turned himself into a 2-handicap golfer. He said it's better to be Joe Theismann, now 66, than Joe Theismann then.

"Really, what is success?" he asked. "A lot of people define it as being accomplished in your profession, but this opened my eyes and defined it better.

"What do you give back to society? What do you contribute to other people?"

He went down hard and gave millions a night they'll never forget. Thirty years later, he hopes they'll also remember how he got up.

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