In The Game…with Joe Theismann

“In life and in football, you want the percentages to be on your side.”

Former Redskins Quarterback Joe Theismann earned many honors during his pro career that spanned 14 years. Most Valuable Player. Offensive Player of the Year. College Hall of Fame. World Champion.

He played in 163 consecutive games from 1974-1985 and holds Redskins’ records for career passing yardage (25,206), completions (2,044) and attempts (3,602). A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Theismann led Washington to a 27-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII.

Joe TheismannTheismann’s playing career ended in 1985 in a game against the New York Giants when he suffered a compound fracture to his right leg in what an ESPN poll called “the most shocking moment in NFL history.” Theismann stayed close to the game: his second football career includes a stint for ESPN on its NFL broadcast and working as an analyst for the NFL Network’s Playbook.
Bob Thornton Jr., president of South Jersey Welding Supply, grew up in northern New Jersey, not far from Joe Theismann’s hometown of South River. Many kids from North Jersey would head to the shore on the hot weekends of summer. One weekend, Bob Thornton found himself on the receiving end of Joe Theismann’s throws during a pickup game on the beach. Bob describes the memory: “I’d never seen someone throw like that. My hands still hurt when I think about it.”
Thornton learned in a conversation with Joe Theismann just how much GAWDA members have in common with NFL Quarterbacks. A lot!

Bob Thornton: You got a lot of attention in your senior year of high school. Was Notre Dame your dream school, or did you consider other colleges?
Joe Theismann:
I narrowed the choice to five schools: Notre Dame, Penn State, Wake Forest, University of North Carolina and NC State. I liked NC State because my high school coach played there. After I signed a grant aid at NC State, Notre Dame asked me to visit, and I told them I’d already signed. But the fact they were independent meant I wouldn’t lose any time in the conference nor miss a year of eligibility. So I flew out to Notre Dame on what was a typical winter day in South Bend, gloomy and gray. Rocky Dwyer, who was a runningback and a former Pittsburgh Steeler, was one of my chaperones. I knew when I returned to New Jersey that I had to go to Notre Dame. I couldn’t explain why, other than it just felt right. I make a lot of decisions that way. Feeling what’s right, rather than analyzing the logic.

BT: You were drafted by the Miami Dolphins, yet you went to the Canadian Football League. What prompted you to do that?
I was drafted by Miami in 1971 in the fourth round and agreed to a contract. One of the flawed elements of human nature is we think we know too much. I didn’t have an agent to negotiate my contract and when it was sent to me, it contained an added segment that I had to pay back money if I didn’t show up. The war in Vietnam was still going on, and I didn’t want to give back my bonus if I got called to the military. While we were haggling over that, the Toronto Argonauts made me an offer. I went to Canada to meet with them, and they gave me an ultimatum that if I didn’t sign the contract before I left the country, the offer would be off the table. So I signed the contract. Miami’s Don Shula was hopping mad and came to South Bend where we had a face-to-face that I wish never occurred. We exchanged some conversation and he got on a plane and left, and carried a grudge for over 20 years.

Joe TheismannBT: You played for three different coaches while with the Redskins: George Allen, Jack Pardee and Joe Gibbs. What did you learn from them?
There are so many different ways to lead. George Allen, my coach from 1974-78, had a principle: If you play great defense and you don’t make mistakes, you’re going to win games. Truthfully, that’s the way the game is played today. Life is always about percentages. You want to have the percentages in your favor. That was something my offensive coach Joe Walton stressed to me all the time. In life and in football, you want the percentages to be on your side.

BT: I have to ask about your leg injury in the game against the Giants, the injury that ended your playing career. How did it redefine you?
I had become so self-consumed trying to be Joe Theismann, the football star, instead of Joe Theismann, the person. I was a celebrity, the quarterback of a high-profile football team, a world champion, an MVP. In an instant it was all gone. I was stripped to the core of what I really was, and that was a conceited, self-centered individual. I realized that if I was ever going to have any success going forward, I needed to change. I had to become a different person. I began to study people who were successful. I became an insatiable reader, trying to learn how to be better.

BT: What are you reading now?
I just finished “Perseverance,” a biography of Mark Trestman, the head coach of the Montreal Alouettes. I’m also reading “The Travelers Gift: Seven Decisions That Determine Personal Success.” It’s a marvelous book by Andy Andrews, and I absolutely love it. I’m about to start James Patterson’s “The Ninth Judgment.” Patterson is one of my favorite authors. And, of course, Success magazine.

BT: What about the business of the NFL?  With stadiums and seat licenses, will costs continue to spiral?
I think it is peaking. It has to, because this is an uncapped year in football, meaning they can spend as much or as little money as they want. The labor agreement expires at the end of this year, and I believe there will be some type of work stoppage next year. The sides are so far apart that I can’t see them coming to an agreement before next season. That’s part of the business of football. The cost of tickets may have to increase to keep pace with all that, along with the rising costs of the new stadiums. There’s a limited number of tickets. Redskins Stadium holds 85,000 to 90,000, but there’s a waiting list of 50,000. The demand is there and so is the opportunity to charge. Sooner or later, though, people are going to look at the amount of money and say, “I just can’t do it.” At some point, people stop having the economic wherewithal to go to a game for entertainment. Both the owners and players have to realize this. I think it’s reaching a point where people are not going to want to be in the stadium.

BT: Who were your mentors while you were playing football?
Joe Walton, the former coach of the New York Jets and now coach at Robert Morris College, really taught me how to play Quarterback. Today, there are four or five guys in the league that I mentor. I try to help them understand the business. Just like your business, gases and welding, football is a tough business. The foolish ones are the ones who don’t accept mentoring.

BT: The Quarterback is the leader of the team. How does that compare to business?
The position of Quarterback is a lot like being in command of a company. While the QB remains responsible for the success (and failure) of a team, a lot of what happens both on and off the field is not under the QB’s control. As an example, the QB cannot impact the Defensive squad’s ability to stop the other team’s Offense. If the Offensive Line is unable to protect their QB, there is little that any QB can do to correct the situation. All of us have experienced an economic climate that impacted our successes and over which we had no control. Just as QBs learn to compensate for the unexpected, so we have learned in leading our companies to compensate, while moving the ball down the field.

106c_readmoreonline2webJoe and Bob Talk More Football! Why the quarterback of Bob’s favorite team was traded, what’s going on with Brett Favre, how Joe told his family the pronunciation of their name was being changed, and what he really thinks about playing the Super Bowl in winter.

BT: Your family name was pronounced “Theez-man.” How did your relatives react when the Notre Dame PR department tried to change the pronunciation to rhyme with “Heisman,” the trophy?
JT: First I called my dad who said I had to ask my grandmother, whom we called the patron saint of the family. “They want to change the pronunciation of our last name,” I said, and she responded, “The correct pronunciation is really ‘hees-man’ and how they want to say it is closer, so it’s fine with me.”  With the blessing of the family’s matriarch, the pronunciation changed. Just like that. 

BT: Being a former Redskins quarterback, what are your thoughts on Donovan McNabb going there? Was Eagles’ Coach Reid doing him a favor?
JT: The fact that Donovan wound up being traded to Washington was a big shock. Bruce Allen, who came in as the new GM, put an offer on the table to Andy Reid that the Eagles felt was in their best interest. I believe that Donovan was going to be traded this year anyway. The fact that he went to another team within the same division surprised the living daylights out of everybody, including me.
BT: Was McNabb’s fate sealed when the Eagles lost those last two games against Dallas?
JT: It wasn’t just Donovan. The Quarterback position is a very unique position. There are a lot of things that happen for which the quarterback becomes responsible, but over which he has no control. The fact that the Eagles couldn’t stop the Cowboys had nothing to do with Donovan, because he’s not even on the field, and the fact that they couldn’t protect him has nothing to do with Donovan. I felt that Donovan’s time in Philadelphia had run its course.

There are players who get toward the end of a career and still have a value, and a team has to make a decision. Remember, Joe Montana went to Kansas City; Joe Namath went to the Rams; Ronnie Lott went to the Jets; Marcus Allen went to Kansas City. These are all Hall of Famers who finished in different cities. So what happened with Donovan isn’t unprecedented. What makes it so unique is that the trade happened within the division and actually made the division a lot more competitive. 

BT: Brett Favre. What is going to happen with him?
JT: Oh he’ll be back. Absolutely. It’s always on his terms. When you think of the Vikings last year, it was the perfect storm for Brett. He doesn’t play training camp. He plays eight games, gets two weeks off with the buy. He plays two more games, gets two weeks off for the playoffs, and then starts the playoffs. Every week, he gets two weeks off to heal. It was absolutely the perfect scenario for him a year ago.

Every business has that unique situation that defies logic. There’s no explanation for a 40-year-old man to be able to do the things that Brett has been able to do and play in the amount of games that he has, on a consistent basis, and play at the level that he has played. It’s genetics. 

BT: Why are there so many running backs by committee and so few featured backs in the NFL?
JT: Because the defensive athletes have gotten bigger and stronger and faster, and the pounding that the running back position takes has made it virtually impossible for one person to do it over 16 games. The length of the preseason, regular season and then into the playoffs combines for a theoretical 23 games. That’s a lot of carries. Add the wear and tear of practice. We don’t have a lot of healing time in our business. You play on Sunday, you play the next Sunday. I used to have a little saying as I drove to training camp: It was the last day I was going to really feel good until the season was over.

Also, we’ve reached an age of specialization. I don’t know if that’s happened in your business as much, but you have runningbacks who are better on third down, they’re better catching the football than they are just running the football. That’s the reason why we have multiple running backs. Almost every team that’s had success has had two of them. The Jets, for example, had Shonn Greene and Thomas Jones last year. The Redskins will have a pretty good combo with Larry Johnson, Clinton Portis and Willie Parker. Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis with the Steelers are another example. Reggie Bush isn’t built to go 16 games, 30 carries a game. 

BT: The Super Bowl?
JT: We talked about the business of football earlier. The Super Bowl is all about corporations. And having the Super Bowl in New York in February 2010 is just downright dumb. It defies reason. To me, the Super Bowl should be a test of two teams, whichever one plays the best should win. The elements should not be a factor. Percentages indicate that in February, in New York, in an open stadium, the elements will be a factor. We don’t need to go back to Green Bay and the Ice Bowl. There were no dome stadiums back then. So why not become part of modern society and have it someplace warm?  I think the Super Bowl should be held in certain cities like San Diego, Miami, Tampa, New Orleans. I don’t have a problem with Minnesota because it’s a dome, but to hold the Super Bowl in an open-air stadium in February defies logic.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association