Joe Theismann

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What Joe Theismann remembers about late Dolphins coach Don Shula

What Joe Theismann remembers about late Dolphins coach Don Shula

Joe Theismann has more than a few stories to share about the late Don Shula, who passed away at his home this week.

Shula won two Super Bowls, but had it not been for Theismann and the Redskins in Super Bowl 17, there could have been a third. 

Washington defeated the Dolphins 27-17 with Theismann as their quarterback, but in Shula’s eyes, Theismann was on the wrong side of the field.

After all, Theismann was drafted by the Dolphins in the fourth round of the 1971 draft, 99th overall. But the negotiations over his bonus, according to Theismann, stopped him from stepping on the field.

"I was surprised it was a fourth-round pick by the Miami Dolphins. Actually, it was their third pick in the draft because they had to give up their number one to Baltimore when Coach Shula left there to go to the Miami Dolphins and I went and tried to negotiate the contract myself," he remembered. "First mistake I made, business mistake, and [Joe] Robbie was the owner, Joe Thomas was their general manager. [Thomas] was having heart surgery so I negotiated with Mr. Robbie. I remember sitting in the office, sat down, he said 'what do you want the numbers?'"

Theismann put out $45,000 and $55,000 with a $35,000 signing bonus. 

To his surprise, Robbie agreed.

"I'm thinking, that isn’t the way this works. I’m reading all these books on negotiations and all of a sudden he gave me what I wanted," he remembered.

So Shula and the Dolphins, according to Theismann, thought the deal was done. But Theismann had also been drafted by the Toronto Argonauts.

The deal with the Dolphins got stuck with a back-and-forth on how the bonus would be paid out and eventually, Theismann said he was tired of the whole process and instead of joining Shula's team, ended up in Toronto.

That wasn’t the end of their story. After spending his first three years with the Argonauts, in 1974, the Redskins traded a first-round draft pick to the Dolphins for the rights of Theismann. Theismann puts it, the rest is history, but admits, playing for Shula would have been special. 

“I really would have loved to, I think, played for Coach Shula, he was kind of coach I could appreciate, he was tough, he was stern,” said Theismann. “Everybody I’ve talked to that has played for him, he was a tough coach to play for, but he did things the way he wanted to do it. People say the same thing about Bill Belichick today, he’s a tough coach, he has demands, he demands things of you, if you can't do em, you won't be there. I think Coach Shula was pretty much that way as well.”

The respect for each other was certainly there, but it took some time before there was any friendliness. 


“He didn't like me for a number of years and then all of a sudden we play them in the Super Bowl and we beat him, which I’m sure he didn’t like me much more after that either.”

It was the last time they faced each other on the field, but their paths would cross again. “It was Super Bowl 19, when the Dolphins went out to play in Palo Alto California, the San Francisco 49ers. I happened to be in the broadcast booth with Don Meredith and Frank Gifford, he saw me again, and lost that Super Bowl.”

Theismann tells these stories fondly, because in the end, they were able to move past how it all started.

“As time went on Coach and I became friends and my heart goes out to his family," he said. “When you think of icons and legends and great people, great coaches, Coach Shula comes straight to the top of the list.” 


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Even Joe Theismann amazed by Redskins QB Alex Smith's Project 11 documentary

Even Joe Theismann amazed by Redskins QB Alex Smith's Project 11 documentary

Joe Theismann will never forget the date: November, 18, 1985, the end of his NFL career when his right leg snapped after a sack in a game against the New York Giants.

November 18, 2018 is a date Theismann will never forget, either. That’s the day Redskins quarterback Alex Smith also sustained a horrible broken leg that could have cost him his limb – or even his life. We just don’t yet know if that was the end of Smith’s career quite yet

The similarities between the two quarterbacks’ injures are eerie, so much so that even Theismann can’t ignore them. It was Week 11 when both men broke their right tibia and fibula. Both were compound fractures. Both games ended in a 23-21 score. Both happened near the 40-yard line – one at RFK Stadium, the other at FedEx Field. 

But there is a one dramatic difference between the two and it left a lasting impression on Theismann.

While watching the E:60 “Project 11” documentary like the rest of us, the visuals of Alex’s leg are jarring even to someone who went through a similar ordeal. 

“I was stunned and shocked by how much of his leg they had to take out to save his life first of all, and then his leg,” Theismann said. 

Theismann dealt with infections as well, but he says the level of severity for Smith was more dramatic.

“I wondered why I was in the hospital for so long and they said we’re just trying to control the infection,” Theismann said. “Fortunately for me they did. The difference in Alex and I are that I had a chance to come back and start rehabbing right away. He has had to go through so many more surgeries just to be able to get to a point where they could start to think about the possible rehabilitation process.”


Smith told reporters on the last day of the 2019 season that his intention is to play again "without a doubt."

It would be nothing short of a miracle to go from almost losing his life to returning to the role of quarterback in the NFL so it’s hard to tell if that was simply Smith putting on a brave face.

Despite the odds, Theismann is cheering Smith on. And he sees a tenacity in his approach to rehab that goes with what he knows about Smith. 

“I think at one point Alex wasn’t sure, he was looking at the quality of life,” Theismann said. “And then as he got down into the rehab he started doing things and throwing the ball quickly, even when he had that halo type thing around his leg. And I think the thought the juices started flowing again. ‘Maybe I can do this. There’s a possibility I might be able to do this.’”

Theismann never did play again, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Physically he was unable to do what was required to return, but he understands the passion that has Smith wanting to try. 

“Once Alex started throwing the ball again, I think that flicker, became more a pilot light, that pilot light has become now more of a blaze,” Theismann said. 

NFL players are the one-percent of the one-percent. Most will tell you what separates them from others just as physically gifted is their mindset. IF Alex is to return, Theismann says the mental side may even be more difficult to overcome. 

“I can certainly relate to the emotions and really when you go through the catastrophic injury he’s gone through,” Theismann said. “It’s the mental part of it that becomes the toughest. And the fact he is this type of a determined individual, in my opinion, is the best thing that could possibly happen.”

It’s all about perspective. Theismann’s injury gave that to him and he hopes Smith’s gets the same peace. 

“If he can’t play again, all the hard work that he has put in will give him a quality of life that maybe if he had “quote - unquote” given up on it,” Theismann said. “And said I’m just going to live my life. I’m going to spend my time with the kids, my family and do those things. I don’t know that he would have driven himself as hard as he does.”

It’s Smith’s determination to return to the game he loves that has all of us playing the role of cheerleader. As for IF Smith ever does return, Theismann says that’s not what will determine him coming out a winner.

“For this story to end in only one fitting way, is for Alex to be able to come back and play and leave on his terms,” Theismann said. “Not somebody else deciding his future.”

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Joe Theismann reveals Alex Smith 'came very, very close to losing his leg'

Joe Theismann reveals Alex Smith 'came very, very close to losing his leg'

Thirty-three years to the day that former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann suffered a gruesome leg injury, Alex Smith suffered the same fate against the Houston Texans.

Theismann addressed the injury similarities between him and Alex Smith on Ian Rapoport's podcast, "RapSheet and Friends."

"I was there that night," Theismann said. "I looked at it and I turned to [my wife] Robin and I said 'that's exactly like mine.'"

At that moment, Theismann was worried the injury was so severe Smith wouldn't be able to recover.

"He came very, very close to losing his leg and fortunately, you know, he still has it," Theismann said. "Alex for sure will not play this year."

With Case Keenum, Colt McCoy and 2019 first-round draft pick Dwayne Haskins in the fold, Theismann noted it'll be hard for Smith to break back into the Redskins quarterback lineup.

"Ask yourself the question, 'Will he be able to compete as a starter?'" Theismann pondered. "Because you can't pay somebody $20 million as a backup. Just can't happen." 

When asked if Smith could return and play at a high level, Theismann alluded to the problems that quarterbacks with leg injuries can have when trying to recover, especially when it comes to mechanics.

"I would say 'let's see how you feel one year from now,'" Theismann noted. "Picture a pitcher not being able to push off the mound. Picture a quarterback not being able to load his weight and go forward.

"And so what happens is when you think of that throwing mechanism, his body, his arm, his legs, his ability to turn and push, if one of those elements is lessened, the other areas have to make up for it."

Smith recently had the external fixator removed from his leg and noted that he's making incremental steps towards playing again.

"It's gonna be a long road," Theismann said of Smith's recovery.