Washington Goes Hog-Wild Over Quarterback Joe Theismann and the Super Bowl-Bound Redskins
01/23/1984 at 01:00 AM EST
As a boy, Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann recalls, "My legs and my rear end were always the biggest parts of my body." During his 13-year pro career, however, some would say that his mouth has held that distinction. But in last year's Super Bowl, the always outspoken and chronically underrated (just ask him) veteran delivered, leading the Redskins to a 27-17 win over the Miami Dolphins. Now, after piloting Washington to a 14-2 regular season record and establishing himself as the NFL's No. 2-rated passer this season (Atlanta's Steve Bartkowski was tops), Theismann hopes to guide the team to another Super Bowl victory. "This one means just as much as the first one," says Theismann. It might mean more. The opposing Los Angeles Raiders quarterback is Jim Plunkett, who beat out Theismann for college football's coveted Heisman Trophy in 1970.
Given to inspirational sayings, positive thinking and a day so crammed with carefully scheduled activities that he makes President Reagan look like a naysaying layabout, Theismann has always set high standards for himself. A confident, self-motivating perfectionist, he has gone so far as to create an imaginary alter ego—by the name of Stanley—who shoulders the blame on Theismann's rare off days. "Stanley is the quarterback who throws interceptions, who makes the mistakes, who has a big mouth," says Theismann's wife, Shari, 35. "Joe likes to say, 'Well, Stanley played the field for a while and then Joe got out there and everything was all right.' He likes to make that distinction between Stanley and the real Joe."
At 34, the real Joe is savoring the vindication of getting his long-stalled career up to speed. In the past, like Rodney Dangerfield, he just never got any respect. Even recently, his quarterbacking accomplishments have been somewhat overshadowed by colorful teammates like John Riggins and the beloved Redskin offensive line, the Hogs. But having once turned people off by his repeated sniping, Theismann won't be starting any team feuds this time. "I'm not in competition with those guys," he says with a shrug.
Until last year's Super Bowl season, Theismann had proved himself a success everywhere but where it mattered most to him—on the field. A shrewd businessman, he owns a popular restaurant and endorses everything from cameras to sneakers. He is a community do-gooder, sought-after lecturer, author and sometime actor.
It's not that Theismann (a/k/a Mr. Bubbly or Hollywood Joe to his teammates) couldn't get the football job done before, it's that he couldn't get the job. Period. At Notre Dame it took an injury to starting quarterback Terry Hanratty before Theismann became the starter at the end of his sophomore year. As a senior he led the team to a Cotton Bowl victory over No. 1-ranked Texas. He was drafted by the Miami Dolphins, who already had a star quarterback in Bob Griese, so he opted instead to play for Canada's Toronto Argonauts. After three seasons of what he calls "my exile," Theismann signed with the Redskins and sat on the bench behind legendary Sonny Jurgensen and, later, D.C. favorite Billy Kilmer. His candid objections ("I didn't want to be No. 2") made him a media darling but led to hard feelings among his teammates. "I was never one of the boys," he admits.
In 1976, at a time when his career had hit bottom, Theismann's personal priorities underwent a change. His daughter, Amy, then 3, was hospitalized with a congenital heart defect. Shaken by the sight of the little girl with "tubes running out of her body," he called himself on the carpet. "I said, 'You big dumb jerk, all you ever cared about was Joe Theismann.' The Good Lord finally said to me, 'You've gone far enough, turkey.' Amy gave me back my dignity. She started me on the road to manhood."
A natural athlete, Theismann grew up in South River, N.J., the only son of a liquor-store clerk and a clerical worker. In 1967 he won an athletic scholarship to Notre Dame. On the advice of the school's sports information director he stopped pronouncing his name thees-man and changed it to thighsman, to rhyme with the trophy he then failed to win. It was in South Bend he met Cheryl (Shari) Brown (a "hot-looking little blonde," he says), whom he married in 1970. They have three children: Joey, 12, Amy, 10, and Patrick, 4.
While the Theismanns have reaped the monetary benefits of Joe's commercial popularity—they live in an imposing five-bedroom brick home on 2½ acres in McLean, Va.—the price of fame has not been cheap. Shari has not forgotten the pair's chilly Washington reception. "This city is not accepting," she says. "Joe is more forgiving. I'm not forgiving." Theismann's post-Super Bowl speaking engagements and his ongoing business ventures have cut into family togetherness, to Shari's annoyance. "Probably the area I would like to improve in my life is being a father," he says.
But that isn't the only area of dissatisfaction. Win or lose in the Super Bowl, Theismann will be looking for a new contract with the Redskins, and CBS football analyst Jimmy the Greek predicts he will at least double his $315,000 salary. Whatever happens, Joe has no plans to retire. He claims he wants to concentrate on "playing football to have fun" and is glad he can now let his statistics do all (well, almost all) the talking for him. "All I ever wanted was an opportunity to show my wares," he says. "Then if I didn't make it, you could ride me out on a rail. But," adds Theismann, grinning, "I didn't ever think that would be the case."