Born: September 9, 1949
Town: New Brunswick
Joseph Robert Theismann was born September 9, 1949 in New Brunswick. He grew up in the town of South River, where speed and coordination made him a standout in baseball, football and basketball. Joe was the star of all three teams at South River High School. In 1966, the Rams went 9–0 and won a state title. His favorite receiver that year was Drew Pearson, who succeeded him at quarterback after he graduated.
Joe accepted a football scholarship from Notre Dame and by his sophomore year was the backup to Terry Hanratty. When Hanratty was injured late in the 1968 season, 19-year-old Joe stepped into the starter’s role and helped the Fighting Irish to two wins and a tie in the final three games. They finished 7–2–1, good enough to earn a Top 10 national ranking. Joe followed up with a solid junior year, and as a senior was seen as a contender of the Heisman Trophy. Notre Dame’s sports information staff started urging reporters to pronounce Joe’s last name to rhyme with the award. Until that point, everyone had pronounced it THEES-man insted of THYS-man. Joe finished second to Jim Plunkett in the voting, but the name stuck. To this day his last name is mispronounced.
Joe led Notre Dame to a 10–1 record and a #2 ranking in 1970. In his final game he beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl 24–11. Joe was known as a scrambling quarterback with a decent arm. The Minnesota Twins thought highly enough of his throwing ability to draft him as a pitcher in 1971. The Miami Dolphins drafted Joe but playing behind All-Star Bob Griese did not particularly appeal to him. Joe and the Dolphins failed to strike a deal so he signed with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.
Joe’s mobile quarterbacking style was a good fit for the CFL. In his first season, he guided the Argonauts to the Grey Cup, Canada’s version of the Super Bowl. He engineered what appeared to be the game-winning drive when a teammate fumbled near the goal line and Toronto lost. Joe was a CFL All-Star in 1971 and again in 1973.
In 1974, the Washington Redskins acquired the rights to Joe. He returned punts and backed up Billy Kilmer at quarterback until 1976, when they split the starting job. By 1978, Joe was the team’s undisputed signal-caller. Over the next few years the Redskins rebuilt around Joe. In 1981, he threw for more than 3,500 yards. In 1982, a strike-shortened season, Joe was even better. He opened the schedule with an overtime victory against the Eagles and led the ’Skins to an 8–1 record. He then guided the team to three lopsided playoff wins, earning Washington a berth in Super Bowl XVII. He completed 15 of 23 passes against the Dolphins in a 27–17 victory.
In 1983, Joe had his best season ever. He threw for 3,714 yards and 29 touchdowns as the Redskins rolled to a 14–2 record. Washington topped 30 points 10 times during the season. Joe was an easy pick for NFL MVP. In the playoffs he led the Redskins to a 51–7 win over the Rams and a 24–21 victory over Joe Montana and the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. A second Super Bowl win was not to be, however, as the Raiders trounced Washington, 38–9.
Joe had a solid follow-up season to his MVP campaign, and was still going strong in 1985 when he suffered a career-ending injury in a Monday Night Football game against the Giants. He was gang-sacked by Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson and Gary Reasons and his right fibula snapped. The resulting compound fracture never properly healed. Joe was done at 36. Ironically, he had started 71 straight games prior to that.
Since that day, Joe has enjoyed a lucrative career as an NFL TV analyst, restaurant owner and commercial pitch-man. Joe’s career numbers as an NFL quarterback include 160 regular-season touchdowns, more than 25,000 passing yards and a pair of Pro Bowl selections. In 2003, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.