Joe Theismann’s Broken Leg: Why The NFL’s Most Gruesome Injury Still Resonates

By Norm Elrod

Sports has seen its fair share of horrifying injuries, but perhaps none more famous than quarterback Joe Theismann’s broken leg 30 years ago — Nov. 18 — on Monday Night Football.

Injuries are expected in competition. Pick any of the major sports — football, basketball, baseball, hockey — and the trail of blood, broken bones and worse dates back nearly as far as the sport itself.

Football’s history is particularly gruesome. Developed on the collegiate level in the latter half of the 19th century, the offshoot of rugby grew into one of the more popular — and violent — pastimes of the day. Broken ribs and wrecked spinal column were routine. Deaths on the field were so common by the turn of the century that President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to ban the sport without significant changes. The resulting reforms, among them the introduction of the forward pass, reduced injuries and gave birth to the modern game.

So why does Theismann’s injury resonate so much more than the countless injuries before or since?

The scale on which it was seen was unprecedented for its time.

A game that would be recognizable to today’s fans existed a century ago. But football — and football injuries — could only be witnessed in person. No television stations existed to broadcast it; nobody owned a television to watch it. The first televised game aired in 1939 — between Fordham and Waynesburg — and only to a very small local audience. Estimates suggest that around 1000 television sets received the game. Roughly the same number of people watched the first pro game, between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Eagles, that same year.

Those numbers steadily grew to where we are today — with billions of people watching football around the country three days a week.

Championship games, like the 1958 title game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants, known as “the greatest game ever played,” aired nationally. Monday Night Football, which debuted on national television in 1966, went to a full schedule of games 1970, recasting football as prime time programming. Broadcasts included additional cameras, announcers and graphics. Football games went from sporting events to entertainment spectacles.

By 1985, the year Joe Theismann’s injury was seen by millions of people watching a national broadcast, 98.1 percent of households were television households. Monday Night Football’s estimated audience averaged 17 million viewers that season.

The emerging Giants were led by Lawrence Taylor, one of the most feared linebackers in NFL history. The powerhouse Redskins, one season removed from back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, were eyeing another run. The NFC East dominated that year, and both teams were vying for playoff spots.

It was big time football. And now we had replay.

The play is still crystal clear. Early in the game, on a first-down play, Theismann handed off to John Riggins up the middle. The offensive line pass blocked, and Riggo pitched it back to Theismann in flea-flicker fashion. The defense wasn’t fooled. Theismann went down.

Theismann, looking downfield, stepped up in the pocket, only to be swarmed by Giants’ linebackers Taylor and Harry Carson. Taylor pulled him down for a four-yard loss. Players milled about after what appeared from a viewer’s vantage to be a typical play. But Taylor hopped up screaming and motioning to the sidelines for help.

Marc Malusis, host on New York’s WFAN and a longtime Redskins fan, was watching that night. As he describes it, “you saw the concern in his reaction as he waved his hands frantically.”

Other players took notice and started waving for the medical staff as well. But it wasn’t clear to the viewing audience exactly what happened, aside from some sort of injury.

Then they showed the replay, and everything came into focus.

Viewed in slow motion from the reverse angle camera, Theismann avoided the reaching Carson only to be pulled down from behind by a lunging Taylor. The tackle was awkward, with all of Taylor’s weight coming down on Theismann’s lower right leg. Both bones snapped cleanly in half, in clear view to millions of people watching in Washington, New York and around the country.

The next replay, after a commercial break, came with the comment.

“I suggest, if your stomach is weak, you just don’t watch.”

It’s the same camera view, with the same gruesome outcome. But seeing the injury again is really unnecessary. Anyone who saw the first replay was already doomed to remember it. That image is burned into the collective memory of Skins fans and prime time-watching America. The injury laid bare the brutality of football for everyone to see.

Theismann’s broken leg wasn’t football’s first gruesome injury. It was the first gruesome injury that everyone saw.

In 1985, replays didn’t air repeatedly and become readily available through a variety of devices and outlets. Highlights weren’t disposable. So the shot of that leg snapping stuck with people in a way that few injuries have since. And every one watching that night 30 years ago can recount the scene to this day.

“It… is one of those Monday Night Football moments,” as Malusis describes it. “Where were you when… You saw a different side of LT and a different side of football.”

All of a sudden, these gladiators were people, who could be set up and torn down. Taylor may be the best defensive player the NFL has seen, a run-stuffing, quarterback-sacking machine that opposing offenses game-planned for week in and week out, but he was not without mercy.

LT’s legendary intensity drained away, as he put his hands on his helmet in disbelief.

Many gruesome injuries have occurred since Joe Theismann’s broken leg. Kevin Ware’s 2013 broken leg in Louisville’s NCAA tournament game against Duke might be the most comparable, at least in terms of severity and scope. But that moment on Monday Night Football 30 years ago still stands alone. It was the first time many of us sports fans had a closer view of the game than we wanted. We were forced to ask ourselves: “How much do I really want to see?”

And in this era of media saturation, that’s a question we find ourselves asking a lot.

Norm Elrod likes sports and other sanctioned forms of craziness.

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