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Tough anniversary: Joe Theismann's career-ending injury, 30 years ago

ASHBURN, Va. -- It was one of the most gruesome plays in NFL history and it occurred in prime time, ending the career of a Washington Redskins legend. Thirty years ago, New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor tackled Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann on Monday Night Football -- a play that was shown over and over again.

But I did not realize it was the 30th anniversary of that moment until Theismann tweeted about it Wednesday morning:

Clearly, it was a defining moment for him -- not just in his career, but in his life. It became a central part of his motivational speeches.

Here are some things to know about the play (much of it coming from an interview I conducted with THeismann for "Hail to RFK! 36 Seasons of Redskins Memories," written with Rick Snider and David Elfin):

  • Theismann was struggling that season. There was talk he could, and should, be benched. Through 10 games, he had thrown just eight touchdown passes and 16 interceptions and was last in the NFC in yards per pass attempt (4.41). It was bad, and in hindsight Theismann knew it was his fault. “I didn’t study as hard, I didn’t work as hard,” Theismann said in the book. “I was arrogant -- people say I was anyway. I was cocky. I didn’t make the commitment to be a football player that I should have.”

  • The Redskins were 5-5 entering this game against the Giants, who had won four straight and were 7-3. They had already defeated Washington that season. Redskins coach Joe Gibbs tried to spark his team early in the game with a fake punt. And he wanted another trick play: 50-gut throwback. John Riggins would take the handoff, take two steps forward and pitch it back to Theismann for a pass. But the pocket collapsed and two players, Harry Carson and Jim Burt, nearly tackled him. As Theismann moved to his left, Taylor worked around tight end Donnie Warren and dragged Theismann down from behind, falling on his right leg. For what it's worth, starting left tackle Joe Jacoby did not play in this game because of an injury, but on this particular play Taylor was matched up against Warren -- and the reason he could get to him was pressure from others and good coverage downfield.

  • Players knew immediately that it was a devastating injury. Taylor waved to the Redskins’ sideline for help and said afterward that he had “heard a crack. It felt like it happened to me. It made me sick.” Theismann, though, was calm -- because his body had gone into shock. Center Jeff Bostic once said he saw Giants players vomiting on the field. Redskins cornerback Darrell Green walked onto the field and held Theismann’s hand for a little bit. As Theismann was leaving the field on a stretcher, he yelled over to Carson. “Harry, I understand you’re thinking about retiring,” Theismann said he shouted. “He said, ‘Yes, I am.’ I said, ‘Well, don’t go retiring because I’m coming back.’" To which Carson replied, “That may be the case, pal. But it ain’t going to be tonight.”

  • Backup Jay Schroeder came off the bench and led the Redskins to a 23-21 victory. Theismann never played again; Gibbs asked him to retire that January but he declined. After rehabbing his leg for the next six months, there wasn’t enough progress so the Redskins waived him. One thing Theismann said stood out about that night: the ovation from the crowd. He realized they were cheering for what he had accomplished in his career. “That ovation changed my life,” he said.