There have been some horrific injuries in the history of sports. Then there is the one Joe Theismann suffered during a Monday Night Football game on national television, an injury so gruesome and revolting that even people who relish blood, guts and gore, were forced to turn away.
It's Week 11 of the 1985 season in the nation's capital, and the Redskins are playing a Monday Night game at home against the Giants, one of their fiercest rivals. Forty-three seconds into the second quarter of a scoreless game, Joe Theismann calls a trick play: a flea-flicker.
Theismann hands the ball off to running back John Riggins, who barrels toward the line, comes to a screeching stop and tosses the ball back to Theismann, who starts to run. Everyone watching senses the play isn't going to gain much yardage because Harry Carson, one of the Giants' star linebackers, gets to Theismann quickly. But Theismann, typically, squirms away from Carson's grip, as always digging for a few extra yards.
The Giants' Lawrence Taylor, a Hall of Fame linebacker who is 245 pounds of steel and the team's most feared athlete, catches up to the scrambling Theismann. He slows him down and then pulls him down. Then, Gary Reasons, another Giants' linebacker, comes rushing in, falling on top of the pile Taylor had just created.
When Reasons crashes into the hill of bodies and pads, it causes Theismann to fall in a twisted, awkward manner. His leg becomes twisted sideways and pinned beneath him, as he crumbles to the turf.
Suddenly, there is a crack. Everyone around the pile hears the gruesome sound. Theismann feels a sharp sensation shooting through his body. The stadium falls deafly silent. All eyes turn to the pile of players. They wonder who is the unlucky player. Suddenly, Theismann unleashes a bellowing scream, and Taylor jumps up from the stack, looks at Theismann and starts yelling for the Redskins' medical crew.
The TV camera zooms in and gets closer … closer … and boom -- there it is. One of the most hideous sights in sports history. There is Theismann, withering on the ground, his leg behind him. The bone in his leg is gruesomely visible. Everyone in the stadium and watching on TV turns queasy -- or they turn away, unable to look at the terrible sight. Taylor holds his head in disbelief. "When I heard a crack, it went right through me," Taylor would say after the game. "It felt like it happened to me. It made me sick."
Theismann had suffered an open fracture of the tibia or shinbone. The fibula -- the long, thin outer bone running between the knee and ankle -- broke through his skin. The compound fracture results in the broken edges of a bone being pushed through the skin. ''His leg was just hanging there," Taylor said. "It was the ugliest thing I'd never seen."
The sight of the unflappable and boisterous Theismann writhing on the ground is stunning. Theismann is one of the grittiest and toughest players in the league.
Redskins fans adore their quarterback, who has been a fan favorite from the moment he took over the reins, in 1979, at the age of 29. Two seasons later, he was the NFC top-rated quarterback. He led the 'Skins to a 27-16 Super Bowl victory over Miami. He was the toast of the nation's capital. He had missed just one start in his eight years as the Redskins' No. 1 QB and had made 163 straight starts. He was 36.
When it is revealed the Theismann's career is over because of the injury, the respect he had earned from both teammates and opponents surfaces. The definitive comment of respect came from one of Theismann's fiercest rivals, Dallas Cowboys lineman Randy White, who would say, "He played you to the end. Always. Every game, every down. He was the ultimate competitor."