|This chapter from Joe's biography, about his Notre Dame years, is called, Theesman, Thighsman, "You Heard It Here".
I had learned enough about the Notre Dame tradition and its place in football to know it was for me. If you want to be a doctor, go to Johns Hopkins. Go to Harvard if law is it.
I wanted pro football. For pro football, Notre Dame was the place. It was my Harvard. Just in case they had recruited some Methodist out of New Jersey, who had never heard of Notre Dame, my first week they showed us the movie Knute Rockne, All-American. It's the one with Ronald Reagan as George Gipp and Pat O'Brien as Rockne. Watching it, you get the idea that Notre Dame has all these ghosts helping it win every week.
Unfortunately, not everyone agreed that I was a legend-in-the-making. A Jersey newspaper headline read, "LITTLE JOE TO GET KILLED AT NOTRE DAME." And that paper was not alone in figuring I might be too small for Notre Dame. When I showed up at South Bend in 1967, two assistant coaches met the plane. The linebacker coach, John Ray, saw me first, all 148 pounds of me, and grabbed coach Joe Yonto's arm. "Who's that skinny kid?" Ray said, and Yonto said, "That's the quarterback I recruited."
"Oh, no," Ray said. "They're going to break his neck." (I certainly didn't think so. Sure, there were six other quarterbacks there, and all of them were 6'4", but I decided, the way dreamers do when they're scared to death, that I was going to be the best of the bunch and the best in Notre Dame history. So there.) Even Ara Parseghian had second thoughts. My first scrimmage as a freshman against the varsity put me against great players like Alan Page, Jim Lynch, and Kevin Hardy. Ara said: "They'd beat him into the ground, and I'd think that was the end of little Joe. But he always got up for more."
My sophomore year, 1968, I spent our first seven games sometimes returning punts, but mostly sitting on the bench behind Terry Hanratty, the 6'2', 210-pound Heisman Trophy candidate. I was 5'11, maybe 155, all arm, and candidate for nothing. Suddenly, all that changed. In the seventh game, Hanratty was injured. Coach Parseghian could have used Coley O'Brien, who'd been the quarterback the year before, but Ara took an enormous chance on a sophomore who'd played only a few minutes all season. Me.
When Coach Parseghian told me I would start, everything changed. I played the game in my mind the night before. I didn't sleep at all. And then it was game day, and then ...
The morning of the game I'm walking through the woods around the lake by St. Joseph's monastery, where we stay the night before games. I'm too nervous to just sit in my room and wait. I'm walking and I'm thinking, "This is my first start." I'm scared and I'm praying, "Please God, if you got a minute this afternoon, check on me, will you?"
It's one thing to be on a team as a reserve and punt returner who knows he's not going to play much, if at all. You're relaxed because you have very limited responsibility. The game won't be won or lost on something you do. You look around the locker room and have fun.
It's another thing, a very different thing, to be making your first quarterback appearance for Notre Dame.
Everybody in the locker room is looking at me, little Joey Theismann who's going to get killed, and if I go to the bathroom once, I go 15 times. Scared to death.
Look, two years before, I had never heard of Knute Rockne. Then all of a sudden I'm playing for the ghosts of Notre Dame. Johnny Lujack and Frank Leahy and Rockne and Gipp-they didn't know about me two years ago, but suddenly they're sitting on my shoulder whispering advice.
I look at my teammates around the locker room. Do they know how scared I am? I'm trying to put on this air of confidence like, hey, be cool, guys, everything's under control. Meanwhile, I'm heading back to the john.
Everybody's up for the game. Everybody's dressed. It's almost time to leave the locker room. There are occasional shouts and whoops and lockers clanging when somebody kicks a door. Then, in one voice, everybody's roaring. ROARRRRR! LET'S GO000000!!!
I pull on my helmet, snap the chin strap, and we go from this bright, roaring locker room into a dark little stairway where you have to hold on to a railing to get down. It leads us to a dark passageway. We're somewhere under the stadium seats in this dark tunnel, and there's a chill in the air and a dank smell like an old basement.
We've stopped walking in the tunnel now and we're waiting to be introduced, and ahead of us you can see light streaming to the tunnel entrance. You hear the crowd sounds kind of muffled, like thunder far away, and you hear the Notre Dame fight song. They're introducing our guys one at a time. For each one there's a ROAR! For their guys a BOOO!
Then it's my turn to go out. I run out there and the sound hits me like a shock wave. I run out of the dark into the light and out of the silence into the roaring. It's unbelievable. It's like you don't exist one second and you have the whole world the next. Like being born.
We beat Pitt that day, 56-7. 1 was 8-for-11 passing, and Coach Parseghian told the press afterward: "I had every bit of confidence in Theismann's ability. We know he's small and doesn't measure up to the stature of a Hanratty, but he has plenty of talent."
When Ara said that about my size, I was right beside him, and I raised up on my tiptoes to look down on him. Frightened, nervous, anxious-I had been all of that. But I wasn't paralyzed by it. The challenge excited me. Why should little Joey get killed at Notre Dame? In high school I could outrun most guys, and nobody ever got a clean hit on me. Why should Notre Dame he any different?
After the Pitt game, I started every game throughout my Notre Dame career and broke most of the passing records, including George Gipp's total-offense record. Little Joe wasn't all that little anymore, either, getting up to 177 pounds. My senior year, 1970, Ara said: "Don't ever underestimate Joe. He can pass and he can run; he's a great scrambler and a great leader. He's a winner. And don't let his size fool you. I know other quarterbacks who don't have size like Lenny Dawson and Johnny Unitas."
Notre Dame gave me so much. It gave me a chance to be part of a great college tradition. And there were so many great players on those teams of 1967-70: Tommy Gatewood, Terry Hanratty, Mike McCoy, Bob Olson, George Kunz, Billy Barz, Denny Allen, Larry Shoemaker, Mike Creaney, Jim Seymour, Bob Kuechenberg, Chuck Zloch, Scott Hemple, Mike Oriard, Joe Haggar, Ed Gulyas, Larry DiNardo, Dan Novakov.
Notre Dame also gave me Joe and Mary Hickey, who kind of adopted me, a kid away from home, as their own. I met them at a barbecue for the freshman football players, and they made their home my home. Anytime I wanted a place to go, they were there. Now we're talking a good Catholic family with a lot of kids. It was great. Joe would be walking around in his boxer shorts and he might have a Scotch and soda in his hand. He'd prop his feet up on the ottoman and wouldn't know who the hell was in his house. He had some of his and some of somebody else's. For me, the Golden Dome was special, and so were Joe and Mary Hickey.
And Notre Dame also gave me Ara Parseghian. Ara saw everything. I was always scared to death of him. He'd have six teams running in practice and he'd be watching from his tower. I'd peek up and he'd be looking the other way, and I'd run a play and suddenly I'd hear his thin, squeaky voice, "Why'd you throw it over there?" It reminded me of my father at 10:30 at night. How the heck did he know?
The first time Ara asked me to come to his office was after my sophomore year. I've met Presidents Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, but only with Ara did I feel as if I was in the presence of royalty. It wasn't so much a young kid's insecurity. Ara was just larger than life. A fiery guy. Cheerleader. Effervescent. Left-handed, so he was always throwing that left fist to the air. He is of Armenian ancestry, so he had a handsome tan glow even in the winter. Dapper. Always in control. The kindly king. The boss.
That day in his office, we chatted only about the season and maybe about classwork. Ara was dedicated to academics for his guys, so much so that Notre Dame even made a student out of me.
In high school I had just goofed around because I had enough smarts to get by. At Notre Dame, though, that all changed. Schoolwork came very hard to a guy who'd rather be shooting pool at the student union. But I made a commitment to study, a commitment that had nothing to do with education. It had to do with staying eligible to play football. I went to Notre Dame strictly to play ball. But after two years, I found out that school wasn't tough if you applied yourself.
Notre Dame is proud of its athletic-academic record. The NFL players' union says that out of 1,500 pro players, about 35 percent actually graduate from college. Notre Dame graduates almost everybody. I got a B.A. in sociology. It didn't make me Einstein, but I am proud of my diploma.
It meant I stayed eligible, and sometimes that meant just showing up at class. My teacher for freshman math, Jake Kline, the baseball coach, believed that if you came to class every day, you deserved an A. He figured you had to be a stonebrain not to soak up something. Math by osmosis. We called him Straight-A Kline. One guy got a B because he hardly ever came to class.
By my senior year I was a real student with grades good enough to be Academic All-America. Still, I was a quarterback, not a rocket scientist. So I took courses such as Speech and Argumentation. For that one we'd sit around talking and arguing. You had to be fast with the words and you had to make a reasoned case. Of all my classes, Speech and Argumentation turned out to be the most beneficial. I got A's and Bs. The world can thank Notre Dame for teaching Joe Theismann to speechify and argumentate.
But one of the most important things I learned was taught to me by Roger Valdiserri, the Notre Dame sports information director. He devised rules for interviews, which I remember to this day. These are also rules, alas, that I broke much too often.
Roger's rules: (1) always compliment the opposition; (2) always compliment your teammates; and (3) never take credit for yourself Roger said, "If you do those things, you pretty much can't get into trouble." These fundamentals seem self-evident. But just in case, Roger would stand across the room, behind the interviewer, and he'd shake his head "Yes," answer the question, or "no," avoid that one.
These were great lessons for a kid out of Jersey, and they have helped me. For years-except, of course, when they slipped my mind. I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if I always had Roger with me, nodding or shaking his head, telling me when to shut up and when to talk.
I never needed much help or encouragement to speak up, as Coach Parseghian learned early. We beat Pitt and Georgia Tech easily my first two starts that sophomore season of '68, and then came Southern Cal. For me, Southern Cal was the ultimate measuring stick of how good you were. They were like a pro team. They were ranked No. 1 in the nation. They had a running back named O.J. Simpson.
As I jogged over to the sidelines, Coach Parseghian just looked at me. I said, "Don't worry about it, I'll get it all back." In retrospect, I don't know why I said that. I was only a sophomore making my third start in front of Notre Dame's holy ghosts. The game was on national TV, against the nations No. 1 team. But I said it, and I think it set the tone for the rest of my life. I believed in myself. I believed I could meet any challenge. I guess I could have said, "I'm sorry," or, "Please don't take me out. " But promising to get the TD back were words that just came naturally to me because of the confidence I'd developed with teams that had met all challenges. I'd succeeded at every level from Pop Warner to South River High in baseball, basketball, and football. If you've never lost, you don't worry about losing. You find ways to win.
And I was lucky enough for almost 20 years to play with guys whose success and confidence rub off on me. Our center in 1968, Mike Oriard, wrote a book about his football career, The End of Autumn. Mike wrote that the skinny new quarterback in '68 could run and throw and was more durable than he seemed. "Joe was also brash, even cocky," Mike said, "but in an engaging manner that exuded confidence rather than conceit." Sometimes, that confidence got me into trouble, as it would again and again in the years to come. Here I was, this sophomore, yelling and hollering at older players. I just couldn't stand it when mistakes were made. I took it as my responsibility to point out those mistakes.
Lucky for me, my quarterback coach, Tom Pagna, realized the need for a buffer between me and some of the others. When I yelled at a receiver, blocker, or running back, he'd yell at me even louder: "Theismann, would you shut up! You run the team, and let us coach it!" And every once in a while, I did.
So after throwing that interception to Durko, I trotted toward Coach Parseghian and decided to be engagingly confident. By halftime, we were ahead, 21-7. We scored once on a trick play when I handed off to Coley O'Brien at halfback and he threw back to me for a 12-yard touchdown.
A reporter on the sidelines asked what I thought about being ahead. I said, "It's terrific. Do you expect Notre Dame to be anywhere else?"
We ended in a 21-21 tie with the nations No. 1 team. Ara said, "Theismann, after that incident in the first quarter, must be admired for his courage, the way he came back like that." Reading those words in the newspaper the next day made me feel good, not only about myself but also about the team. We had come back, not just I. My junior year, we were 8-1 -1 and accepted the school's first bowl bid in 40 years. We lost to Texas in the Cotton Bowl, 21-17, and that victory gave Texas the national championship. My senior year we had a real shot at the title; we were undefeated going into our last regular season game-at Southern Cal.
Southern Cal jumped on us hard, 21-7 in the first quarter, and it was 38-14 early in the third quarter. Then it started to rain. It rained like you've never seen it rain. The field was a quagmire. On the sidelines, water came over your shoes. Guys were fumbling the ball all over the place. Ara said to me, "Put it up."
So we did. We threw the wet football all over that swamp. Our last 21 plays were all passes. For the day, I threw 58 passes and completed 33 for 526 yards. Southern Cal's quarterback, Jimmy Jones, couldn't hold onto the ball, and I was throwing it around like it was a sunny Sunday in the park... But we just couldn't score in that rainstorm and lost, 38-28. The ironic thing about that game is that 11 years later, I'd be playing for Southern Cal's Offensive-line coach, Joe Gibbs.
The loss killed our chances for the national championship, but we went back to the Cotton Bowl against Texas again, and this time we won, 24-1 1. We finished with a 10-1 record, and my college career, after starting with negative questions, ended with affirmative answers. In games I started, we were 20-3-2. The All-America voters put me on their first team, and then I held my breath waiting to hear who would win the Heisman Trophy. Emotionally, my hopes had been built up all season by people saying, "You have a real good chance of winning the Heisman." Everybody around South Bend wore "Theismann for Heismann" buttons. It had affected me so much that I was actually figuring how much the Heisman could mean in dollars when the NFL drafted me.
There were three other logical candidates. Jim Plunkett at Stanford, Rex Kern at Ohio State, and Archie Manning at Mississippi.
The Heisman is 50 percent publicity and 50 percent ability. The voters are newspapermen and broadcasters from all across the country. It figures that they'll most likely vote for the players they know best. So it seemed the Midwest and the South would be split between Rex, Archie, and me. Jim was very strong in the West, and I would lose votes in the Midwest because Rex was close by at Ohio State. No one knew what the East would do. Sounds like political candidates waiting for election returns.
When the telephone rang that afternoon in the Notre Dame sports information office, I figured, "This is it." Instead, the phone call was the start of a seven-year period in which I'd keep wondering if I would ever make it big after college.
The call was to let us know that Jim Plunkett had won. Jim deserved it. He was a great quarterback. But it still was a traumatic moment for me because I wanted that Heisman Trophy so much; I truly thought I had earned it, not only with a good senior year but with a junior season that statistically was the best any offensive player had ever had at Notre Dame. Paul Hornung won the Heisman at Notre Dame when they went 2-8. 1 lost it going 10-1.
Maybe the change of pronunciation of my name upset some voters who saw that as an opportunistic device. Fact is, all I did was use the true and original pronunciation of the family name brought over from Austria.
After my sophomore year, Roger Valdiserri asked, "How do you pronounce your name?"
A strange question. I said, "Theesman.1' Roger said, "There's the Heisman Trophy, Joe. And I think we should pronounce your name as Thighsman.
I wasn't going to change my name simply because of some trophy. So I called my father. "Dad, how do we pronounce our last name?"
He said, "What?"
"Please, just answer my question, Dad." He said Theesman. But he also said my grandmother Eva insists it's Thighsman.
I told Roger, "Well, my grandmother pronounces it that way. What the heck, let's do it."
My grandmother, Eva Theismann, said our family name was pronounced Thighsman until the Theismanns registered in American schools and the people read the name the easiest way they could-Theesman. Grandmother Eva was 88 years old in 1986 when she said, "I am very disappointed in those reporters who say Joey changed his name to win that trophy, whatever it is. It is not true. His name is said Thighsman. American kids called us Theesman and we didn't care. But now my people are all dying off and I'm glad the name is correct."
Grandmother Eva said she had heard a radio broadcast reporting that I had changed my name to win the Heisman Trophy.
So we called that radio station, and I told them, "Get it straight once and forever. Thighsman is how we said it in Austria. Thighman is how we said it on Ellis Island, and Thighsman is it."
Grandma also said, "You know, Joey had to go to college to learn how to pronounce his name."