Joe Theismann talks name change, ‘L.T.’ in visit to Chattanooga

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann talks with others attending the 2024 Friends of Scouting Luncheon on Wednesday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann talks with others attending the 2024 Friends of Scouting Luncheon on Wednesday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Joe Theismann won a Super Bowl, was the NFL's most valuable player and was victim to the most recognized and gruesome injury in the history of football.

He is happy to discuss all of the above.

"Some people call what I went through an accident," Theismann said Wednesday during a sit-down interview at the Chattanooga Convention Center. "Cars have accidents. Lawrence Taylor and I had a collision, and I lost that collision. Lawrence and I have had a very interesting relationship.

"I kid him all the time. I say, 'You know, you were a little-known linebacker in New York until you broke my leg, and now everybody knows who you are.' He just laughs at me and shakes his head."

There is also this Theismann go-to line regarding the night of Nov. 18, 1985: "In the theatrical realm, they always tell you to break a leg. People tell me to break the other leg."

The former quarterback at Notre Dame and with the Washington Redskins (known now as the Commanders) was in Chattanooga for the first time as the guest speaker of the 20th annual Friends of Scouting Luncheon that benefits the Cherokee Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Long before he guided the Fighting Irish to a pair of Cotton Bowls -- he was the runner-up to Jim Plunkett for the 1970 Heisman Trophy -- and Washington to a pair of Super Bowls, Theismann balanced scouting with youth sports.

"My mom and dad always found time to get me into scouting," the 74-year-old said. "My mother actually worked for Boy Scouts of America for a number of years, so I started as a Cub Scout and went through all the stages of moving along and made it to Life Scout. I never quite made it to Eagle, but I just admire so many of the young men and women now who get involved in scouting.

"I am honored to be here, because it's an opportunity to be able to raise funds for something that I think is very needed socially today, maybe more than ever. This helps give young men and women a purpose in life and a chance to have a foundation to build from. The great pyramids weren't built on their points. They had a foundation, and scouting was the foundation for me."

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann, right, signs an autograph for Michael Mathis before the start of the 2024 Friends of Scouting Luncheon on Wednesday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Jared Pickens, the Scout Executive/CEO of the Cherokee Area Council, said the luncheon is the "largest and most significant fundraiser of the year." Pickens added that Wednesday's crowd of nearly 500 was the event's biggest since 2020, when the late and legendary Bobby Bowden spoke one week before the sports world was halted by the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Scouting membership in the Cherokee Area Council is up a whopping 19% from two years ago, Pickens said.

The foundation that scouting provided Theismann has served him during celebratory moments and in the worst of times. He led Washington to the Super Bowl XVII title for the 1982 season, which was the first championship for that franchise since 1942, with the Redskins rallying past the Miami Dolphins 27-17.

Theismann won league MVP in 1983, when Washington advanced to Super Bowl XVIII before getting overwhelmed by the Los Angeles Raiders 38-9, but his playing career ended abruptly on ABC's "Monday Night Football," when he dropped back to pass against the Giants and never saw Taylor coming.

"I went through some dark days," he said. "I went through 'woe is me' stages. I had just signed a brand new five-year contract and was the fourth-highest-paid player in the National Football League, which back then was $1 million a year, but the opportunity to do what I did was very special for me.

"I'm a windshield guy. I'm not a rearview mirror guy. If I do look in the rearview mirror, it's to look at what I did so I can improve and do better at something."

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Eagle Scouts recite the Scout Oath at the start of the 2024 Friends of Scouting Luncheon on Wednesday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Seemingly minutes after his playing career ended, Theismann ascended to stardom as a color analyst, teaming with Mike Patrick and Paul Maguire on ESPN's "Sunday Night Football" from the 1988 to 2005 seasons. He now serves as an analyst with the NFL Network and with Commanders preseason broadcasts in addition to owning Theismann's Restaurant and Bar in Alexandria, Virginia.

There are also multiple motivational speaking opportunities.

"I've been very blessed to have people care about me, and I've worked hard," Theismann said. "I was a skinny kid who left high school at 157 pounds, and I was one of 13 quarterbacks when I got to Notre Dame. I've never been a good No. 2. If you're going to compete, you compete to be the best, and a big part of that comes from scouting. Not many people talk about this, but scouting also helps you deal with success.

"Everybody is always climbing that mountain, but what happens once you get to the top? That's why I have so much admiration for Tom Brady, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw and now Patrick Mahomes. Those are guys who have stood at the mountain multiple times, because they weren't just satisfied with winning one or two."

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Guests enjoy their meal during the 2024 Friends of Scouting Luncheon on Wednesday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Theismann grew up with his name pronounced "Theesman," but a stellar junior season at Notre Dame in 1969 changed that.

"Roger Valdiserri was our public relations director," Theismann said, "and he was standing there in spring practice when a reporter from Chicago walked up to him, tapped him on the shoulder, pointed at me and said, 'Is that the Theismann like in Heisman kid.' Roger just laughed, but at the beginning of my senior year, he called me into his office and asked how I pronounced my last name. When I said, 'It's Theesmann,' he said, 'No, Joe, you're last name is pronounced Theismann.' He said, 'There is a trophy called the Heisman that goes to the best football player in the country, and we think you have a chance to win it.'

"He added, 'We're not just going to count on your ability or the reputation of this university. We think by changing the pronunciation from Theesmann to Theismann to rhyme with Heisman, we think we can get you that trophy. That's how I became Joe Theismann. It was a brand that was created more than 50 years ago, and it was Roger's brainchild."

In other words, scouting shaped almost everything in Theismann's life.

Contact David Paschall at

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