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Theismann continues to motivate after football

Matthew DeFranks | Thursday, October 3, 2013

It was Ara Parseghian’s 90th birthday when Joe Theismann realized the proper way to respect his former coach.
Parseghian was seated in a chair at the celebration and Theismann knelt down to be next to him when it hit him.
“I thought ‘This is the way it should be, everyone should bow to Ara,'” Theismann said in a phone interview with The Observer. “He was the king on the throne to so many of us. The man was phenomenal. … You couldn’t disappoint Ara, you just couldn’t. You couldn’t allow yourself to disappoint someone like him.”
“To this day, I am still intimidated by him because I have such great respect.”
Under Parseghian’s tutelage, Theismann finished his Irish career with 4,411 yards passing and 1,021 yards on the ground. He finished second in voting for the Heisman Trophy in 1970 to Stanford’s Jim Plunkett despite throwing just 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Theismann said he was undersized for the quarterback position, especially when he first enrolled at Notre Dame.
“In college, you really don’t know anything,” he said. “In college football, it’s like, you’re just delighted to be here. [I was] 155 pounds. When I started as a sophomore, I was 162 pounds. When you’re 5-feet-10 and 162 pounds, you’re just happy to be alive much less the starting quarterback at the University of Notre Dame.”
After starter Terry Hanratty went down with an injury, Theismann took his spot in the lineup in 1968. The next two years, however, Theismann was the man under center as the Irish finished in the top 10 both seasons.
Theismann’s four years on campus marked the end of a seven-year streak for Parseghian of top-10 finishes that included a national championship in 1966.
“I think back now and reflect on the time I spent with him and appreciate the lessons more,” Theismann said. “When you’re going through something, sometimes, you can’t see the forest for the trees. All of a sudden, when it’s over and you reflect back and go ‘Wow, I learned a lot during that period of time.’ And I did for Ara.”
Parseghian was just one of the great coaches the former Irish quarterback played under during his career. Theismann also played for Hall-of-Famers George Allen and Joe Gibbs as a member of the Washington Redskins.
“I consider myself a very lucky man to have had a chance to be around them,” Theismann said. “I’ve appreciated all of the lessons about being around greatness.”
Theismann said he also played for Hall-of-Famers Tom Landry and Bill Walsh in Pro Bowls. He said all the great coaches had a common theme.
“The one thing that is a common thread is that it was all about details,” he said. “They were extremely detail-oriented. They were extremely focused. And they didn’t waste a lot of rhetoric or try to give fancy speeches. They were all no-nonsense men. This is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to do it and this is the way it’s going to get done. Period. If you didn’t understand that, you didn’t deserve to be on any of those football teams.”
Theismann almost added another coach to his personal Mount Rushmore of coaching – Don Shula.
Coming out of Notre Dame, Theismann was drafted in the fourth round by the Miami Dolphins, but never played a down for the Dolphins.
“That didn’t really pan out very well,” he said. “I basically said I would be a Miami Dolphin. I didn’t like some of the language in the contract because I did not have an agent. So I would up signing with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.”
Theismann played three seasons in the CFL before returning to the NFL as a member of the Redskins. During his time in Canada, the Dolphins went undefeated in 1972 and added another title in 1973.
In 1972, Dolphins starting quarterback Bob Griese broke his ankle early in the season, which could have opened the door for Theismann to lead an undefeated team if he was a Dolphin.
“In you really want to fantasize, that could have been me,” he said. “But then again, I could have been [6-foot-5] and playing power forward in the NBA but I’m not that either.”
Theismann exacted his revenge against Miami in 1982, when his Redskins beat the Dolphins 27-17 in Super Bowl XVII. Theismann threw two touchdown passes in the win a decade after he spurned the Dolphins for the CFL.
“It was somewhat rewarding. Coach Shula was really upset with me,” Theismann said. “Fast-forward 11 years to 1982, I’m quarterbacking a team that beats him in the Super Bowl. If he was really mad at me for those 10 or 11 years, you could imagine how mad he was at me after that. I’d say Shula hated me for a good 20 years.”
Theismann said he does not have many regrets about his playing career but one was that he never played for Shula.
“Don Shula was, to me, the professional answer to what Ara Parseghian was – tough, willful men,” he said. “And obviously, coach Shula was the most winningest coach in the history of professional football, that just tells you what it’s like.”
Now, Theismann does motivational speeches for everything from charities, corporations and universities to civil groups, chambers of commerce and association meetings.
“I love sharing my experiences with other people,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to be around some incredible people both in the world of athletics and not in the world of athletics. How many people have personal trainers to help them physically? Millions. What I try and do is to help them mentally. So I guess I’m a mental personal trainer.”
Theismann said he speaks about the relationship the world of sports, the world of business and personal lives.
“I talk about goals, attitudes, relationships, teamwork, motivation, competitive edge,” he said. “I ask people to look at their life, I never want to tell anybody to do anything. But I basically share the experiences of my life so that they have something to measure it against, both good and bad.”
Theismann, 64, is married to his wife Robin.
Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu