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Strasburg, Theismann and D.C. sports injuries


Not long after Stephen Strasburg's diagnosis came in, the great Japers Rink asked a great question: "Where does this rank in the most devastating injuries in DC sports history?"

It's really a question for the Thomas Boswells of the world, but I think I can take a stab at a more recent version of the question. I'd say it's the most dramatically bad since Joe Theismann's broken leg.

Here's the thing: learning that Strasburg needed Tommy John was a lightning bolt moment, an immediate brick to the stomach, something that made you stop and shake your head and look around and say damnnnnnnnn. SB Nation DC took an early stab at this question and put Gilbert Arenas's knee injuries as the worst ever, but I'll respectfully note that the implosion of Gilbert's knee was hardly a lightning bolt moment, at least for me. I only marginally remember where I was when it happened in Charlotte (in my living room?), and the next day the injury was folded into the E1 Wash Post Wizards game story.

No one knew what a big deal it was. The initial prognosis was two-to-three months, and that Wizards season was already cratering. We all assumed he would return and be basically ok the next season. And he still earned a franchise deal, post-injury. The history of Gilbert's knee is one of gradual tragedy, not an immediate axe to the sternum.

This Strasburg thing, though, will be the kind of thing you remember, even if he comes back as a future Hall of Famer. It's a lock for A1 of Saturday's Post, and it might be the first "D.C. Athlete Injured!!!!" story to hit A1 since Theismann. It's the kind of thing where you walk into Video Americain, Takoma Park's artsy movie emporium, and the clerk asks you about the Nats.

(Obviously everything about the Len Bias and Sean Taylor tragedies qualifies, but death does not equal injury.)

For comparison's sake, I went back and read the next day's Theismann coverage. It was clear something big had happened. Here's the A1 story from Tuesday's paper. Within the next few days, Theismann's injury would be discussed in Style, in Metro, in yet another A1 story, and in a WaPo staff editorial. "Could anything be much more sad than Theismann's departure?" Ken Denlinger asked in a sports column that week.

Oh, and while our Strasburg traffic this weekend will be Oppo Boppo, last weekend's really wasn't. Sunday's story about the Kareem Moore/Mike Sellers preseason injuries attracted 50 percent more page views than the Strasburg injury story. Typical.

Redskins' Theismann Injured, Lost for the Season;Sub Schroeder Leads Team Over Giants
By Michael Wilbon and Gary Pomerantz

RFK Stadium probably has never been as quiet during a Washington Redskins game as it was at 10 o'clock last night when the public address announcer said quarterback Joe Theismann, who had started the last 71 games for the Redskins, had suffered a compound fracture of his lower right leg.

At 1:30 this morning at Arlington Hospital, the team's orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Charles Jackson, made an even more chilling announcement after 40 minutes of surgery: Theismann's right leg will be in a cast for three months, meaning that his season is over.

Perhaps equally stunning was what happened at RFK. Jay Schroeder, a second-year pro who had thrown only eight passes all season, came on to complete 13 of 20 for 221 yards and one touchdown, a 14-yard game-winner to Clint Didier, as the Redskins beat the New York Giants, 23-21. Details on Page D1....

The severity of the injury raised immediate speculation that the career of Theismann, at 36 the oldest starting quarterback in the National Football League, may be in jeopardy.

But Jackson said, "The prognosis right now is a very good one . . . I expect he will be an excellent football player again next year."

Jackson said Theismann suffered "an open fracture of the tibia (shinbone) and the fibula (the long, thin outer bone running between the knee and ankle), with broken skin." A compound fracture means that the broken edges of a bone are pushed through the skin.

A hospital spokesman said that Theismann would remain in the hospital for at least 10 days.

Jackson began performing surgery just before midnight to clean the wound, put in a pack and several sutures, then place the leg in a cast. "The X-rays look very good and Joe's doing real well," Jackson said afterward. "He's a very motivated, confident and courageous human being."

Perhaps Theismann's most remarkable trait has been his durability. Only once since 1978, when he became entrenched as the Redskins' starting quarterback, has he been unable to play his position, and that was in a 1980 game, when he still managed to hold for field goal and extra-point attempts. He had participated in 163 in a row.

But after a trick play in the first minute of the second quarter, called a flea-flicker, resulted in his being sacked by three Giants, including all-pro linebacker Lawrence Taylor, Theismann was left sprawled on the bermuda grass of RFK, his lower leg pinned under his body.

Theismann had just taken a pitchout from running back John Riggins when he was hit by Taylor. Another New York linebacker, Gary Reasons, came over the top, and Theismann's right ankle was twisted underneath him.

Taylor immediately beckoned for Redskins doctors, who rushed onto the field, followed shortly by Coach Joe Gibbs. Several Giants stood by Theismann as a stretcher was rolled onto the field.

Among the Giants on the field was linebacker Harry Carson, who was the first to make contact with Theismann on the play, although he did not fall on him. "I saw that his leg was broken in two," Carson said. "My heart goes out to him."

After several minutes Theismann was removed, and the usual sellout crowd of more than 55,000 cheered nervously. Club owner Jack Kent Cooke paced in his box.

An ambulance brought Theismann to Arlington Hospital, where he was joined by his fiance, actress Cathy Lee Crosby.

Just after midnight, as doctors performed surgery on Theismann in a nearby operating room, a group gathered around a TV set in the lobby and cheered as cornerback Vernon Dean intercepted a Giants pass late in the game to ensure a Redskins victory.

"This game," said one, "is for Joe."

Jackson said Theismann watched about 10 minutes of the game before the operation, without having taken an anesthetic.

"He has a very high threshold of pain," the doctor said.

Ever since the Redskins began their ascent toward the Super Bowl in 1982, there has been the constant fear: What if Joe Theismann gets hurt?

Now, faced with exactly that situation, the team's quarterback coach, Jerry Rhome, said that Babe Laufenberg would be brought back this week to back up Schroeder. Laufenberg was released near the end of training camp.

Jackson was asked how long Theismann could be out of action, and said: "It could be up to as long as a year, but I don't think so. I'm optimistic."

Theismann came out of Notre Dame in 1971, drafted in the fourth round by Miami. He played three years in Canada before he joined the Redskins, who had obtained his rights in 1974 from the Dolphins. He became the permanent Washington starter in 1978 when Jack Pardee took over for George Allen as head coach.

He is the most prolific passer in Redskins history. He started the 1985 season with 23,432 yards passing, 1,877 completions and 3,301 attempts. His career rating of 79.0 makes him 11th on the all-time NFL passing list behind Bart Starr with 80.3. But he entered last night's game ranking as the second-lowest rated quarterback in the NFC this season.

For one night at least, Schroeder was a magnificent replacement. The score at the time of Theismann's injury was 7-7, and Theismann had completed seven passes in 10 attempts for 50 yards and one touchdown. He had been sacked three times.

Thanks to Schroeder's heroics, the Redskins are 6-5 with five weeks remaining in the regular season. It's a period of time in which Schroeder will be in the spotlight, and Theismann will be in a cast.

(By J. Scott Applewhite - AP)

By Dan Steinberg  |  August 27, 2010; 4:33 PM ET
Categories:  Redskins  
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Next: Dibble discusses Strasburg's injury


Absolutely a lightning bolt moment. Actually, I had just come from meeting a Chinese delegation. My colleague had flown in from out of town.

I stepped out of the elevator, opened a blackberry message and uncontrollably blurted out, "Oh my God!"

The colleague thought someone had been assassinated.

Posted by: msb3 | August 27, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

I think that this definitely qualifies as the worst DC sports injury story since Joe. Gil's knee isn't even close to those two (although off the top of my head, I can't think of anything that would beat Gil's knee at #3).

@msb3: The BlackBerry is truly the universe's gift to the mobile sports fan.

Posted by: RCBJr | August 27, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

The biggest DC sports injury will be when Ovi crashes into a wall going 110 with his fellow 10+year contract, $100 million+ teammate Nicklas Backstrom in the passenger seat.

Knock on wood it doesn't happen, but it's certainly probable

Posted by: philarmy | August 27, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

I know Backstrom doesn't have a $100 million contract, I was more referring to Ovi

Posted by: philarmy | August 27, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

It is appropriate to note that Joe Theismann was a jerk.

Posted by: 202character | August 27, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately for we fans, the Nats are not a Joe Gibbs Redskins team of the late 80's early nineties. Championship caliber players at almost every position.

Even before the injury Theismann was having a terrible year ...

Posted by: periculum | August 27, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

I think there's only one move left for the Nats: hire Susan O'Malley.

Posted by: CDRHoek | August 27, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse

I would rank the Sean Taylor shooting above Gilbert. Sean dying I think easily beats out most stories. Maybe Theisman's injury is #1 but I'd say the Sean Taylor shooting is a close 2nd.

Posted by: sulley2007 | August 27, 2010 10:56 PM | Report abuse

While he wasn't a star at the level of Joe T or Strasburg, Pat Peake suffered a career-ending injury on the ice. His was also bad like JoeT's where you knew pretty much right away that we was not going to recover from the injury.

Posted by: calhokie | August 28, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

I agree that the Taylor shooting was the only story that even approached the Theesman story in magnitude and impact. There were even parallels in the reaction, I think--how many people had a decidedly negative first reaction about Sean Taylor when the news first broke? Maybe even as many as couldn't stand Joe Theesman...

Posted by: Landru | August 29, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

I agree that Sean Taylor being shot should be considered in this discussion. With Bias, the news was that he was dead, but with Taylor, he was alive in the hospital for nearly 24 hours before passing - and in the news/social media culture of the last five years, that is a LONG time compared to the mid-80s. Sure, the other three cases were all sports-related injuries, but with Taylor, initially, it was a question of "will he survive and, if so, will his leg be amputated, and if not, will he ever play football again?"

Though Theismann never played another down (partly because he was already old and in decline when he got injured), Gil has returned (and had other issues) and Strasburg is expected to return at some point (though maybe not until 2012) and could still have a very effective career, though will lose the tag of "phenom".

I don't live in D.C. anymore, so to bring a national perspective to this, Theismann's injury happened live on Monday Night Football, when Monday Night Football was pulling in huge ratings. That means a national audience and national recognition that this was big - a potentially career-ending injury of a Super Bowl-winning QB. Strasburg is similarly a name that moves the needle across the country and is a legit star (in terms of recognition and box-office clout). Gilbert has been a recognizable name and maybe top 10 in the league player, but I'm not sure that he was quite in the "major star on the national level" as much as people in D.C. considered him. He hadn't won anything and wasn't one of those 3-4 players across the league that was seen as capable of putting a team on his back and going DEEP into the playoffs. He was the best D.C. hoops had seen in a long time, but he was not Iverson in his prime or Bias in his prime, or Kobe, LeBron, Wade, etc. of this era.

Posted by: csh2000 | August 30, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

I think the reason that so many (myself included) are not putting Taylor's death into the discussion is because a.) we're talking about "injuries", within the context of sports, and b.) we're talking about injuries on the field and related to the sport. If you take away those criteria, then yes, I think Taylor's death is ay the #1 story, with Bias a close #2.

Posted by: RCBJr | August 30, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

I think the reason that so many (myself included) are not putting Taylor's death into the discussion is because a.) we're talking about "injuries", within the context of sports, and b.) we're talking about injuries on the field and related to the sport. If you take away those criteria, then yes, I think Taylor's death is ay the #1 story, with Bias a close #2.

Posted by: RCBJr | August 30, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry, but Bias' death is the #1 story. It opened a LOT of people's eyes to drugs and, at the time of his death, I admit that I wondered what it would feel like to get high. The day of his death was the day I decided that I didn't need to know.

Posted by: stwasm | August 30, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

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