The link to their lives lurks in the darkest corners of the internet, tucked in a place where network television won't dare to go but human curiosity nonetheless treads. Joe Theismann likes to call it "The Fraternity," this club of men who found their legs twisted and broken and ruptured in the most gruesome ways. After the night of Nov. 18, 1985 he became the fraternity's unofficial president, rushing in each subsequent unfortunate soul screaming in agony on a football field or basketball court as his teammates looked away in horror.
Theismann's moment came in his last game as the Washington Redskins' quarterback when New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor thundered through the line, jumped on his back and Theismann's right leg cracked in half. That it happened on Monday Night Football just as technology had grown to a point where such an injury could line up perfectly in a television screen magnified the horror until everyone could all but hear the crack.
And it became all anyone remembered of Joe Theismann.
"One Super Bowl title and an [NFL] MVP and all anyone asks about is my broken leg," Theismann joked over the phone Tuesday morning.
The topic is relevant again this week because of a running back from South Carolina named Marcus Lattimore. His grotesque injury came last fall against Tennessee when a tackler hit his right knee in such a way that the kneecap detached amid other serious damage. Over the past few months Lattimore has worked to prove he can be whole again. His recovery has been broadcast almost like a reality show, all to get him to this week's NFL draft where the only memories of him will not be the three touchdowns against East Carolina or the 246 yards against Navy. Instead, the ugliness of how his knee and leg went in opposite ways against Tennessee cost him a spot in Thursday night's first round.
"The hardest thing is the mental hurdle," Theismann said. "It's not just you who had the injury, it's everyone who tells you how bad it was: 'Oh God that was horrible!' or 'I hope you are all right' or "I can't believe you are walking.' You can go off and rehab the injury but when you have people come up to you and tell you how gruesome it was, you start to think: 'Man I was hurt bad.'
"As athletes we think we are invincible, then all of a sudden you get people telling you how seriously you were hurt."
Soon come the questions. Maybe you can't come back. Perhaps you can't run the same or jump as high or race for touchdowns the way you once did. Maybe everybody is right. Maybe with an injury that looked so awful it's impossible to come back whole.
As the president of this fraternity, Theismann contacts the others who get hurt in such violent ways and offers support and more importantly, his understanding. He sent a message of support to Lattimore when the running back went down. The moment Louisville basketball guard Kevin Ware's leg snapped in half in an Elite Eight NCAA tournament game against Duke, he grabbed his phone to contact Tennessee Titans receiver Marc Mariani – whose own ankle injury is something no one should watch – and texted: "Tonight we have another member of the fraternity and we aren't looking for any more applicants!"
Later he tweeted: "My heart goes out to Kevin Ware." The tweet became the first step in a series of conversations between Theismann and Ware. Fraternity brothers stick together.
For Theismann the broken leg marked the end of his career. He was 36 at the time. There wasn't a market for an old quarterback recovering from a serious leg injury. Not back then. It was only later that Theismann realized the blessing of the moment. He had time to think, to look back on his career, his life and assess the person he was. He didn't like what he saw.
"It opened my eyes to what I had become as a football player," he said. "I had become a self-serving egotist who thought the world revolved around him. My self worth, my self definition of what I was revolved around football. It forces you to look at who you are and the direction of your life"
From all indications, Lattimore grew too from his injury. On the day he declared for the draft, he told The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C.: "I wouldn't change anything that happened these past three years because it made me a better person, it made me a better man and it's going to make me a better person in the future knowing that I can get through anything."
But nothing will halt the curious, the disgusted, the ghoulishly intrigued. He might recover from the injury, be drafted this weekend, start the first week of the season, rush for 130 yards but still be asked about the injury. He will always be asked about the injury. That's what happens when you join "The Fraternity."
Not long after Theismann had his surgery in 1985 he spoke to – of all things – an orthopedists convention. As he walked around the convention center, doctors approached with outstretched hands and smiles on their faces. It was good to meet him, they said. His injury was one of the worst they had seen. They were fascinated. How was he doing? Then each had a question they were burning to ask. Since the break looked so awful on TV, did he have a copy of his X-ray they could see?
On Tuesday he laughed into the phone.
"It all goes back to the mental thing," he said. "You are going to talk about it."
Theismann has only watched his injury once. That came a few years ago when a writer from the New York Times came to Virginia to do a story on the anniversary of the broken leg. The writer wanted to watch a replay of the injury with Theismann – a request that momentarily rattled the quarterback. As they watched, he remembered the unease that came at the end of the first quarter as he drew close to Taylor's rush and tackle. When it happened and Theismann saw what the rest of the world had seen over and over and over, he said: "I think I've seen enough."
He doesn't know if Lattimore has watched replays of the injury. He thinks the running back shouldn't. He believes Lattimore did a smart thing in leaving school a year early to enter the draft. This way Latimore can work at a team facility without the distractions of school work. He can lift weights and run in a team program. He will know his coaches. He will understand the team's offense so when he is ready to play again, he will be prepared.
"You know what Marcus is going through in rehabilitation is much larger and much more difficult than Kevin [Ware]," Theismann said. "Kevin just broke his leg and they put a rod in it. He'll be fine. You never know about knees. You don't know what they will be able to handle."
Something Marcus Lattimore must understand on the week his immediate NFL future is decided. The first round is all but gone. Maybe the second too. The injury against Tennessee cost him money, but it also became his identity. At this point, he has no other choice but to embrace it.
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