Joe Theismann, the Notre Dame standout and two-time CFL all-star joined the Washington Redskins in 1974 but would not start until 1978 under new coach Jack Pardee. Pardee was replaced after going 24-24 over three years.
Under new Coach Joe Gibbs, Theisman and the Redskins shined. From 1981-1984, only the Miami Dolphins won more games as the Redskins won two NFC Championships and a Super Bowl during this period.
On November 18, 1985, Washington met the New York Giants for a Monday Night game at RFK Stadium. The Giants were 7-3 under third-year coach Bill Parcells and were boasting a four game winning streak that began with a 17-3 defeat of Washington.
In contrast, Washington was coming off its third straight playoff appearance, but were struggling at 5-5. Theismann was having the worst season of his career and had thrown a total of 13 interceptions in the Redskins’five losses. Fans at RFK had begun to boo him.
And then, at the start of the second quarter with the game tied at 7-7, it happened. One of the most famous or iconic injuries in modern sport.
The injury was voted the NFL’s “Most Shocking Moment in History” by viewers in an ESPN poll, and the tackle was dubbed “The Hit That No One Who Saw It Can Ever Forget” by The Washington Post.
While initially only the players on the field could see the extent of the damage to Theismann’s leg, the reverse-angle instant replay (shown multiple times) provided a clearer view of what had actually happened—Theismann’s lower leg bones were broken midway between his knee and his ankle, such that his leg from his foot to his mid-shin was lying flat against the ground while the upper part of his shin up to his knee was at a 45-degree angle to the lower part of his leg.
The compound fracture of the tibia led to insufficient bone growth during Theismann’s recovery, leaving his right leg shorter than his left. As a result, the injury forced Theismann into retirement at the age of 36.
The injury sparked a Redskin Revival, as 24-year old Jay Schroeder led the Redskins to victory that night and in four of the last five games. Washington finished 10-6 in a three-way tie for first with the Giants and Cowboys but did not qualify for the playoffs under tiebreaker rules.
The next year Schroeder was second in the league in passing yards with 4106 and he led the Redskins to a 12-4 tie for first with the Giants and to an NFC Championship Game matchup against the Giants. Schroeder was sacked four times and suffered a mild concussion in the 17-0 loss to the Giants.
A separated shoulder injury in the opening game in 1986 limited Schroeder’s effectiveness and he was eventually benched in favor of Doug Williams who led the Redskins to Super Bowl glory. Schroeder was traded to the Los Angeles Raiders after the season.