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Lawrence Taylor's devastating hit on Joe Theismann left some lasting impressions

Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann is brought down

Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann is brought down by Giants' Lawrence Taylor, 56, during second quarter action at R.F.K. Stadium in Washington on Monday, Nov. 18, 1985. Theismann injured his right leg during the play and was carried off the field.  Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS/Anonymous

This story is part of our "From the Press Box" series, in which Newsday sportswriters share their experiences covering great performances, memorable moments and the craziest games.

David Tyree’s magical catch, which still seems impossible more than 12 years later. As does the Giants’ 17-14 win over the previously unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

Malcolm Butler's stunning interception in the end zone against the Seahawks, who made the staggeringly wrong decision not to give running back Marshawn Lynch the ball at the 1-yard line in Super Bowl XLIX.

Joe Montana’s game-winning 92-yard drive to beat Boomer Esiason’s Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII in Miami.

And so many more iconic moments I’ve had the privilege — and oh, it is a privilege I never take for granted — of witnessing from my seat in an NFL press box. There have been close to 900 games in all, and a spectacular mélange of highlights along the way.

Odell Beckham Jr.’s remarkable one-handed catch against the Cowboys. The Jets’ Monday Night Miracle win over the Dolphins that included Jumbo Elliott’s touchdown catch off a tackle-eligible play. Dan Marino’s fake spike against the Jets. Every one of Tom Brady’s six Super Bowl victories.

But a game from my first year of covering the NFL stands out the most in terms of sheer drama and human emotion.

Giants-Redskins, Monday night, Nov. 18, 1985, at RFK Stadium in Washington.

Setting the scene

It was a legendary backdrop for a rivalry that dates to 1932, one of the most riveting matchups in pro sports. RFK is a creaky old stadium, built in 1961 near the west bank of the Anacostia River and next to the D.C. Armory. But it was one of the best stadiums to take in a football game, especially a Giants-Redskins game. Emotions always ran high. 

Watching the Redskins, especially during the halcyon days of the Joe Gibbs era, was like nothing else. Packed house every time. A marching band that played "Hail to the Redskins" every time the home team scored. Stands that would shake when fans stomped on them. A press box, suspended above the stands, that swayed as if it were in an earthquake whenever the crowd erupted.

Reporters often grumbled about the accommodations, but I always loved it there. Even the pregame meal: chicken and green beans — every single game.

This was an especially important game for both teams, with the Giants having built a playoff team under general manager George Young and coach Bill Parcells and the Redskins nearing the end of their first iteration as Super Bowl champions. Quarterback Joe Theismann, who helped the team to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances after the 1982 and 1983 seasons, was 36 years old but still held on to the starting job. The Redskins were 5-5 after a 13-7 home loss to the Cowboys the week before.

The Giants were 7-3 after a four-game winning streak that began with a 17-3 victory over the Redskins at Giants Stadium. Phil Simms was in the midst of his best season to date, and Parcells, who’d nearly been fired after going 3-12-1 in 1983, was establishing himself as a capable leader. He’d also been a challenging subject for reporters. He parried with them during news conferences and used his bully pulpit to challenge writers with impunity.

I was assigned to cover the Giants for the Gannett Westchester-Rockland Newspapers, for whom I’d previously covered the Islanders during their epic run of Stanley Cup victories. Parcells was nothing like Islanders coach Al Arbour, one of the most gentlemanly people in the history of pro sports. Arbour never called out reporters and was extremely personable.

Parcells? Not so much. He’d snarl at even the slightest hint of confrontational questions from the media. That style had grown on his players, and he managed to coax the best out of what eventually would become a two-time Super Bowl championship team. But to get there, Parcells knew he needed to vanquish the foes in his own division, starting with the Redskins.

The Monday Night Football atmosphere was exhilarating, and a national television audience was treated to another episode of the legendary series, albeit this time with the announcing crew of Frank Gifford, O.J. Simpson and Joe Namath, and not previous Gifford sidekicks “Dandy” Don Meredith and Howard Cosell.

It would turn out to be an unforgettable night.

Theismann under siege

It was 7-7 in the second quarter when Gibbs called a flea-flicker, with Theismann handing off to John Riggins and the running back pitching it back to Theismann. But the Giants weren’t fooled on the play, and defensive coordinator Bill Belichick’s blitz led to a swarm of defenders converging on Theismann. Lawrence Taylor, firmly established as the game’s best defensive player, pulled Theismann down, and his knee went into Theismann’s lower right leg.

Taylor knew Theismann was seriously injured and immediately waved at the Redskins’ bench to summon help. Horrifying replays — which I find difficult to watch to this day — showed Theismann’s leg breaking. Taylor was so upset that he began to cry, something he’d never done before or since on a football field.

The press box was silent, as was the rest of the stadium while Theismann was attended to.

The in-game drama had only begun, however. The postgame drama in the Giants’ locker room would follow.

After Theismann was carted off the field, his understudy, a strong-armed former baseball prospect named Jay Schroeder, came on to lead a remarkable 23-21 win. And it wasn’t just Schroeder; Gibbs and special teams coach Wayne Sevier dialed up two successful onside kicks and a fake punt that led to all three touchdowns.

Welcome to Monday Night Football deadlines. It was all I could do to get a story in just as the game ended before heading down to the Giants’ locker room.

It was a cramped, crowded, dank mess of a room beneath the stadium. Equipment bags were strewn all over and players had to maneuver their way to the showers and back to their lockers.

The players were forlorn after having lost such a close game to end their winning streak. They dressed quietly as we milled about, waiting for their cues that it was OK for questions to be asked.

As we waited near the locker of offensive tackle Brad Benson, who had just a towel draped around his waist, he looked into the crowd and saw a Washington-based radio reporter staring at him. Benson glared back and said, “What are you looking at?”

“I’m looking at a bunch of losers,” the reporter said.

Benson lunged at the reporter, and several teammates, including linebacker Carl Banks, interceded to prevent a full-scale melee. Even Giants president and co-owner Wellington Mara, who was 69 years old at the time, helped pull his players away.

Back to the press box to file an updated story, and the night, which had turned into early morning, was done. Got back to the Key Bridge Marriott hotel at 3 a.m. Couldn’t sleep.

Epilogue

P.S. On June 5, 2017 — nearly 32 years after that unforgettable night — I interviewed Theismann for a book called “Guts & Genius,” the story of how the Gibbs, Parcells and Bill Walsh rivalries defined the 1980s. We spoke extensively about the game, and two things stood out in our conversation.

The first was Theismann’s recollection of Taylor calling the quarterback in his hospital room a couple of days after the injury. “Joe, how you doing?” Taylor asked.

“Not very well,” Theismann replied.

“Why?” Taylor said.

“Because you broke both bones in my leg.”

To which Taylor shot back, “I never do anything halfway. OK, gotta go to practice.”

The second was Theismann calling the injury the best thing that could have happened to him.

“It was the moment that changed my life,” he told me. “I had enjoyed so much success, my ego had gotten so out of control. I felt like I was the be-all and end-all, and that the world revolved around me. It slammed my feet back on the ground, because it took away the one thing that I held above everything else. It stripped away my football identity and it forced me to look at myself as a person. So, to me, it wasn’t a tragedy, it was a blessing. It came at a time in my life where I wasn’t capable of making the decision to be a different person. Something had to happen, and that was it. It was the day that changed my life.”

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