I already know how you’re going to react to this. You’re probably going to try to argue with every point I make here. Well, just read what I have to say and take my word for it.
First things first: On November 18, 1985, maybe take the night off (but more on that later).
I write you this letter on the night that you’ve learned that you finished runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. Even though it might feel like it right now, I can assure you that this is not the end of the world. You’re going to reflect on your time at Notre Dame with a lot of pride and fond memories. You didn’t win a trophy this time, but there might be a few waiting for you down the road.
Before your senior year, Notre Dame’s PR director Roger Valdiserri convinced you to change the pronunciation of your last name so that it rhymes with Heisman. From this experience you’ll learn a couple of things. Firstly, voters aren’t interested in gimmicks. Secondly, sometimes nicknames have a way of sticking. Say goodbye to Joe ‘Theesmann.’
Whether you want to believe this or not, Joe, you don’t know everything. Your hubris will make you attempt to navigate the draft process without the help of an agent. You’re not as good at negotiating as you think you are. Your refusal to get a professional advisor will cause you to get emotionally involved in the business side of things, which will backfire on you.
I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but maybe think twice about signing a contract with the Toronto Argonauts after you’ve already agreed to a contract with the Miami Dolphins. Coach Don Shula will rightfully rip you a new one for doing so. You can at least take solace in the fact that you will never again in your life have a grown man yell at you that much.
Looking back, you won’t regret signing with Toronto—they simply made a better offer—but you’ll always have a part of you that knows that Don Shula was the kind of coach who could have gotten the most out of you. He was a demanding, tough disciplinarian, which I wish you had the wisdom to realize is exactly what you need at this phase of your life.
If it makes you feel any better, Coach Shula will eventually stop hating you … in a few decades.
Playing for the Toronto Argonauts is going to be quite a jolt for you. You’re going to learn that being a Heisman Trophy finalist doesn’t mean squat north of the border. At first you’ll wander the streets and think, “Wow, nobody here knows who I am—this is great!” But eventually this will turn into, “Wow … nobody here knows who I am—this is terrible.” You might think that playing in Toronto is a humbling experience, but let me tell you now: you don’t know anything about the word “humbled” yet, bud.
When you do come back stateside to play in the NFL, you’ll have to start from the bottom of the barrel, grinding it out on special teams as a punt returner for a couple years. During this time, you’ll also have the pleasure of sharing the quarterback meeting room with Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen, a couple of guys who hate your guts. Wait it out, you’ll get your shot and when you do, you’re going to make it count.
You’ve always loved speed and that will lead you to spend way too much money on a limited edition Corvette designed by John Greenwood. Pretty sweet ride, no? My advice is to save yourself some time and money by attaching a gigantic sign to your old car that says, “Hey, Officer, Please Give Me a Ticket!” You need to figure out what you need and eliminate what you don’t. If you got money, keep money.
In 1981, a man named Joe Gibbs will come in to coach the team. Everyone, including you, will think your time is up in Washington. New coach, old quarterback—it’ll seem like the writing is on the wall, particularly after the team starts the season with five losses. Here’s some free advice: When you’re not chosen by someone else, you better be really good at what you do because they’ll look for any possible excuse to get rid of you. Don’t give Coach Gibbs a reason to let you go because you still have your best football ahead of you.
By 1985, all the accolades that you think makes a man great will have been attained. NFL Man of the Year, MVP and a Super Bowl trophy will all be yours. But what you’re going to learn is that an entire life can change in one snap.
One night, you’re going to get hurt. You’re going to get hurt bad. And at that point, you’re going to learn what’s truly important in this life. People will call what happens to you a tragedy, but it really isn’t. It’s a blessing.
At the time, you’ll have become so self-absorbed and wrapped up in your own celebrity that you won’t think that you need anybody. But a rude awakening will come when you get out of that hospital with your leg in a cast and go to the Redskins training facility. When you got there, your locker of 12 years will be occupied by another player. All your personal items will be stashed away in a box in the equipment room. This world you had let consume you doesn’t exist anymore.
Your emotional recovery will be much faster if you can come to terms with the fact that no amount of fame will give you joy if you can’t respect yourself. Others may lead you to believe you hold some higher importance because of your exploits on the field, but that kind of fame is fleeting. Find value for yourself, Joe. Find value in what you do. Appreciate your work and appreciate the people you work with, and don’t expect any favors because it’s just not going to happen.
You’re going to learn that the only true currency is respect. If you learn to give it, you’ll eventually get it.
I’ll leave you with this: A few years after your career ends, you’ll finally have a conversation about your injury with the man who caused it. You’ll say to him “We’ll always be connected because of this play. You know how it affected my life, but how did it affect yours?”
And how he responds will always stick with you: “Joe, I learned a great lesson that night. No matter how great you are at what you do, it can be over in an instant. I ask people to snap their fingers to show them how quickly a life can change. I decided that night that I was going to make every snap – every single play in practice and during games – count. You might think you’ll live forever, but you truly don’t know when it’s all going to be over, so don’t leave anything on the table.”
That’s some pretty decent advice right there.
I’m proud of you,
Theismann is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and the Washington Redskins Ring of Fame. Today he works as a football analyst for various networks and delivers motivational speeches across the country. He is also a spokesperson and sits on the advisory board for Unequal Technologies, a company which has developed supplemental head padding that aims to reduce the risk of concussions amongst youth athletes.
Current Portrait by Jed Jacobsohn/The Players’ Tribune