Interview with Joe Theismann on the Monaco-US Celebrity Amateur Ryder Cup
Although I am firmly lodged into my middle years, there are moments when I still feel like a teenager. In preparation for the first ever Amateur Ryder Cup between the USA and Europe in June 2016 at Royal Mougins, I had that moment when I interviewed football legend Joe Theismann, who was acting as Captain of the American Team in this “kick off” to Ryder Cup France 2018.
“Throwin’ Joe” was the quarterback for the Washington Redskins the entire time I was playing football in high school. Although I was a defensive lineman, I loved the fact that he would wear a one-bar facemask at a time when most QBs wore a two- or sometimes three-bar version for protection. I begged my coach to let me wear our team’s only single-bar facemask that was specifically designed for our punter. You can guess how that conversation ended.
I began my phone conversation with Theismann rambling like a 16-year-old lineman looking forward to getting his first concussion. Once I calmed down, we spoke about the upcoming golf tournament, under the initiative and chaired by Susan Feaster, a four-year senior veteran of Ryder Cup France 2018, who promotes France as a golf destination to top US executives as well as celebrities.
Joe Theismann led Team USA in the first ever Amateur Ryder Cup between the USA and Europe, with: Steve John, CEO of Pebble Beach Pro-Am - Thomas Keller, American chef - Doc Rivers, Head Coach LA Clippers - Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver - Brad Lewis, Producer/Director (Pixar’s Academy Award winning “Ratatouille”) - Mike Powers, President of Monaco-USA Association
As soon as he got wind of the event, through Larry Michael, spokesperson for the Washington Redskins, he knew he wanted in. “Honestly, next to the Super Bowl, I haven’t been this excited about a sports event.” He confided that these days he doesn’t leave the house without his clubs should the chance to get in a few rounds pop up. “I am beyond passionate about the game.”
One thing that makes this amateur golf event unique, like the professional Ryder Cup, is the spirit of the players for their Team and their passion to win the Cup as a Team. It is the highest honour in golf. And, like Ryder Cup, you have to be invited and earn the invitation. None of the players are paid to play or win a cash award for their victory. These amateur players on Team USA were personally selected because of their successes in their given career making them a celebrity, their passion for golf, their team attitude and their willingness to devote their time and their own expenses to participate.
This first annual amateur Ryder Cup event will benefit the Ryder Cup European Development Trust to promote golf development at the grassroots for beginning players and for youth, ranging from free lessons at European Tour events to disabled golf initiatives, as well as junior and educational programs.
For Joe Theismann, coming to the South of France was an added bonus. “I’ve been to Monaco before and had all those images from ‘Casino Royale’ when I was a kid of the Casino and guys in tuxes. The area definitely lives up to every expectation.”
Football great Joe Theismann captains American team in first ever Monaco-US Celebrity Amateur Ryder CupHaving visited the Côte d’Azur previously, as well as the Amalfi Coast, I asked him what he thought was the attraction that so many Americans have specifically for Monaco. “I believe most of it has to do with Princess Grace and her connection to the US, obviously, but I find the people wonderful, the food great and the scenery majestic. It’s a part of the world that’s fascinating.”
A former pro athlete who is an avid golfer isn’t exactly breaking news but I had no idea how close the connection between golf and professional football would be for a competitor like Joe Theismann. “It’s the ultimate game of management.” He went on to explain that like a quarterback, where so much is going on – from the fans to the opposing players to your own team and coaches – golf, for him, has just as many moving pieces. “When I step up to the tee, I get those same butterflies in my stomach that I used to get when I’d step out on the field.”
He uses the game of golf to explain what it’s like to play in the NFL. “In football, there is no greater concentration than when you step into the pocket to throw a pass. It’s the exact same intensity when you step up to the tee to drive the ball. You’re completely focused on technique and where you want that ball to go while trying to block out everything else. Now, imagine when you’re about to tee off, a 300-pound man comes out of nowhere and hits you so hard you end up by the ladies tee ...”
Most sports have a champion’s tour for retired pros. Football doesn’t have any such organisation, especially for a quarterback who has broken both legs – the first time playing for the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL in 1972 and then, of course, the infamous compound fracture caught on live television that ended his career in 1985, to this day still “The NFL’s Most Gruesome Injury”. For Theismann, golf filled the void that football had left wide open.
I question Theismann about his competitiveness. He laughed. “Ask my wife.” Every time he hits a red light, “I have to be first car off the line if someone’s beside me. I just have to be. And my wife asks, ‘Do you have to do that?’ and I reply, ‘No’ ... but I know I do.”
That drive isn’t the only thing that led him to helm a Super Bowl winning team. It was the combination of opportunity and love of the game, according to Theismann, that won him the starter’s position as QB for the Washington Redskins.
Theismann – who played 163 consecutive games from 1974-1985 for the Redskins – is surprisingly dismissive in describing his talents and ability. Yes, he recognises he has a great arm for throwing, but admitted that he didn’t consider himself as naturally talented as other quarterbacks who were bigger, taller and faster. “People always counted me out. But if there’s one way you want me to succeed, it’s to tell me that I can’t do something.”
That drive and love of the game won him the starter’s position and a Super Bowl XVII ring in 1983. Yet, remarkably, it’s not the lessons of a Super Bowl victory against the Miami Dolphins that Theismann carries with him to this day, but of losing the title the following year to the LA Raiders. “I did not prepare for the second one. I had the attitude of ‘I’ve got this – been there, done that.’ I personally did not play well in that game.” Looking at clips, you can see it on his face when plays went wrong, a look of disappointment not in his teammates but in himself. After that, he said that he learned to live in the moment and not rely on accomplishments of the past.
Before I got off the phone with him I just had to ask, “Why one bar?” He laughed out loud. “Well, I used to tell the press that I wore one bar because it was easier to see the ball on hand-off plays, which is true. But I’ll tell you the real reason. Jurgensen and Kilmer [the QBs who preceded him] only wore one bar and those guys were tough. At the time, I’d rather have had my nose broken or lose some teeth than lose their respect.”