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Theismann Has a History With the Dolphins


It's no secret that Joe Theismann is one of the greatest quarterbacks in Redskins history.

In 12 seasons in D.C., he tallied 25,206 passing yards, 2,044 completions and 3,602 attempts, all franchise records, plus 160 touchdown passes. He started under center on teams that made the playoffs three times in the 1980s and went to two Super Bowls, winning once.

Theismann was also the epitome of brashness and flamboyance. He craved the spotlight and never met a sound bite or self-promotional opportunity that he didn't like. But that's nothing novel, too.

Here's the tricky question: What NFL team drafted Theismann in 1971 following his star-studded career at Notre Dame?

The Miami Dolphins.

The Dolphins took Theismann in the fourth round with the 99th overall pick. Seven quarterbacks went ahead of him: Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning and Dan Pastorini in the first round, and Lynn Dickey, Leo Hart, Ken Anderson and Karl Douglas in the third. Among those, one could argue that Theismann crafted the most celebrated career.

Theismann, a talented baseball player, also received an offer in 1971 to play shortstop for the Minnesota Twins. But he discarded baseball, not wanting to play in a farm system, and began negotiating with Dolphins owner Joe Robbie. Acting as his own agent, he asked for a three-year contract worth up to $55,000.

Theismann was stunned when Robbie agreed to his request.

"I said, 'Oh man, it's not supposed to work this way,'" he said. "There's supposed to be some give and take. But it was fine. So I go on Miami television and say, 'Come hell or high water, I'll be a Miami Dolphin.'"

The Dolphins threw a $35,000 bonus into the compensation package. But Theismann disliked that the bonus was split over three seasons, and that he'd have to return all of it if he missed any of those years. He was concerned about possibly being drafted into the U.S. military to serve in the Vietnam War.

"I didn't know whether I was going to wind up going into the service or what," he said. "It was an issue for a very long period of time."

Meanwhile, Theismann engaged in talks with the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts, who also offered to sign him after he left Notre Dame.

He met with Argonauts head coach Leo Cahill and other team officials, and was offered a $200,000 package that included a $50,000 signing bonus, a lot of money for a rookie in that era.  He accepted the offer but asked the Argonauts not to publicize the signing.

Theismann himself wanted to break the news to now-legendary Dolphins head coach Don Shula, who was certain that the rookie would sign with Miami. But Shula found out when word of the signing leaked out through Canadian media. He was angry.

"It took probably 15, 20 years for him to forgive that I had signed with Toronto, didn't go to Miami," Theismann said.

Theismann starred in the CFL. In three seasons north of the border, he threw for 6,093 yards and used his scrambling ability to run for another 1,054.

During that period, the Dolphins went to the Super Bowl three times and won twice, including a Super Bowl VII victory over the Redskins that solidified their historic 17-0 season.

In 1974, Redskins head coach George Allen acquired Theismann by trading a  No. 1 pick to the Dolphins, who still held his rights. By 1978, Theismann was the Redskins' undisputed starter, and he gradually elevated himself to the elite level of NFL quarterbacks.

He was the NFC's top-rated passer in 1982, completing 64 percent of his regular-season throws and 68 percent in the playoffs, when he posted a remarkable 110.8 quarterback rating as the Redskins marched to a win over none other than the Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII.

Theismann completed 15 of 23 passes for 143 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions, in the Super Bowl.

Theismann is sure that Shula, remembering that the quarterback bailed on him about a decade earlier, was stung by the loss.

"I know it didn't sit well with him," he said. "Then in 1985, I end up broadcasting the Super Bowl between the Dolphins and 49ers. He was very cold to me at that time. It wasn't until into the 1990s that Don sort of relented a little bit."

For Theismann, missing the Dolphins' three Super Bowl appearances was tough to swallow. But he creatively found a way to celebrate their success.

"I had a little ring made," he said. "It was a pinkie ring with three very, very small diamonds for each of their Super Bowls. It was symbolic to me because those were the three championships that I was not a part of."

Mike Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. His web site is and his email is

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