Joe Theismann to host annual Virginia Vine benefit for V Foundation cancer research

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Joe Theismann (Part 1)

He won a Super Bowl with Washington and is now tackling cancer with the V Foundation.

Joe Theismann returns to host the seventh annual Virginia Vine event in Middleburg, Virginia, from Friday through Sunday to benefit the late Jimmy Valvano’s V Foundation.

“This is something that’s near and dear to me, to a lot of people,” Thiesmann told WTOP. “If your life and your friends haven’t been touched by cancer, you’re very, very blessed, but there are so many people who have. We want to continue to fight and fight and fight to find a cure and the only way we can do it is through financing and donations.”

The three-day event kicks off Friday with a “Nashville Comes to Middleburg” concert by Maggie Rose. Saturday includes a panel discussion with athletes and scientists, followed by a gala dinner and live auction. It all wraps on Sunday with a farewell breakfast. Events will be held at Stone Tower Winery and Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia.

Jim Valvano’s daughter Jamie will present the inaugural Virginia Vine Visionary Award to Mark Lerner, managing principal owner and vice chairman of the Washington Nationals.

To date, the V Foundation has raised more than $3.8 million for early detection research. Friday single-day tickets are $500 and all-inclusive tickets for the full weekend are $1,500.

“We can’t do it without donating,” Theismann said. “Last year through the virtual part of our fundraiser we managed to raise $1 million. We want to exceed far and above that this year now that we have people back in the audience, a live auction with live people. Christian Hoff is a fantastic Tony Award winner and auctioneer who will be handling all of that.”

Valvano coached underdog North Carolina State to a national title in 1983 before his inspirational “Don’t Ever Give Up” speech at the 1993 ESPYs a month before his death.

“I knew Jimmy Valvano for many, many years,” Theismann said. “We were close friends. I was there the night he gave his speech at the ESPYs, helped him off and on the stage. … I actually carry his speech with me. It’s an inspiration. I read it so often. He asks you to think, to laugh and you to bring your emotions. Those are the three things.”

Born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Theismann grew up 20 minutes from where Valvano played college hoops at Rutgers University. On his high school football team, Theismann’s trusty wide receiver was future Hall of Famer and Dallas Cowboys rival Drew Pearson.

“Drew was my wide receiver in high school,” Theismann said. “The first pass that Drew caught was a 65-yard touchdown pass. I went to his induction into the Hall of Fame … I just laugh because the Drew Pearson that I watched play for the Dallas Cowboys was the same exact Drew Pearson that I had the privilege to throw the ball to in high school.”

Theismann received a scholarship to University of Notre Dame, losing to Texas in the Cotton Bowl in 1970, but getting revenge on the Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl in 1971. During the Heisman Trophy race, the All-American even changed the pronunciation of his name to rhyme with “Heisman,” ultimately finishing second in the voting to Jim Plunkett.

“Roger Valdiserri, our public relations director, made the suggestion,” Theismann said. “I called my dad to check the pronunciation of our last name. He thought I was nuts. … Roger preceded to explain to me that my last name was pronounced ‘Theismann’ like in Heisman. The name has stayed with me for 50-plus years, creating a brand for who I am.”

He was drafted in the fourth round of the 1971 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins and the 39th round of the MLB Draft by the Minnesota Twins. When negotiations failed, Theismann signed with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts before joining the NFL in 1974 as Washington’s punt returner and third-string quarterback behind Sonny Jorgensen and Billy Kilmer.

“I came to Washington and sat behind Billy and Sonny,” Theismann said. “When you’re competing for a job, you don’t look at it as a learning process, but in hindsight, I looked at the incredible ability of Sonny to throw a football … and Billy’s leadership skills were unbelievable. Billy couldn’t throw like Sonny, but guys would play their heart out for him.”

They were just two of the Washington football legends on Theismann’s early teams.

“We just lost a great individual in Charley Taylor,” Theismann said. “Charley just passed, Bobby Mitchell a year ago and now Charley, these are guys I got to know very well. … When Charley set the NFL receiving record, I had a chance to throw him the pass against the Chicago Bears. … So many unique characters were a part of the football team then.”

In 1978, head coach George Allen was replaced by Jack Pardee, who gave Theismann a chance to become the starting quarterback. Legendary coach Joe Gibbs took over in 1981, and a year later, Theismann led the team to an iconic win against Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys in the 1982 NFC Championship game on the home field of RFK Stadium.

“People ask me what is the most memorable game you ever played … the Cowboys at RFK for a chance to go to the Super Bowl,” Theismann said. “Darryl Grant making the interception, Danny [White] getting knocked out. … To stand on the field and listen to the fans cheer ‘We want Dallas,’ I get goosebumps. The ground beneath my feet was shaking!”

They capped the season by beating the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl with a game-winning touchdown run by John Riggins behind an offensive line known as The Hogs.

“Our five guys up front … just took the game over,” Theismann said. “John was incredible. Having a chance to play with John was just an experience and a half. John was a character’s character, he still is today one of the funniest guys I know, but when it came to his work ethic, when it came to running the football, he was just a load to deal with.”

While everyone remembers Riggo’s touchdown run, Theismann threw two touchdown passes and delivered the most underrated play. Down 17—13, Theismann threw a tipped pass that could have been a pick-six for Dolphins defensive end Kim Bokamper, but Theismann turned himself into a defender to bat the ball away and save the game.

“If they had scored, I don’t believe we would’ve caught them,” Theismann said. “Kim Bokamper knocked it up in the air, all of a sudden, my feet felt like they were in cement, I could see the laces on the ball spinning in slow motion … I made one last dive … and knocked the ball away. I remember sitting in the end zone looking at Kim: ‘That was close.'”

In 1983, Theismann won the NFL MVP in the regular season and made a return trip to the Super Bowl, but lost to the Los Angeles Raiders with star running back Marcus Allen.

“No question, the ’83 team was the most talented,” Theismann said. “We only lost two games by one point, one to the Packers 48-47 and to the Cowboys 31-30. … We were the highest-scoring team in football. Hindsight’s 20/20, but if we win that and win back-to-back Super Bowls, that team gets ranked in the top one or two in the history of the game.”

Through it all, Theismann had a front-row seat watching legendary coach Joe Gibbs.

“Coach Gibbs, to this day I talk to Joe, we converse and I say he’s the greatest halftime adjustment coach I’ve ever known,” Theismann said. “Also, when it came to the red zone, which is inside the 20 [yard line], there’s nobody like him. It was genius what he was able to do, giving us a chance to find guys, getting them open or just pound it in with John.”

His playing career ended the fateful night of Nov. 18, 1985 on “Monday Night Football” when a devastating Lawrence Taylor sack caused a compound fracture of Theismann’s tibia and fibula in his right leg, one of the most gruesome injuries ever on live television.

“When it happened, I wanted to continue to play, it was frustrating,” Theismann said. “I’m not a rearview mirror guy, I like to look out the windshield. … I already had the experience of broadcasting a Super Bowl and was hoping to get into broadcasting. I spent two years at CBS before I moved on to ESPN. … I still love to [broadcast] our preseason games.”

Today, Theismann has become a fixture of the Washington community, operating Theismann’s Restaurant and Bar in Alexandria since 1975, while broadcasting football games and serving as the ultimate ambassador for the Burgundy and Gold.

“Ron is doing a terrific job putting this program back together,” Theismann said. “There’s some pieces that have to be filled going forward. Carson Wentz has a tremendous opportunity ahead of him to reignite his career. … Our defense has to play better than it did a year ago. … I’m excited about what the Commanders are going to be able to do.”

What does he think of the new team name?

“People ask me about the name, but if we win, I don’t think anybody is really going to care what the name is,” Theismann said. “Going forward, it’s a chance for these guys to create a legacy of their own. They’re really going to start creating a history this year of their own. If you start winning, people are going to start coming out and getting excited.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Joe Theismann (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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