It was a time in sports history when a football player was expected to be a football player. A time before energy drink endorsements, high-end athletic fashion lines, or hip-hop recording contracts.
A time when a starting quarterback could have his loyalty questioned because he also happened to be a restaurateur.
In 1981, Joe Gibbs began his first stint as head coach of the Washington Redskins, taking over a team that went 6-10 the previous year. Gibbs’s starting quarterback was Joe Theismann, who along with his football duties was dabbling in radio and television work, and had his name on a burgeoning chain of sports-themed family restaurants in the D.C. area.
Those outside interests were an immediate issue between coach and quarterback.
“One of the doubts Joe had about me was about my commitment to football. I had businesses outside of football. Back then, coaches couldn’t understand that you could do more than one thing well,” recalled Theismann. “It became a hurdle — I had to play at such a level to prove to Joe that I could run my restaurant operation as well as be the quarterback that he needed.”
On January 30, 1983, Theismann provided all the proof he would need, helping the Redskins to a victory in Super Bowl XVII after leading the NFC in passing during the regular season.
It was easy, after that victory, for him to show up at one of his eateries and be warmly greeted by appreciative fans eager to snap a photo or grab an autograph — a far cry from the humble beginnings of both Joe Theismann’s Restaurant and Joe Theismann’s Career.
Like, for example, in 1978 season when the Redskins went 6-2 in the first half before stumbling to an 8-8 record — the first full season with Theismann as the starter.
“If you have your name on a restaurant, people expect to see you. If you’re losing, what are you going to say to those people?” he said. “Now you have to explain [yourself] when they ask, ‘Why did you throw four interceptions?’ Well, because I wanted you to ask me that question, obviously.”
Today, over 20 years since his last game in the NFL, Theismann’s getting answering the critics again as a member of the latest incarnation of the heralded “Monday Night Football” booth on ESPN, along with play-by-play man Mike Tirico and professional curmudgeon Tony Kornheiser.
“It’s not just a football game — it’s a social event in this country,” said Theismann of the football series, which began in 1970 on ABC television.
“It’s like when we’d open up a new restaurant in a new area — it’s just absolutely exciting.”
VERNON GRANDGEORGE had a decision to make. It was around 1975, and his plans for a proposed restaurant in Annandale had fallen through. While lamenting his plight, Grandgeorge’s attorney suggested he meet with some friends that wanted to open up a restaurant in Bailey’s Crossroads and “name it after somebody famous.”
After going through several options, including Olympic decathlete Bill Toomey, the group eventually approached Theismann about slapping his moniker on a Georgetown-style family eatery. He had starred at the University of Notre Dame, famously finishing second to Jim Plunkett in the “Theismann for Heisman” race in 1970, before a successful run in the Canadian Football League. The Washington Redskins signed him in 1974, but with legendary quarterbacks Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer in front of him on the roster, Theismann volunteered to be a third-string quarterback and the team’s kick returner.
He recalled that, during the initial inquiry, one of the investors asking him for “one good reason” why his name should adorn the restaurant; why a town that worshipped at the altar of Billy and Sonny would embrace a bar with the “odd wheel” on it.
Theismann had a candid retort: “I said, ‘Look, the only thing that can happen in my life is that I get better — it can’t get any worse.”
Joe Theismann’s Restaurant began life in the former home of a red velvet-draped dive bar called Mac’s Devil’s Inn in Bailey’s Crossroads. Over the next decade, franchises opened in locations like Vienna, Camp Springs (Md.), Frederick and Alexandria, at 1800 Diagonal Road, across from the King Street Metro station. Each one featuring the same standards of hearty food, friendly service and the potential for a Redskins legend to show up without notice — even when he isn’t wanted there.
“I attempted to cook once,” Theismann said, “but they threw me out. I’m the only guy who got kicked out of the kitchen in his own restaurant.”
Grandgeorge said having the NFL star’s name over the door was a blessing and a curse. “The perception of it has hurt us,” he said. “Joe’s name is a draw to people who are curious. It helps that way, but on the other hand people are expecting sports bars, and sports bars in our area have always been peanuts on the floor and TVs everywhere with people sloshing beer around.”
Identity problems aside, the biggest challenge for the chain was the industry itself. “It’s a tough business,” said Theismann. “Location is vitally important. Some of the locations we were in …Vienna, for example. They give you a sign the size of a postage stamp and expect you to run a business. They discourage the success of a business in that particular area.”
Gradually, the Theismann outposts were sold off, leaving Alexandria as its only current location.
Judging from its humble beginnings, the Theismann’s on Diagonal Road may not have been the first choice for being the eventual survivor.
THEISMANN REMEMBERS walking around the then-vacant building that eventually would house his restaurant in Alexandria. “Keep in mind, nothing was there,” he said. “No hotels, no Patent office, no federal courthouse. We basically were one of two businesses in that area 20 years ago. It wasn’t easy.”
Grandgeorge, a co-proprietor of the restaurant, said it was a “lonesome” feeling back then, even with the Metro station across the street. The potential for growth was there; the reality was that the section of Alexandria was barren, with the family eatery opening next to a shuttered car dealership.
“The deal I made was that we were going to be rent-free for a year,” said Theismann. “Well, we didn’t open our doors but for three months of that entire year, period.”
The rest of the restaurants in the chain propped up the Alexandria location’s sagging fortunes out of the gate. Years later, as those eateries left the fold, the Diagonal Road Theismann’s is now as thriving as the hotels and office complexes that tower over it.
“That area’s just incredibly dense,” said Theismann. “At any given time in that restaurant, at least 25 percent of the people are traveling from different parts of the country and were just in having lunch.”
The menu at Theismann’s features a mix of entrees and pub grub. Lunch meals range from adventurous fare like the Peanut Crusted Halibut ($13) to sandwiches like the pulled-pork BBQ ($9). The dinner entrees range from $16-30 and feature steaks, pasta and plenty of Southern-influenced chicken dishes. There’s also an ample amount of appetizers like pizza and nachos, and pick-and-peck dishes that are perfect for snacking on during the game.
While the eatery brings in the crowds for football season — with Steelers fans joining Redskins fans as the two largest constituencies — Theismann said his restaurant remains a place where quality service and family atmosphere trump any sports bar aspirations. Like the server who used to drive an hour and half each way for 20 years because she loved working at the Alexandria restaurant. Then there was the 25th anniversary party Theismann’s hosted, in which anyone who met their eventual husband or wife at any of the restaurants — as a diner or as a staff member — was invited back for a celebration.
“We had over 125 people from across the country,” he said.
WHEN THE CROWDS gather at Theismann’s for “Monday Night Football” this season, they’ll be watching and listening to the restaurant’s namesake attempt to carry on one of the greatest traditions in sports broadcasting history.
Theismann is the veteran of this new booth, having called games for several seasons on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Football.” Tirico has limited pro football experience, while Kornheiser is a color commentary novice.
Theismann said the trio worked together before their network debut to figure out some basic mechanics in the booth. “Some of the simple — I call them rules — some of the simple things you want to follow, like not wanting to step on one another,” he said, pointing to the overlapping debate on Kornheiser’s “Pardon the Interruption” program as a classic no-no. “That’s not something you want to do on a football broadcast.”
As expected, reviews for their debut games in the exhibition season have been mixed. Some praised the new booth; others were particularly cruel to Theismann even in lauding the ESPN team, such as this remark from the San Francisco Chronicle’s Bruce Jenkins: “We always get out the stopwatch with these macho clowns, and at one point, Theismann said the word ‘football’ four times within a 15-second segment.”
The trio’s first regular season game is in D.C., as the Redskins host the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 11. On paper, the game could be a mismatch, as so many Monday night contests tend to be. But Theismann said the true test of the booth’s abilities will be in keeping viewers interested when the game clearly isn’t any longer.
“Can you give me a reason to watch this game beyond the over/under?” he said.
In a way, that’s the challenge facing Theismann’s down the road — at some point, after his playing days are distant memories and another voice replaces him in the ESPN booth, it’s the ability of the restaurant to keep patrons interested that will determine its continued success.
“I told everyone in the organization when we started that I’m not going to play football forever. The people that want to come in and see Joe Theismann and get an autographed picture — that’s ultimately going to probably subside,” he said. “So we have to build a business that’s an operating entity rather than a celebrity haunt. We have to give people great amounts of quality food at a reasonable price, in a friendly atmosphere.”