Joe Theismann was driving to the Washington Redskins game from his home in Northern Virginia on Sunday when he realized what day it was.
“I turned to my wife and said: ‘Robin, it was 33 years ago today,’” Theismann, the former Washington quarterback, said late Sunday afternoon, standing in a hallway beneath the grandstand at FedEx Field.
In Theismann’s eventful life, there is still only one “it” moment. It was one of the most unforgettable, gruesome episodes in N.F.L. history, a disturbing 1985 sack by Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor that awkwardly bent Theismann’s lower right leg until two bones snapped.
Sunday, with Theismann watching, it happened again.
Redskins quarterback Alex Smith was sacked by two charging Houston Texans, and in a grisly sequence reminiscent of Theismann’s injury, Smith’s right leg crumbled and twisted, fracturing both the tibia and fibula bones. Television replays showed Smith’s leg buckle and give way.
Lying on the ground, with his lower leg bowed, Smith at first tried to pull his jersey over his head to hide his anguish.
When the jersey would not budge, he instead clasped both hands over his face and took a succession of deep breaths as medical personnel prepared an air cast for his leg and called for a gurney.
Theismann, who famously refused to view a replay of his injury for 20 years, was watching from a suite in the stadium and immediately saw the crook in Smith’s lower leg.
“I turned away,” Theismann said. “And I wouldn’t watch the replay. It felt as if 1985 was yesterday. I had a sick feeling in my stomach and felt so bad for Alex.”
The N.F.L., desperate to protect its most important and popular players, has spent most of the last decade ramping up penalties for making contact with quarterbacks. This season in particular, it has been a consistent point of emphasis with defensive players fined for not only late hits but how they land on a quarterback during a sack.
But Smith’s injury, on a third-quarter tackle that broke no rules, was another reminder that no amount of legislation or rules enforcement will eliminate the inherent ferocity of an N.F.L. game.
“It’s a violent game out there,” Theismann said. “The fact is, as a player you have to protect yourself. And don’t count on the officials or the rules to protect you.
“You get freak accidents in every situation. Unfortunately for Alex, this was one of those freak accidents where he got his foot caught the wrong way.”
J.J. Watt, one of the two Texans who took down Smith on the play, was distraught afterward — as Taylor was 33 years ago.
“We’re all gutted for Alex,” Watt said. “You go out there and play this game and you know the risks going into it, but you never want to see anybody injured and out for the year.
“It’s the worst part of the game.”
As Smith, 34, was driven off the field, he waved to fans and pressed his hands together as someone would in prayer. Earlier, dozens of players from both teams had enveloped Smith in the middle of the field, with many approaching to pat Smith on his shoulder pads.
Smith, in his first year in Washington, had helped revive the Redskins, leading them into first place in the N.F.C. East. Washington’s record dropped to 6-4 with Sunday’s 23-21 loss.
“Just painful,” Washington Coach Jay Gruden said, who added that Smith would have surgery “right away.”
Theismann could not help but recall the scene inside another Washington hospital as he was being prepped in 1985 for a similar surgery. Waiting near the operating room, he convinced attendants to set up a small black-and-white television — with rabbit ears, he said — so he could watch the end of that night’s game.
“We won, and then I said to the surgeons: ‘O.K., do what you’ve got to do,’” Theismann said.
But in the ensuing months, Theismann’s right leg did not heal properly. It remained shorter than his left leg and that made running with the dexterity it takes to play quarterback in the N.F.L. arduous, if not impossible. Theismann, who was 36, never played again.
“The medical technology and the surgical methods are more advanced than in 1985,” Theismann said Sunday. “So I’m hoping Alex will battle back soon and that there’s no ligament or tendon damage.”
Theismann shook his head.
“But I just feel horrible,” he said. “I know how he feels. You’re in the heat of the game, the play breaks down and there’s a frenzy in the pocket with bodies flying around. And then, you know, I heard the bones pop.
“So, to see that again, there were just too many similarities. It breaks your heart. The ironies of life don’t make sense.”