TAMPA, Fla. — The former quarterback knows there’s life after the break, a chance to place a gruesome injury in the past, and that’s why he’s willing to help Steven Stamkos.
“I’ve become sort of the Godfather of broken legs,” said Joe Theismann, a two-time Pro Bowl player with the Washington Redskins, whose career ended when his right tibia and fibula were fractured after a sack by the New York Giants’ Lawrence Taylor on Nov. 18, 1985. “Any way, shape or form I can help someone get back to chase their dream, I’m more than happy to do anything I can.”
Following a promising 12-4 start, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s momentum came to a halt Nov. 11, when their star center fractured his right tibia at TD Garden after he crashed into a net with Boston Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton.
Theismann sympathizes with the scare, and if Stamkos is willing, he’ll offer a helping hand.
“If Tampa Bay wants me to,” Theismann said, “I’m more than happy.”
The former quarterback has helped others beat their breaks. He spoke with Tennessee Titans wide receiver Marc Mariani after the player’s left tibia and fibula snapped at the end of a punt return Aug. 23, 2012, in a preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals. He spoke with Louisville guard Kevin Ware, whose compound fracture in his right leg during the Midwest regional final on March 31 became a not-safe-for-work moment broadcast to the world.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper is hopeful that Stamkos, a two-time All-Star, can return near the regular season’s end. A metal rod was inserted into the former first overall pick’s leg during surgery Nov. 12 in Boston, step one in what will be a deliberate process to return.
There’s the absence, a hole in the Bolts’ lineup no one man can fill. Then there’s the hope, the chance that No. 91’s magic will be re-introduced sometime this spring.
“OK, he’s hurt,” Cooper said. “But he’s out for, I don’t know, a couple months. His career’s not over. He’s (age) 23.”
To Theismann, that optimism is important to keep in mind during rehab. His biggest piece of advice for Stamkos is this: Know where you want to go and chase the target like any other professional goal.
“You set a goal for yourself, because that’s what we are as athletes. We’re goal-oriented,” he said. “You set that goal and say, ‘I’m going to be ready for training camp. When we open training camp next year, I’m going to be ready.’ If you’re ready before that, great.
“He’s going to get better and better. With the rod in there, it’s going to be a heckuva great post for him to move off of.”
Still, caution must be used. Especially early in Stamkos’ rehab, Theismann says he must be careful not to neglect the good leg, to juggle the needs of both to enjoy a full recovery.
“It’s a question of time,” Theismann said. “The big thing is you have to not ignore the good leg when you rehab the bad leg. A lot of times we focus on the injured leg, and we sort of ignore the one that’s healthy. You have to continue your workout program that way.”
So much will be learned about Stamkos and the Lightning in the coming months, as the star works to return. Before Stamkos’ injury, they were an emerging surprise in the NHL, a team that enjoyed strong goaltending from Ben Bishop to complement the production from Stamkos and captain Marty St. Louis. Since then, they’re 2-2 in full games without their impact player and have dropped consecutive contests for the first time all season after losing to the Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings.
Now, Stamkos must build his health. But the Bolts have a challenge too.
Without him, they must re-define themselves from within.
“It starts with our captain Marty,” Lightning winger Brett Connolly said. “He’s put a lot of pressure on himself to be better, to lead the team — not only to carry the guys on his back but get the guys rallying around him.”
Meanwhile, Theismann doesn’t see a problem with Stamkos rallying to return in time. The destination is a two-part goal: Become comfortable in skates and regain the confidence present before the injury.
The rehab process is part mental, part physical, part will. No one aspect is less important than the other.
“Oddly enough, the break that Steve has … is probably one of the easier ones to come back with, because once they put that rod in there, he’s not going to break that again,” Theismann said.
“You have to gain back the confidence that you had before the injury was there. That will come with being on the ice.”
That’s a sight the Lightning are eager to see again. Stamkos’ injury was a flashpoint, no less than a stiff blow after a positive start.
But the Godfather of broken legs knows it’s no end.
“If it’s March,” Theismann said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s ready.”