— Before Joe Theismann became a Super Bowl-winning starter for the Washington Redskins, he picked apart defenses for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.
Well, most days he did. In one game, however, the Hamilton Tigercats picked off five of his passes. When the got home that night, his wife posed a question:
"Have you ever considered getting an eye exam?"
When you are employed to throw passes, you don't catch a break from anyone.
"The guys that I have spoken to other sports, they agree with me that playing quarterback is unquestionably the most difficult position in any sport," Theismann said. "There's not another job like it anywhere. You have to be a politician with the fans, and media, and teammates. You have to be Superman, because no one expects you to get hurt. You are so many things to so many people."
That's why so many talented people have failed to perform well at the highest level. Many have argued that hitting a baseball is sports' most difficult task. Others might say it's stopping a hockey slapshot. Others might claim it's serving as a go-to guy in basketball, charged with carrying a team down the stretch, night after night.
Still, you could make a compelling case that NFL quarterbacks face the most emotional, intellectual and physical pressure of any athletes in team sports. They are more than just the engines of their offenses. They are usually the faces of their franchises, for as long as they can hold a starting spot. That job is perpetually in jeopardy, not simply due to inconsistency or injury, but also due to external factors. Such as a coach's whims, the fans' complaints or the media's demands.
Already this season, there's been plenty of quarterback turmoil, on teams expected to compete for the playoffs.
The Green Bay Packers endured a summer-long soap opera as Brett Favre retired and unretired. Now, after GM Ted Thompson traded Favre to the New York Jets, Aaron Rodgers faces relentless pressure to prove worthy of their faith. The New England Patriots lost league MVP Tom Brady to a knee injury, forcing them to turn to unheralded backup Matt Cassel, who hadn't started a game since high school. Cassel's inexperience showed in Sunday's stunning 38-13 home loss to the lowly Miami Dolphins, in which star receiver Randy Moss's longest completion was seven yards.
The Minnesota Vikings reversed course after two close losses, benching Tarvaris Jackson for veteran Gus Frerotte, who played efficiently in the Vikings' first win of the season. The Tennessee Titans, after losing Vince Young to a knee injury, committed to veteran Kerry Collins as a starter while Young deals with personal issues. Collins won again Sunday but, he like Frerotte, isn't a long-term solution.
Several other teams, including the Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams, have stashed highly paid quarterback prospects on the bench or on injured reserve. On Sunday, Tyler Thigpen became the third quarterback to start — and lose — for the Kansas City Chiefs in three contests. And the much-hyped Cleveland Browns may be regretting their decision to sign Derek Anderson to a long-term contract after one surprisingly good season; they are 0-3, and it appears that backup Brady Quinn will get a shot soon. In St. Louis, Marc Bulger has been benched in favor of Trent Green, who has a history of concussions.
As the season progresses, poor play and bad luck will force many more changes.
Quarterback is the most glamorous position in sports. You get the glory. You get the money. You get the girls. If "Broadway" Joe Namath began the trend, Tony Romo dating singer Jessica Simpson and Brady dating model Giselle Bundchen keep it going.
The tradeoff is, you own the biggest burden.
"As a quarterback, you've got to be not only be a great player, but also be a great leader of people," said ESPN analyst Shaun King, who started 24 games in the NFL. "The one constant of Super Bowl champions, either the quarterback was a phenomenal player or a phenomenal leaders. And, in most cases, it's both."
If only this was just about dropping back, finding an open receiver and throwing the ball. What else is in the job description?
"First of all, you have to master the offense, so there's the intellectual part of it," Theismann said. "There's the mastering of the communication of more than 100-plus plays in your mind. Then it is the ability to get it out of your mouth, get to the line of scrimmage, and identify things in about three seconds."
If you're lucky.
"While you are doing this, people are trying to get to you, bodies are flying all over the place," Theismann said. "You really have to be a focused individual to play it as well. And that is just on the field."
Off the field? There, the critical words fly.
"At that position, everybody has an opinion about your job," Theismann said. "Then it transcends you, it gets to your family. I have had my children in school have to defend my honor. If things are going great, you get all the credit, if they go bad, you get all the blame."
So how do you handle that?
Chad Pennington is now a Dolphin, and Sunday he had his best game in years, completing 85 percent of his passes. Before relocating to South Florida, he spent most of seven seasons on one of the hottest seats in sports: starting at quarterback for a New York-area team.
He learned that every day would present some unforeseen obstacle, either on or off the field. He learned not to take himself too seriously, or worry much about what was out of his control. He learned not to beat himself up.
And he learned this:
"You cannot read, listen to, or watch any type of media," Pennington said. "Period. You can't do it. Because we're emotional beings, and your emotions get involved. And you just can't do it. I learned that pretty early. If you do that, that takes away some of the pressure."
He started to view the press as merely his conduit to the fans.
"You think about what the fans are thinking about and listening to, and you try to present yourself in a way where you are looked at as someone who has character and integrity and handles things the right way," Pennington said.
So he never checked the back page of the New York tabloids, to see what sort of clever derogatory puns the headline writers had created with his name?
"I did my second and third year, and I quit," Pennington said. "It's self-preservation. The toughest experience for me was when I was playing with a torn rotator cuff and labrum and nobody knew about it and I couldn't tell anybody. And I had to just sit there and take the criticism, about lack of arm strength and lack of consistency, knowing that my shoulder was about to fall off. That's tough, because you don't want to give your opponent an edge. So here I am taking unfair criticism, knowing that I am hurting. Bad. Really shouldn't be playing."
He wasn't the first to play through injury, and won't be the last. Quarterbacks play through pain because the alternative — getting replaced — would hurt more.
"To me, the job is very sacred," Theismann said.
So he played with a broken nose, with broken ribs, with a broken hand. So he rarely let the backups take a snap in practice. He would tell a coach that he wasn't sure about the depth on a route, so he had to keep working on it.
"There are a thousand ways to protect yourself," Theismann said.
There are just as many ways to fail.
Young's situation in Tennessee is one of countless examples.
He dominated the BCS Championship game for Texas in 2006, beating USC with his arms, his legs, his leadership, his poise. The Titans drafted him No. 3 overall three months later, he became the starter as a rookie and took them to the playoffs in his second season.
Less than a year later, things changed. Now there are serious questions about whether Young can handle the pressure of starting in the NFL.
"I think Vince's biggest problem is he doesn't have anyone around him to sit him down and say, 'Vince you're older now, you have to walk and talk a different way, carry yourself a different way,'" King said. "I really think the biggest part of being successful at professional level at quarterback is having someone show you how to be a professional quarterback. That is a very overlooked, pertinent part of the equation."
King believes that many NFL quarterbacks simply try to repeat what they did in college. But life in college is easier. There are fewer distractions. The NFL is a business. More money brings more problems. And before you can win games, you must win over teammates. Even after you mature enough to disregard the media and fans, you still must convince them that you're worthy, and that nothing is more important to you than winning a title with them.
"What is teammates' perception of your preparation?" King said. "You have to show them. Regardless of what comes out of your mouth, they know what time you get there, what time you leave. They know how quick you respond when they ask you something in the huddle. You have to know the offense to the point where, if anyone in the huddle asks what his job is, you have to be able to tell him."
Then you must do your own job. Exceedingly well. Play after play. Week after week.
"The one thing about that position, there are no curtains," King said. "It's like living in a glass house. If you play right guard, the only person who knows you made a huge blunder is the offensive line coach. If you play quarterback and do something wrong, everybody knows."
Even your wife, who just might send you for glasses.