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Joe Theismann reflects on the genius of Notre Dame’s great influencer, Roger Valdiserri

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The story has become apocryphal in nature, embellished with every re-telling from different parties over the years, each of which muddies the details but concludes with two unmistakable truths:

Yes, the pronunciation of Joe Theismann’s name really was changed while at Notre Dame to rhyme with “Heisman.”

And yes, Roger Valdiserri really was the genius behind the move.

The episode has picked up another round of steam this month, as Valdiserri, the longtime Fighting Irish PR pro, died of natural causes on June 2 at the age of 95. Tons of Valdiserri’s former players, coaches and colleagues flew in from around the country last week to pay their respects to the man who is responsible for so much of the goodwill that Notre Dame had generated during his 28-year run as sports information director that saw the Irish win four national titles in football.

Among the attendees was Theismann, who says “there probably isn’t any athlete that Roger affected more than me.”

So how exactly did that name-tweak go down? Let Theismann transport you back to the spring of 1970.

“There was a writer from Chicago at practice and he just sort of haphazardly mentioned to Roger, ‘Hey, is that Theismann like in Heisman, sort of just tongue-in-cheek,” Theismann recalled by phone this week.

“And Roger sort of put that in his memory bank. And then he called me in the office and he asked me how I pronounce my last name. This was the beginning of my senior year. I told him it was Thees-man, he said, ‘No, Joe, your last name is pronounced Thighs-man.’ I said, No, Roger. I know my last name is pronounced Thees-man. ‘No, Joe, it’s pronounced Thighs-man.’ ”

So Theismann called up his father and asked him for the proper pronunciation. Dad, as one could imagine, wondered if his son had taken too many hits to the head. Theismann laughed and told his old man he would explain the basis of the question later.

“I think, This is just crazy,” Theismann said. “So (Roger) said, ‘Joe, I want to tell you something: There’s a trophy out there called the Heisman Trophy. It goes to the best college football player in the country. We think you have a chance to win that trophy. But we’re not just going to count on your athletic ability nor the reputation of the University of Notre Dame. We think by just simply changing the pronunciation of your last name from Thees-man to Thighs-man, you’ll have a chance to win the trophy.’ ”

The 6-foot Theismann ended up throwing for 2,429 yards and led the Irish to a 10-1 record, a Cotton Bowl win over Texas and a No. 2 final ranking. But he finished second to Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett for the Heisman Trophy, losing by a voting margin of 2,229 to 1,410.

Still, the name stuck through a pro career that saw Theismann win a Super Bowl and an MVP.

The stroke of genius stuck, too, with Valdiserri telling The Athletic in 2019 that he still regularly fielded calls from reporters for stories on Heisman campaigns.

“Roger always had a smile on his face,” Theismann said. “Roger made you feel like you were the only person in the world, and that he was so happy to see you. That’s my memory of Roger Valdiserri. A man who could make people feel special.

“I mean, I am Joe Theismann today,” he added, using the current pronunciation. “He created a brand.”

That was one modern buzzword that Valdiserri was ahead of his time on. Thom Gatewood, Theismann’s top target at Notre Dame, can point to a few others.

“He just worked with us,” said Gatewood, who became the first African-American captain in Notre Dame football history. “He picked out five, six, seven, 10 guys who were going to get that leadership spotlight and worked on them, because he was very conscious of ‘image’ and ‘brand’ and how they ‘influence.’

“All of those terms that we use today, those weren’t said, but they were futuristic, and he was pointing us in the right direction and letting us learn how to handle it. Not being handled by the camera. You handle the camera.”

There were three rules for interviews: Don’t take personal credit, always deflect to your teammates and never criticize your opponent.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Theismann and Gatewood, both College Football Hall of Famers, went into television after their playing careers — Theismann as a broadcaster, Gatewood as the owner of multiple production companies.

Valdiserri wasn’t Gatewood’s father, he said, nor was he trying to replace his father. But he served as a father figure.

As for Theismann’s familial thread? He called up his German grandmother shortly after Valdiserri’s name suggestion.

“Granny, they want to change the pronunciation of our last name from Thees-man to Thighs-man,” he recalled telling her. “And she says, ‘Actually, the correct pronunciation is These-man.’ And really what they wanted to do is closer than what we have now. So I got the matriarch of the family to bless it.”

As usual, Roger knew best.

(Photo of son Ken Valdiserri, Joe Theismann and Roger Valdiserri: Courtesy of the Valdiserri family)

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