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Jim Plunkett:
Every Underdog Has His Day

by David Pietrusza
Jim Plunkett's background gave him every excuse for failure.

He refused to take any.

Despite his Irish surname, Plunkett is 90% Mexican-American. Both his
parents, William and Carmella, were blind, having met at a school for the
sightless in New Mexico. They moved to San Jose, where William Plunkett
worked at a Post Office news stand to provide his wife and three children
with a meager but honorable living, although for awhile they subsisted on
welfare. But they were not bitter. "My folks were poor and uneducated,"
Plunkett later observed, "but they accepted life for what it gave them."

As a high school senior Plunkett lead his team to an undefeated season and
was named to the North squad in California's Shrine Game. North's roster,
however, was so stocked so with quarterbacks, Plunkett was moved to
defensive end. Even at a new position he proved impressive.

That the fall he entered Stanford. But a serious potential problem had
developed. During the summer Plunkett had felt a bump on the left side of
his neck. It turned out to be a tumor in his thyroid. An operation that
September removed it. The growth proved benign, but the incident
weakened him and when he returned to the gridiron his performance
suffered. Stanford head coach John Ralston had three other quarterbacks
plus a keen memory of Plunkett's fine performance at defensive end in the
Shrine Game, wanted Plunkett to consider a switch to that position.

Plunkett promised to think about it. But after he did, he tersely informed
Ralston: "I am a quarterback."

Yes, he was. And to regain his now eroded skills, he threw 500 to 1,000
passes per day. Nonetheless, in Plunkett's sophomore year Ralston
redshirted him. The next year, however, he was ready. In his first varsity
game Plunkett completed ten of thirteen pass attempts for a total of 277
yards and four TDs. In the next two years he threw thirty-four touchdowns
and gained 4,829 yards in the air.

After Plunkett's class graduated without him in 1970 (he had fallen behind a
year) he became eligible to turn pro. Despite his success on the gridiron, his
financial situation had not appreciably improved from his poverty stricken
childhood. His father had passed away, and even with his scholarship
Plunkett needed to take a series of construction jobs to make ends meet. A
pro bonus would come in very handy, and might even provide Jim with the
means to finally buy his mother a home of her own.

The proposition was very tempting, but Plunkett resisted it--not only out of
loyalty to his school, his team, and his coach--but also out of concern for his
heritage and the Chicano youngsters he tutored and urged to stay in school.

"Coach [John] Ralston, all our coaches, and my teammates have been
building something at Stanford for the past couple of years," Plunkett
explained, "If I were to leave now, I would always have the feeling that I
would let them down before our goals were reached. Besides, we are
always telling kids today not to drop out, to finish school, to set targets and
to work toward them. What would they think if I were to drop out now for
professional football?"

Plunkett remained at Stanford, guiding the Indians to an 8-3 season and the
Pacific Eight championship. He was magnificent (Washington State coach
Jim Sweeney called him "the best college football player I have ever seen"),
but not only was there no guarantee of a Heisman Trophy there was some
very spirited debate whether he was even the best quarterback in the college
game.

Nineteen Seventy was dubbed the "Year of the Quarterback." Joe
Theismann, Kenny Anderson, Dan Pastorini, and Lyn Dickey all enjoyed
outstanding seasons. Theismann of unbeaten Notre Dame eventually finished
second to Plunkett in Heisman balloting (2,299 to 1,401), but in the early
going Mississippi's Archie Manning was Plunkett's primary competition. Not
only was Manning playing faultlessly, but a Manning-mania engulfed the
South, where a ballad titled "The Ballad of Archie Who" -- enjoyed a real, if
nonetheless, brief rage.

Manning's chances dimmed when he suffered serious injury. Typically
Plunkett graciously wired his former rival: "Sorry to hear about your broken
arm [sic]. It's a shame you couldn't end your career the way you always
played--brilliantly."

Aside from his quarterbacking excellence, there was something that set
Plunkett apart from his peers. He remained exceptionally devoted to his
family and often returned home to San Jose. That his fellow students didn't,
puzzled him. "I don't understand why they don't go home more," Plunkett
said, "Even if I just go inside the house and tell my mother I'm going to sack
out, she at least knows I'm there--and she's happy."

And he had time to think about football and the nerve to express his
thoughts. "There are some aspects of the game I don't like," he admitted, "It
can become so routinized that you lose interest and sometimes the pressure
on the athlete, particularly in college, can be too much. But all the benefits I
received have helped me tremendously. For that, I'm grateful to the sport."

His totals for that Heisman-winning season were 191 completions in 358
attempts for 2,715 yards. He threw for 18 touchdowns and ran for
additional 183 yards and three more TDs. UCLA coach Tommy Prothro
said: "Plunkett is the best drop-back passer I've seen in college football. He
has real strength and good speed. If you go all out to blitz him, he'll eat you
alive."

Aside from the Heisman, he captured the Maxwell Award and was named
player of the year by United Press International,
The Sporting News, and
Sport Magazine. The American College Football Coaches Association
designated him as their Offensive Player of the Year.

Oregon State coach Jerry Frei gave him the most succinct and genuinely
sincere compliment, however. "I'm just happy to see him graduate," Frei
sighed with relief.

Plunkett got the news of his Heisman at close hand. He was in New York
City to appear on Chris Schenkel's television show. He knew the award
would mean a lot to the Mexican-American kids who already looked upon
him as hero. "Yes, they can take pride in the fact that someone of their race
has won it," said Plunkett, "I think it will help the Mexican-American
community."

Yet, he did not generally emphasize his origins. "Jim doesn't want sympathy,
that his family didn't have it, or was on welfare," explained Stanford's sports
information director Bob Murphy, "But he realizes now that it's going to stay
with him and that he'll have to accept it."

At that year's award dinner, artist Tommy McDonald presented a portrait of
Plunkett to the young Stanford star. "I wish," said McDonald to Plunkett, "I
could give my eyes to your mother for a few hours so she could be here to
see this."

But his season was not over. Plunkett's Heisman-winning season powered
Stanford to their first Rose Bowl in nearly two decades. There, they faced
Woody Hayes' powerhouse Ohio State squad, tabbed by the pundits as a
ten-point favorite.

It's no wonder Plunkett was once more an underdog. Some said that year's
Ohio State roster was one of the strongest in all college football history.
Plunkett faced six Ohio State All-Americans--fullback John Brockington,
tight end Jan White, middle guard Jim Stillwagon, and defensive backs Jack
Tatum, Tim Anderson, and Mike Sensibaugh. But as Plunkett once
observed: "I kind of like the role of an underdog. I don't know if that has
anything to do with my past, but it's something that seems to make me strive
for higher goals."

Nonetheless, Plunkett triumphed again, leading Stanford to a startling 27-13
victory. Before an energizing crowd of 103,838 fans Plunkett completed
twenty of thirty pass attempts for 265 yards in the air and added another 49
yards on the ground for good measure. Not surprisingly, he was named
Player of the Game. Eight days later he led the North squad to a Hula Bowl
win. Again, he gained Player of the Game honors.

Plunkett displayed the same grit during the ups and downs of his pro career.
The then-Boston patriots chose him first in the January 1971 NFL draft, but
he seemed bitten by the jinx that sometimes afflicts Heisman winners. With
the Patriots Plunkett suffered from numerous shoulder problems and had to
undergo surgery. The Patriots let him go to the 49ers in 1975 for a number
of draft choices. The draft choices did well for the Pats, but Plunkett
struggled for San Francisco and was released.

He caught with on Oakland, serving as a backup to his old rival for Heisman
honors, Dan Pastorini, during the 1980 season. When Pastorini was injured,
Plunkett stepped into the breach and rallied a team of castoffs much like
himself to a second place AFC West finish. In the postseason Plunkett led
the Raiders past Houston, Cleveland, and San Diego to face the
highly-favored Eagles in Super Bowl XV. Once again, the underdog had his
day as the Raiders upset Philadelphia 27-10. "It was the spirit of the
redeemed," the editors of
The Football Encyclopedia inelegantly wrote of
these unlikely champions, "of those who had come back from the garbage
pile to smell the roses." And Plunkett's role did not go unnoticed as he
earned Super Bowl MVP honors.

In November 1991 Stanford retired Plunkett's old number sixteen. Although
twelve Stanford players had been inducted into the National Football
Foundation and Hall of Fame, his was only the second Stanford number to
be retired, the first being the legendary Ernie Nevers' number one.