Plummer is a senior who has started 36 consecutive games, beginning in the middle of his true freshman year, but only now has he seized Arizona State by its collective throat and carried it into contention for the Pac-10 title, the Rose Bowl and the national championship. "The way he performs under pressure, I think he'd make a great emergency room surgeon," says Kirk Robertson, Arizona State's fifth-year senior center and a zoology major. "He's got the kind of personality I'd like to see in somebody working on me in that situation." Adds senior Juan Roque, the Sun Devils' 6'8", 320-pound All-America left tackle, "We would follow Jake anywhere."
A rare few college football players have about them an indefinable magic. Having this magic doesn't mean they will win the Heisman (some do, some don't) or become pro stars (ditto), only that they will make memories and sometimes create victories from dust. Archie Manning was such a player at Ole Miss. So were Doug Flutie at Boston College and Tommie Frazier at Nebraska. Plummer has the magic. He has grown to 192 pounds, but he is neither strong (250 pounds, max, in the bench press) nor fast (4.9 for the 40). His gifts are subtle: courage, quick feet, quicker release and an ethereal cool that deepens in the fourth quarter.
Having led Arizona State to 12 wins in its last 13 games, he has become a folk hero of sorts. In Phoenix, country music radio station KMLE has fashioned a song about him. After the victory over Southern Cal, Trojans coach John Robinson compared Plummer with Joe Montana. The next day, after Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kent Graham scrambled for 40 yards on six carries in a victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he said, "I was just trying to be like Jake Plummer." That night Plummer went grocery shopping at 11 o'clock and signed autographs in the store for 15 minutes. All of this adoration, all of this esteem, all this success leaves Plummer uncharacteristically flat-footed. "I don't know how to explain what's happening this year," he says. "I'm just pretty much going full speed, every game, every play. There isn't any time to think about it. Right now I guess I feel like I'm bulletproof."
They would laugh at all this in Boise, where Jason Steven Plummer was born, the youngest of Marilyn and Steve Plummer's three sons. They would laugh because for so many years Jake was a scrawny tagalong, the youngest of nine male cousins living in Boise. Yet they would understand, too, because Jake grew strong from the experience of getting beaten in various games, until he was the fiercest competitor of them all. On the Thursday before this year's game against Stanford, a cluster of friends and family members gathered in Marilyn's kitchen (Marilyn and Steve were divorced in 1983, when Jake was eight; she raised Jake, but he remains close to his father, a lumber wholesaler who lives in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho) and traded tales of Jake's youth. On one point they all agreed: "We watch these comebacks every weekend and say, 'We've seen him do this since he was 12,' " said family friend Robert Wikle.
Marilyn and Steve were sufficiently countercultural ("I guess you could call us hippies," says Marilyn) that in 1977, when Jake was three, they moved their family from Boise to the tiny community of Smiley Creek (pop. 50), in the foothills of the Sawtooth Mountains in south-central Idaho. The town was so small that Marilyn taught kindergarten through fourth grade in a two-room schoolhouse. During their three years in the town Jason became Jake, courtesy of Buzz Cheatam and Jody Robb, a couple who operated the Smiley Creek Lodge. When little Jake would scurry about filling salt shakers and the like, they called him Jaker Baker the Money Maker. The Snake nickname came later, when Jake was in seventh grade. His next-oldest brother, Eric, three years Jake's senior, gave him former NFL quarterback Kenny (the Snake) Stabler's autobiography and threw in the nickname as part of the deal. "Good thing I became a scrambler," says Jake.
Smiley Creek forged in all the Plummer boys an independence that grew into athletic competitiveness. Yet Jake possessed something extra: not just the nimble feet that would make him such an adept scrambler, but also a passion for playing. When he was 11 he tore up a youth football game, making more than 20 tackles in an effort to impress his father, who was in Boise for the game. "He was one of the littlest kids on the field, and he was just killing everybody," says Brett. "Halfway through the game he was crying, because he was so pumped up."
Three years later, during an evening session of summer pickup basketball in Coeur d'Alene, 14-year-old Jake was the youngest member of a team that included his brothers. "We're playing this really good team of older guys from Spokane," says Brett. "I'm nervous, because these guys can play, but Jake just comes out and starts hitting three-pointers. That's when I figured he might be a little different."
In the last game of his high school football career, Jake drove Capital 80 yards in the final 90 seconds to an apparent tying touchdown against Pocatello High in the Idaho Class Al title game. A missed extra point left Capital a point short, 14-13.
His physical presence impressed nobody when he arrived at Arizona State—"I saw him, and I thought, This skinny white kid is our savior?" says senior wideout Keith Poole, who caught 10 passes for 161 yards on Saturday—but Plummer started the sixth game of his freshman year and hasn't been displaced since. He grew like any young quarterback. The Sun Devils went 6-5 that season but 3-8 the next. Last year's 6-5 record included three Pac-10 losses by a total of eight points, an encouraging sign.
Through all the defeats Plummer did not lose any of his competitiveness, on the football field or off. Last spring his girlfriend, Sonia Flores, a 22-year-old Arizona State senior, beat him in a game of H-O-R-S-E. "He was so mad, I just turned my back so he couldn't see my face," says Flores. When USC freshman linebacker Chris Claiborne intercepted one of his passes in this season's game with the Trojans, Plummer tried to lay a big hit on the 235-pound Claiborne, who instead drilled Plummer in the neck and shoulder, leaving him stiff for a week. "He's a good Gumby," said Arizona State trainer Perry Edinger, referring to Plummer's rubbery, resilient body, as he worked on the quarterback's neck four days before the game with Stanford. Plummer, lying on the padded table and occasionally groaning, sounded as if he planned to be more prudent about trying to level defensive players in the future. "I've learned, I'm no hitter," he said. But on Saturday, after throwing his only interception of the game, there was Plummer, searching for a defensive tackle who had been tormenting him for much of the day.