Burying his eye under the bill of a weathered baseball cap, Jake Plummer enters a brew pub near the Arizona State campus and tries to blend into the crowd of revelers. The chance of Plummer, a former Sun Devils star who is now the Arizona Cardinals' starting quarterback, escaping celebrity in his adopted home state is about as great as that of the Valley of the Sun freezing over, but a young man can dream, can't he? Lured to a Phoenix-area night spot for the first time in months, Plummer, a 23-year-old passer anointed as the next Joe Montana by the quarterback's own mentor, Bill Walsh, wages a constant battle to stay out of the spotlight and remain one of the guys.
Hang with those close to Plummer, and it's easy to see why he's at least succeeding at the latter. Humility is only an insult away, and Plummer is getting plenty of good-natured jabs from the circle of friends in his midst: girlfriend Sonia Flores, childhood chum Ty Hamilton and teammate Pat Tillman, a former Arizona State linebacker who in April was a seventh-round draft choice of the Cardinals. They start in on Plummer as soon as he takes his seat at their dimly lit table, citing everything from his bad haircut to his awkward dance moves to his penchant for nose-picking, an example of which was broadcast live on network television last December. "In a lot of ways Jake comes off as a geek," Tillman says of the man who nearly brought the Sun Devils a national title in '96. Many star athletes have a posse; Plummer has a band of roasters.
As the youngest member of a competition-crazed clan that includes two brothers and six male cousins, Plummer has spent a lifetime absorbing friendly abuse. "We've always competed in everything you could think of, and growing up, Jake never won anything—ever," says his eldest brother, 30-year-old Brett. "Even now, we try to humble him whenever possible."
Adds Hamilton, "If he ever did start to get a big head, his brothers would kick his ass."
Plummer may be the only quarterback in NFL history to have been tricked into carrying a skunk into his training-camp dorm room. (Cardinals fullback Larry Centers, who had collected the wounded animal from the middle of a highway and placed it in a plastic bag, handed it to Plummer and told him it was an order of chicken wings.) On road trips during his rookie season, Plummer dutifully toted a pint of Jack Daniel's for one Arizona defensive starter's postgame indulgence. Vulnerability is a given with this Idaho native, who doesn't fit the NFL stereotype: He grew up eating tofu and soybean burgers at the urging of his health-conscious parents (his mom, Marilyn, once described herself as a former hippie, though she now contends she merely "had long, straight hair and wore beads" in the '70s), and he says he enjoys making pottery. He admits that he's scared of the water, a fear that stems from the time, at age four, when he fell off an inner tube during a run down the Boise River rapids and was quickly fished out by his father, Steve. He's also contrary enough to think that his nickname, Jake the Snake, "is a little too obvious. Something unique would be better." Such as? "Jake the Rake, because I'm so skinny."
For the record Plummer stands 6'2", weighs 197 pounds and has an arm that caused most NFL talent evaluators to scoff rather than drool as the '97 draft approached. He lasted until the 12th pick of the second round, when Arizona, in a move viewed as a not-so-subtle attempt to boost its ticket sales, chose the local hero. Were that draft restaged today, Plummer would almost certainly be a top-10 selection, though Walsh, the Hall of Fame coach and esteemed quarterback guru, insists that "a lot of teams would still pass, because they hold fast to the rule that quarterbacks have to be a certain size. They'd be making a mistake, because so many of the great ones don't have overwhelming arms or physical tools. Football has evolved to where the more athletic quarterbacks, who can get away from the pass rush and make things happen on the run, are the ones who will perform successfully over a long period."
Based on his performance as the Cardinals' starter in the final nine games of '97, Plummer, who pulled out a couple of tight victories and threw for an NFL rookie-record 388 yards in a loss to the eventual NFC East champion New York Giants, is now grouped with the Jacksonville Jaguars' Mark Brunell and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Kordell Stewart as representing the latest breed of pro quarterback. But while Brunell and Stewart are accomplished runners who evoke images of the San Francisco 49ers' Steve Young, it is Plummer who has consistently drawn comparisons to Young's predecessor in San Francisco, Montana. No pressure there—other than the fact that Montana won four Super Bowls in as many tries, threw for 11 touchdowns with no interceptions in those victories and is the greatest quarterback of all time. It's one tiling to be compared to Montana by former USC and Los Angeles Rams coach John Robinson or Arizona State teammates, but it's another thing altogether to be held up as Montana-like by Walsh.
Walsh waited until the third round of the '79 draft to snag Montana. Eighteen years later, while working as a front-office consultant, Walsh grew frustrated as the Niners' decision makers ignored his advice to take Plummer. They instead used their first-round pick (No.26) on Virginia Tech's Jim Druckenmiller, who had a strong arm but was less suited to the 49ers' system, at least in the eyes of Walsh, the man who created it.
"We're happy with what we did, but if you look at it now, picking Plummer would've been a good move also," San Francisco director of football operations Dwight Clark says. "We thought Jake was very exciting and productive and a lot like Joe with his ability to make something happen out of the pocket. But we felt that Druck had the most ability, the strongest arm, the most poise in the pocket and the best ability to read second and third receivers. It's easy to second-guess now."
Says Walsh, "Barring the unforeseen injury, and provided he someday has a supporting cast and system that can allow him to flourish, I see Jake having a Montana like career, including the Super Bowls." Walsh sees these traces of Montana in Plummer: an ability to throw beautiful touch passes, a knack for improvisation, quick feet, vision, coolness under fire and uncanny leadership qualities that seem to be most effective when circumstances are the most pressing.