There are flecks of gray in his coal-black hair, particularly around the sideburns and at the back of his neck. Heisman quarterbacks never seem to age, but Jim Plunkett is 32 now, and when he smiles it's sad and slow because 10 years in the NFL have taught him that darkness follows light and that the good things have a way of turning ugly.
It is two days before last Sunday's game against Seattle, and Plunkett is sitting in a restaurant a mile away from the Oakland Raiders' practice field, fiddling with a cup of coffee. Every few minutes a waitress shows up with a handful of things for him to autograph. "Three more," she says, handing him two napkins and a menu. Plunkett smiles and reaches for his pen.
Two games are all it has taken to get the fans back in Plunkett's corner again, two games in which he has been the starting quarterback, a job he inherited when a pair of Kansas City linemen decided to meet at Dan Pastorini's right leg, totaling him for the season.
The chef comes out. He wants Plunkett to autograph his toque. "You don't want his autograph?" he says to the waitress. "Oh no," she says, "I got it last year—before he started doing all that wild passing."
The wild passing had come in the Oct. 20 Monday night game against the Steelers—a 45-yard touchdown to Morris Bradshaw, a 56-yard TD to Cliff Branch, a 34-yard scoring toss to Branch that put the game away. The last TD to Branch was memorable; Plunkett stepped up into the teeth of a blitz and let the ball go just before he went down.
It hadn't been so wild the week before against San Diego, though. For Plunkett, that one was a surgical job, an 11-for-14 day when he was knocked out of action but returned to beat another of the NFL's superpowers.
"I try to take this as lightly as possible," Plunkett says. "I tell people, 'Well, it's only two games, so don't go wild.' But I guess everyone likes fairy tales."
Make that three games. On Sunday in Oakland, Plunkett threw three touchdown passes in the Raiders' 33-14 victory over Seattle. He completed 16 of 25 passes for 214 yards. His three starts show the following: three victories, in which the Raiders have averaged 38.7 points; seven touchdown passes; no interceptions; a 67% completion average. And the Raiders are now 5-3, and tied with San Diego for first in the AFC West.
Ten years ago Plunkett was a scriptwriter's dream, a fairy tale come true. The Mexican-American kid from San Jose's east side, the kid who worked 50 hours a week to help support his mother, who was blind, and his father, who was partially blind; the glory years at Stanford; the Heisman Trophy; the great Rose Bowl win over one of the finest Ohio State teams in history.
Seven first-round draft choices came out of that game, but the NFL didn't treat them kindly. Stanford's Greg Sampson, retired for medical reasons; Ohio State's John Brockington, a wreck before he was 28; Buckeyes Leo Hayden and Tim Anderson, gone; Buckeye Jack Tatum, an afterthought at Houston; Stanford's Jeff Siemon, struggling through still another injury-racked season at Minnesota. And Plunkett? Two years ago he was down for a nine-count, cut by San Francisco, which was to finish with pro football's worst record that season. "Gun-shy and inconsistent," they called him. The end of the dream.