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And then the press came in, and Plunkett, alone on his stool with his knowledge and his perspective, cringed.
"I'll never forget it," says a reporter who was there. "He looked grim, almost haunted. He was just sitting there with all these people around, and I actually felt sorry for him."
Plunkett doesn't like publicity, but more than that he doesn't like fitting facts to themes, or being singled out for praise after a team effort. The hero-comeback stories, he well knew, were already written, except for his obligatory quotes. He could never convince people of his certainty that he was the same, that he was "just playing with better people."
"I'm happy," he told the newsmen finally, weakly. "Believe me. I'm just not very good at showing how I feel."
Part of the problem, if it can be called that, is that Plunkett has always had his past crowding him, oozing over him like Muzak. Just for a moment imagine you're a college sports information director and Plunkett is on your team. Could there be a simpler job? Your star quarterback, 6'3", 204 pounds, redshirted his sophomore year after recovering from suspected cancer, now as a senior leads the team to a Rose Bowl victory over heavily favored Ohio State and is named the game's MVP. It's the first time in 19 years that your school has even been to a postseason game. In his three-year varsity career the quarterback has completed 55% of his passes for 7,544 yards and 52 touchdowns. His career total offense (7,887 yards) and career yards per game (254.4) are both NCAA records. (The per-game record still stands.)
A first team All-America, the quarterback is named the 1970 collegiate player of the year by nearly everyone who dispenses such honors. He wins the Maxwell Award and the Heisman Trophy and is named Player of the Game in the Hula Bowl.
Moreover, the bright young man (a B student in political science) is the son of impoverished Mexican-American parents. The father, who worked at a newsstand in the San Jose post office and was legally blind, died in the young man's junior year. The mother, blind since she fell ill at age 20, cannot work. To help support the family (there are two older sisters), the quarterback has worked long hours as a grocery sacker, a construction laborer, an odd-job man. He also contributes toward his own education because Stanford athletic scholarships at this time don't cover books and school fees. Though the quarterback lives on campus in a jock fraternity house, he visits his mother most weekends at her home in San Jose, walking with her and describing clouds and colors to her.
No wonder the press was moved to hyperbole. In 1971, for example, Roger Kahn wrote that Plunkett was "anachronistic, an Alger figure in the era of Nixonian despair."
Plunkett's senior season, 1970, was called the Year of the Quarterback. Archie Manning, Dan Pastorini, Rex Kern, Joe Theismann, Scott Hunter, Ken Anderson, Chuck Hixson and Lynn Dickey all were seniors enjoying fine seasons. Competition for the Heisman Trophy was unusually fierce, with certain schools running pushy, almost garish campaigns on behalf of their candidates. At Stanford, however, the hype was subdued.
"We could have made it maudlin, a real carnival, using a family situation like that," says Stanford Associate Athletic Director Gary Cavalli, who worked in the school's sports information office then. "But we kept it very low-key, because we knew the kind of guy Jim was and it was only fair to him. Still, he was very embarrassed with the limited campaign we did put out—just a small brochure listing his accomplishments."