One thing is
certain: If your life appears to be a cliché, its truth is obscured. For
example, Plunkett's childhood is always described as "deprived." It
probably was hard and certainly it was odd—John Ralston remembers visiting the
household and seeing Mr. Plunkett with his face six inches away from the TV
screen, complaining that he couldn't see anything—but deprived it may not have
has always claimed that his childhood was "wonderful," that it gave him
strength and pleasure. Jack Ditz, a San Francisco housebuilder who became a
sort of big brother to Plunkett after Jim's father died, believes him.
"Sure, the house was small," Ditz says. "But the love was there.
People always say, 'Isn't it remarkable that Jim was able to rise above the
problem of two blind parents?' But isn't it obvious that those parents were the
reason he rose in the first place?"
And the cancer
scare—the "malignant" tumor doctors removed from Plunkett's neck when
he was 18, only to discover that the lump was benign—Plunkett's handling of
that has always been pointed to as an example of his inherent courage. In fact,
Plunkett speaks of the episode—of not knowing whether he would wake up from
surgery (surgery his parents had to talk him into), or if he did, whether he
would ever engage in sports again—almost completely in terms of fear. Indeed,
Plunkett was alert at the beginning of the operation, but after watching the
doctor make a couple of practice swipes with the scalpel, he passed out.
fortunate things that happened, too, but they have received less attention. It
was lucky, for instance, that John Ralston quickly appraised Plunkett—a
cannon-like arm, great strength, fine judgment—and changed Stanford's
sprint-out offense to a pro-style, drop-back setup. It was lucky that Plunkett
had a technician like Dick Vermeil, now the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles,
as his quarterback coach. It was lucky, also, that Plunkett played in a climate
perfect for the passing game and had two outstanding receivers in Tight End Bob
Moore and Flanker Randy Vataha, who later played 15 years of pro ball between
It even seemed
lucky when Plunkett was the first player taken in the 1971 NFL draft, even
though he went to New England, the worst team in the league. That first season
Plunkett played well, guiding the Patriots on every single offensive down (an
NFL first) and throwing for 19 touchdowns, the third-most ever by a rookie. The
team finished 6-8, its best record in five years, and Plunkett was named NFL
Rookie of the Year.
that, though, reality set in. The Pats were, in truth, a bad team, and they
began to play that way. Plunkett was sacked, battered, trampled. His
interceptions went up, his effectiveness down. (Isn't it interesting, and
doesn't it say something about our need to even out life's gifts, that the best
college players must go to the worst pro teams, thereby virtually guaranteeing
"comebacks" or at least heartbreak, as well as grist for the sports
pages? Until last year, for example, Plunkett, Manning and Pastorini, the first
three players drafted after the Year of the Quarterback, had performed in a
total of just four playoff games in a combined 27 years in the NFL.)
Then in 1973
Chuck Fairbanks replaced John Mazur as New England's head coach. Direct from
the University of Oklahoma, Fairbanks had notions of putting some Sooner-style
option plays into the Patriot attack, with Plunkett leading the way. Two knee
and three left-shoulder operations later, Plunkett was a changed man.
He had become
jumpy and tentative on the field, partly hobbled, sometimes ducking blows that
never came. He had been humbled, NFL-style; but, different from most NFL stars,
he had never been cocky. Many NFL insiders still point to Fairbanks' experiment
with Plunkett—the coach once told him to run the option just after Plunkett had
returned from having a pin inserted in his left shoulder; he was blind-sided
and the pin popped out of the bone—as being the single most damaging incident
in Plunkett's pro career.
In 1976 Plunkett
was traded, at his request, to San Francisco. The 49ers gave up a lot—three No.
1 drafts, a No. 2 and backup Quarterback Tom Owen—but Plunkett was back home in
the Bay Area, the scene of his greatest triumphs, and he would surely lead the
team to victory. "I really thought I was going to be the savior,"
Plunkett says, "but all I did was put more pressure on myself. San
Francisco was by far the worst experience of my life. It felt like the whole
world was falling in on me."
The 49ers were an
uneven team, with spotty pass protection, and Plunkett played erratically. When
the team roared off to a 6-1 start only to stagger to an 8-6 finish that first
season, Plunkett's tissue-thin self-confidence tore again. With each sack, each
hurried or missed pass, he felt more intimidated, more afraid, more