In 1977, Joe
Thomas, who had earned the reputation of being an axman by ruthlessly cutting a
bunch of aging big-name Baltimore Colts while building the team back into a
winner, became the 49ers' general manager. Thomas began making wholesale (some
say whimsical) changes, trading players, swinging deals, hiring and firing
coaches. The uncertainty of the 49ers' day-to-day situation nearly unhinged
Plunkett, a man who needs stability the way grass needs water. Indeed, the only
person in football that Plunkett will admit disliking is Joe Thomas. "He's
the kind of guy who prides himself on being the man who got rid of Johnny
Unitas, instead of respecting what Unitas did for the game," says Plunkett.
"I'm sorry, but I'm not big enough not to have a grudge against
By 1978 Plunkett
was disoriented. He had been booed by hostile crowds at Candlestick Park, his
turf; he had even been replaced as the starter in the 1976 finale by Scott
Bull, who had been a second-stringer at Arkansas. Then, after completing no
passes in 11 attempts in a 31-14 preseason loss to Oakland in '78, Plunkett was
released. Thomas, who made the final decision, explained that the club was
looking for a younger quarterback, one who threw "the intermediate
It was with
something like relief that Plunkett packed his bags. To his mind, he had let
down his friends, his teammates, the fans, football itself. "He deserved
all the criticism he got at that time," says Plunkett's longtime lawyer,
Wayne Hooper. "And he knew it. He threw some bad passes, some really dumb
passes. He wanted the punishment, I feel, for having done so badly."
The Raiders, the
last refuge of lost souls, signed Plunkett a few days later, but not before
making him face the final indignity of performing in a rookie-style tryout. Al
Davis signed him to three one-year contracts, reducing his pay from about
$200,000 to $150,000 per year. Then Davis, who claimed "I always liked
Jim," told Plunkett to relax for a while, to sit on the bench, "learn
the system and get adjusted." Plunkett obeyed, hardly moving for two years,
playing not one down in 1978 and only a handful in 1979. His call to service
last year interrupted what had become a quiet fossilization.
As he walked
knock-kneed and dimplethighed toward the practice field at Stanford a few days
before this year's training camp, Plunkett still seemed to carry with him the
weight of perspectives past.
was plain fat—at least 230 pounds, maybe 240—but that was because of lingering
injuries, many more than those necessitating the seven major operations he's
undergone since high school. Indeed, each time he rises or sits, and sometimes
just standing, Plunkett moans—unconsciously but not without passion. A nagging,
still-undiagnosed groin injury, sustained last November in a helmet spearing,
had kept him from playing tennis on his new court at home. In March he had
surgery to mend a torn rotator cuff in his partly synthetic left shoulder. He
lives with tendinitis in his right shoulder, stretched ligaments in his knees
and, of course, the random dings of his trade. From 1972 to 1974 alone,
Plunkett was sacked 97 times.
But as he eyed
the informal workout already in session, Plunkett gave evidence of the
emotional knocks that have been more painful than the injuries. "I don't
know," he said, tossing a football from hand to hand. "I'm not sure I
want to throw with these guys. My arm will look weak."
Fifty yards away,
former Stanford Quarterback Steve Dils, now with the Minnesota Vikings, was
throwing an out to former Stanford Receiver James Lofton, now with Green Bay.
Other current and ex-Stanford players were waiting their turn, including junior
Quarterback John Elway, the next in the school's long line of great
Elway," said Plunkett. "I'll embarrass myself throwing after
Even in jest, even overweight and weak and in pain, wasn't he still the MVP of
the biggest sporting event in the U.S.? Would Cedric Maxwell slink onto a
playground? Would A.J. Foyt slink into a rent-a-car? Ralston, a big self-help
person, thinks Plunkett has a "negative image, deeply ingrained."
Ralston says the least little thing—"an interception that wasn't even his
fault"—can throw Plunkett off, and only constant reassurance from his coach
can soothe him.