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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 him."
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 game" better.
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.
Physically, he 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 passers.
"Look at Elway," said Plunkett. "I'll embarrass myself throwing after him."
Modesty? Humor? 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.