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In the Eye of the Storm
Rick Telander
September 07, 1981
Through epic ups and downs—Rose Bowl hero to battered pro to Super Bowl MVP ringed by his admirers—Jim Plunkett has kept his head
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September 07, 1981

In The Eye Of The Storm

Through epic ups and downs—Rose Bowl hero to battered pro to Super Bowl MVP ringed by his admirers—Jim Plunkett has kept his head

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"Jim has the absolute wrong mentality for a quarterback," says his good friend Bob Moore, who caught five of Plunkett's passes in the '71 Rose Bowl. "I think he sets his sights so high that anything less becomes a trauma. Now a guy like Ken Stabler—who I played with at Oakland—there's the perfect quarterback mentality. Stabler could throw eight interceptions this week and go out and throw eight touchdowns next week. He didn't care about the past; it was all right now. As long as he got his check, he was fine."

Plunkett ambled onto the field. He got in line and took his turn like everyone else, throwing to whichever receiver came up. After a while he and Lofton matched up. The receiver, a tall, loping, All-Pro burner, headed upfield. Plunkett, feet suddenly weasel-quick, dropped back. He looked left—not with one of those phony twitches most quarterbacks pick up in high school and hang on to forever—but with a studied, thoughtful scan. No one there. He looked right. No one there, either. He looked straight ahead and saw Lofton, streaking.

Then Plunkett, who could throw a football 85 yards at age 17, who has been called as good a thrower as anybody ever, "including Sammy Baugh," by New England General Manager Bucko Kilroy, one of the most respected talent appraisers in football, launched a giant parabola that intersected perfectly with Lofton's outstretched fingers, far away. No matter that Lofton dropped it.

Elway was among those watching. Blond, handsome, unscarred, smiling ("He's always smiling," Plunkett would say later), Elway may have a heck of a football career, but he'll never throw a pass like that at a moment like this. It's not his fault that he'll never have the history to do it.

For years now it seems there have been only two kinds of pro quarterback: "Christians," the God-fearing, decent, home-loving men who put the load squarely in Jesus' lap (the Zorns and Bartkowskis); and "Good-Timers," the late-night, boozing, wenching party animals who forget the load until game time and then rely on whatever's handy—skill, deception, anger—to pull them through (the Namaths, Kilmers, Stablers).

Plunkett, though, is an anomaly, being neither a Bible-thumper nor a bright-lights guy. (Oh, he did get a drunk-driving ticket about a year ago near Atherton, but that was just one night and the depression was pretty keen.) Everybody in the NFL needs something to believe in (Jesus is popular for many reasons, not the least of which is His assumed compassion for those subject to bad reads and arm tackles), and Plunkett is no exception there. But what he believes in is Stanford University.

Stanford was good to him at the beginning when things were tough—when he was a pimply-faced, crew-cut mope wandering the campus with his head down (from the neck surgery). And when they were fine—when he and Moore and Vataha and Safety Jack Schultz and Wide Receiver Jack Lasater and Center John Sande and all the others made a vow before the 1969 season was even over that they would stay at school during the following summer, work out together, beat USC and UCLA the next year and win the Rose Bowl. And they did.

Stanford was where things fell into place, where beauty and enlightenment were offered even to a poor kid like Plunkett, where athletes could be jocks but read books, too. (Plunkett's Rose Bowl team produced several doctors and lawyers.) Plunkett liked Stanford's wooded grounds ("Oaks are my favorite," he says), and he liked his wacko fraternity, Delta Tau Delta. "It was an 'Animal House,' " recalls Brian Hewitt, a former Delt and now a Chicago sportswriter. "Even a quiet God-squadder like Jeff Siemon used to throw forearm shivers into doors and toss darts at people's backs. But Plunkett never did any of that. He was never in trouble. He was a nice guy who stuck out because he was so unobtrusive." Plunkett even liked the school hospital, going back to have his surgery performed there while a pro.

But mostly Stanford offered peace and stability, and for that Plunkett is still grateful. It is why he now lives just a short drive from the campus, even though it means a long commute to Oakland practice. It is why he gave his $5,000 Super Bowl MVP check to the athletic fund, and why the night of the Super Bowl win he left a Raiders party to celebrate with old Rose Bowl chums at a private room above a New Orleans restaurant.

It is also why on a recent Tuesday afternoon, with Gerry LaVelle commentating, Plunkett modeled some sports clothes before a crowd of strawhatted, wealthy, tittering women, members of the Cardinal Club, the women's athletic fund-raising group. He was embarrassed, spinning around in tennis shorts, with that big caboose on display, saying "Hi, folks," and blushing, but he did it. It was for Stanford, and as Cavalli says, "He's never turned us down for anything."

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