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Or does it have something to do with Plunkett perhaps feeling like an outcast, like a man adrift between cultures? In the Delt house his nickname was "Lopez," but only his closest friends could call him that. From anybody else, Lopez would sound like a slur. In downtown San Francisco there are billboards with Plunkett's picture on them, urging people to buy a certain soft drink, in Spanish. It's ironic, but somehow fitting, that Plunkett doesn't speak Spanish.
There is also the problem of Plunkett's once deeply ingrained belief that with effort all things work out. Though it withstood many early blows, that attitude has finally given way to a cynical or, as Plunkett says, "more practical" outlook. "During my first year in New England, I thought, 'Hey, there's nothing to this. I'm going to have a fun time in the NFL,' " he says. "Then in 1972 my confidence ran into a stone wall. I'd never been in a losing situation before, not even in high school, and the more I worked, the worse things got. If I played bad, we lost; if I played good, we still lost. I took everything too hard on myself. I tried to throw for a touchdown on every play, to make everything up at once. But now I try not to worry about things I don't have control over.
"I think I understand sports better now than before. It's a business. All the hero worship does the athletes some good—we get money and endorsements—but it does the fans a whole lot of good. They live through us. I think I'm a fairly good human being. I try to be honest and fair. But I've done some things I'm not too proud of, things I don't have any explanation for. And I think maybe I've been painted as being too good a guy overall. But I know that headlines sell, that the papers will say things like 'Baby Born with Six Legs!' without mentioning that there were three babies involved."
"The difficult part is trying to make Jim see himself as something special," says Oakland sportswriter Dave Newhouse, who has recently finished ghosting Plunkett's autobiography. "I mean, it's true: he is courageous, he is special. Before the Super Bowl he had a severe groin injury, a bad left shoulder, a brace on his left knee. He weighed about 230. He couldn't run. His right shoulder stiffened up. He had to have shots all over. He was a basket case, and nobody knew it. And then he won. My God, if he's not the real thing, then Ruth didn't hit 60 home runs."
Jim Plunkett is a good man. Everybody, even archenemy Joe Thomas, says so. He's kind and sensitive and complicated. He's weaker than he should be and tougher than we know. A lot of his friends wanted him to quit this year. They are happy that he's finally reached the top, but they know he could regress again at any time. "When people called him a bum, everybody in our group took it personally because we care so much about him," says Jack Schultz, who sat in the stands at the Super Bowl and cried after each one of Plunkett's touchdown passes. "Jim's so stoic. We feel compelled to take on his emotions for him. Somebody's got to." "Jim's life has been a roller coaster," says Bob Moore, "and it feels like we've all been on it with him. Enough is enough."
But Plunkett is back for more. "Remember," he says, "I'm on a good team now."
"There's a void there," says Dave Newhouse. "We know all there is to know about Plunkett, or at least all we can get from clips and all that he will tell us. But I believe there are things inside he doesn't tell anybody. There is something in there—fear maybe, who knows—that makes the inner fire burn, that makes the confidence come and go."
Surely, this is true. So let's watch while the flames are high and bright.