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Screw it, thought Plummer, I'm going to win this thing. It was the last game of the 2006 season, against the lowly 49ers, and he had been summoned from the Broncos' sideline. Only a month earlier coach Mike Shanahan had benched Plummer, a 10-year veteran, in favor of a strong-armed but immature rookie, Jay Cutler. The team, which had been 7--4, faltered. One season removed from the AFC Championship Game, Denver was on the verge of missing the playoffs.
At first Plummer, who'd been an All-Pro only a season earlier, had been angry about the demotion. Ever the optimist, though, he soon noticed a silver lining. Suddenly he could simply revel in the grandeur of the game, in the sights and smells of the stadium. He spent pregame warmups playing football golf with fellow backup Preston Parsons. He ate hot dogs at halftime, joked with fans. For 14 years he'd started every game for his college and pro teams, other than the first few of his freshman and rookie seasons. So now he could finally breathe in the world. "I was like, Man, this is a blast," he says. "I didn't study the game plan, I didn't have a clue what was going on."
Then, in the second quarter of the 49ers game, Cutler was sidelined by a crushing hit. So here was Shanahan, calling in Plummer. Shanahan, who had questioned Plummer's work ethic even though he was one of the team's best-conditioned players, who had ignored warnings by other players not to switch quarterbacks. (Even Cutler, after his first start, told Plummer the team would have won had he played, according to Stefan Fatsis's book A Few Seconds of Panic.) What's more, though Shanahan didn't know it, Plummer had made up his mind to retire after the season.
So how can you blame Plummer for doing what he did next—for going out on the field and trying to win the damn thing? "I just went for broke," Plummer says. "I remember Mike Bell went down for like a 60-yard play. And the first guy to pick him up was me. I was running alongside him. I was so psyched. I was running around, shouting at the other team, 'Jake the F------ Snake is back!'"
Parsons remembers the electricity, the stirrings of another Plummer comeback. "And he was doing it by basically saying f--- you to the coach," says Parsons. "Which is something all players wish they could do but no one has the guts to."
With a chance to extend the Broncos' 3--0 lead, Plummer says, "I rolled out to my left, made a guy miss and was like, Ah, there goes Javon Walker, and I just heaved a Hail Mary." Plummer pauses. "And he trips, and the safety intercepts it."
With that, the magic was bottled. Shanahan put Cutler back in, but not before trying to chastise Plummer, who walked past, ignoring his coach. Quarterbacks coach Pat McPherson then walked over. "Gosh, you just really can't make that throw," he told Plummer. And that's how Plummer's football career ended, some would say fittingly: with a desperation pass picked off.
A few months later he retired, having achieved a 39--15 regular-season record as the Broncos' starter. His former agent, Leigh Steinberg, applauded the move. "I have virtually never met an athlete who willingly walked away from sports," says Steinberg, who at one point represented roughly half the quarterbacks in the NFL. "The courage and integrity is in knowing when you've had enough and being able to walk away from all the conventional markers of success. The courage is in choosing family and dignity over artificially extending a career just for the money. We should laud Jake Plummer for standing up for the best in American values."
Others saw it differently. "Good riddance," wrote Milo F. Bryant of the The Gazette in Colorado Springs. Bernie Lincicome of the Rocky Mountain News went further. "If Plummer is willing to run away from $5 million or so ... his spirit is as weak as his arm." Then Lincicome accused Plummer of "contradicting the soul of competition." He wrote, "We can accept that in ourselves but not in our heroes."
What is a hero? Who decides who qualifies as one? Growing up, Jake Plummer had a hero—two of them, actually. The third of three boys, Jake was included in every game his brothers, Eric and Brett, played, be it football, basketball or some contest improvised on the spot. To this day the trio (Brett is three years older than Eric, who is three years older than Jake) cannot gather without competing; when they went backpacking in the Sierras last fall, they played Frisbee golf at 10,000 feet.