Home was Smiley Creek, a town of 50 in the foothills of Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. Steve Plummer worked as a lumber wholesaler while his wife, Marilyn, taught at the two-room schoolhouse. (Steve and Marilyn split when Jake was eight years old but remain good friends.) Life was lived by certain rules, passed down and enforced by Marilyn's mother, Hazel Sounders, the matriarch of the family: Judge people by their deeds, not their appearance or status. Treasure friends and family. Look out for your own.
Handball became the family game after Steve learned it at the lumber warehouse, which had a makeshift wood court that was shorter, narrower and lower than a regulation handball court. (Indoor handball is played on the same court as racquetball, with nearly identical rules.) The warehouse pushed 100° during the summer and was cold as hell in winter, but both of Steve's bosses played, so he did too. Soon he was good enough to win the C division at a local tournament, then the B, the A and finally, in 1976, the Idaho state open championship.
All the Plummer boys were athletes. Brett ran track at Brown and held the school record in the 800 meters. Eric was a safety in high school, then played club handball at Montana, making the national quarterfinals in 1990 and '91 despite being the only player on the team, which tells you all you need to know about both Eric's determination and the popularity of handball.
And Jake? He'd always been the little brother who got pushed around, though he had an intense competitive streak. When he was 11, in Pop Warner, he made more than 20 tackles in one game, becoming so wrapped up in the competition that between plays he burst into tears of excitement. In high school he excelled despite his wiry frame, and in 1993 Arizona State coach Bruce Snyder ruined a new pair of $300 shoes slogging through a snowstorm to reach the Plummer household. (Years later Jake would send Snyder a pair of Florsheims. "It was the least I could do," he says.) Six games into the '93 season Jake was starting as a true freshman for the Sun Devils, cocksure at 6' 2" and 170 pounds. In '97 he and the team's other cult hero, a relentlessly attacking linebacker named Pat Tillman, led ASU to within 100 seconds of a national title in the Rose Bowl.
Plummer became the golden boy of the football-mad Southwest. Handsome and charismatic, he seemed to embody the go-go spirit of the region. His legend only grew when he was drafted by the hometown Cardinals, and in his debut in the seventh game of the season he entered midway through the fourth quarter and led the team on a 98-yard scoring drive, completing four of six passes for 89 yards. (The Cardinals lost in OT, but no one paid that much mind.) Fans adored him, the media praised his poise, and Bill Walsh declared, "I see Jake having a Montana-like career, including the Super Bowls." Not yet 25, Plummer was, as Cardinals wideout Chad Carpenter told SI at the time, "like a god." Said Carpenter, "We go to a restaurant and people stand up and clap when he walks by. No wonder he's a hermit." (Not entirely. In June 1997, before his rookie season with the Cardinals, Plummer pleaded no contest to misdemeanor disorderly conduct and was sentenced to two years' probation after four women at a Tempe nightclub accused him of groping them.)
Plummer's friendship with Tillman began at ASU and deepened with the Cardinals. Plummer was the team's come-hell-or-high-water leader, always scrambling and throwing tons of interceptions but also guiding the Cardinals to their first playoff victory in 51 years. Tillman was the undersized ball-of-fury safety who laid out opponents as if they'd just snatched his mother's purse. The two men were similar in many ways: Both shunned the spotlight, each was one of three brothers, both questioned authority and treated teammates like family.
Even though he was older, Plummer at times felt as though Tillman were his big brother. Tillman came to Plummer's football camp in Boise, Idaho, and spent nights cooking dinner at the home of Jake's Aunt Sue, all the while encouraging his friend to think critically. Plummer respected how, when Tillman disagreed with someone, he would say, "That's f----- up. Why do you believe that?" If the person gave a persuasive reason, Tillman was O.K. with it, but he hated being passive.
In the spring of 2002 Tillman quit football to join the Army. In January '04, after his first stint in Afghanistan, he returned to the U.S. on leave. That same month Eric Plummer entered a handball tournament in Seattle after a decade away from the game. He felt nervous, but then he heard fans chanting his name. He turned around to see Jake and Tillman, clapping and roaring. At the sight Eric teared up (which he still does when he tells the story). After the match the three men headed to a dark bar off Pike Place Market and stayed deep into the night drinking beers and solving the world's problems. It would be the last time either Jake or Eric saw Tillman.
In April 2004 Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Two weeks later, at the funeral, Jake walked to the podium wearing a suit and, in honor of his friend, flip-flops. He had been mulling what to say for weeks, and though at the time he meant the words as a testimonial to his friend, in hindsight they hinted at the path Plummer would choose. "I was in the store the other day and I saw PEOPLE magazine, and it had the cover of the 50 most beautiful people in the world, or America, and there was a picture of Pat," Plummer said. "It was kind of ironic because I really looked and said, What is beauty? Is beauty a pretty face, a nice smile, flowing hair, nice skin? Not to me, it's not. To me beauty is living life to higher standards, stronger morals and ethics and believing in them, whether people tell you you're right or wrong. Beauty is not wasting a day. Beauty is noticing life's little intricacies and taking time out of your busy day to really enjoy those little intricacies. Beauty is being real, being genuine, being pure with no facade—what you see is what you get. Beauty is expanding your mind, always seeking knowledge, not being content, always going after something and challenging yourself."
In closing, Plummer said, "I believe that to really honor Pat, we should all challenge ourselves. No more I'm going to do this or I'm going to do that. Do it. As Pat would say, probably, 'Get off your ass and do it.' Why, you ask, should we honor him this way? Because that's what Pat did his whole life."