We all have dreams. Jake Plummer's was to hold a handball tournament. Not some big-time sponsored tournament but the kind at which everyone hangs out and drinks beer and has a great time. So three years ago, after he retired, that's what he did. In October he presided over the third annual Plummer Family Helluva Handball Bash at a modest athletic club in Coeur d'Alene, an hour from his home in Sandpoint.
It is Thursday, the day before the tournament, and Jake is posting fliers at a Days Inn. Wherever he goes, he walks in a semihurry, bent forward like a boy shouldering an overstuffed backpack, head jutting out. Today he's wearing cargo shorts, gray sneakers and a flannel shirt, which is pretty much what he always wears, unless it's cold, and then he wears cargo pants.
Plummer is disarmingly laid-back, the Dude from The Big Lebowski as a former All-Pro. He douses his sentences with "sweet," "man," "s---" and "dude," enjoys playing the bongos (a Saturday-night tournament tradition) and becomes tremendously excited about seemingly mundane topics. Here he is talking to a couple of handballers about massage therapy: "I'm doing Rolfing now. You ever do Rolfing? No? You gotta do it. Oh, man, they dig in with their elbow, really working it out. [He pantomimes churning into someone's lats.] It's awesome."
In part because of his appearance but mostly because of his demeanor, Plummer is able to live in relative anonymity. One of his handball friends, Tye Barlow, tells how, a couple of years ago in Sandpoint, Plummer was volunteering for Meals on Wheels, and the organization ran into funding problems. The woman in charge put a hand on Plummer's shoulder. "Jake, I'm sorry, we're out of money this month. But keep track, and we'll pay you for your gas."
"Don't worry about it," replied Plummer.
She insisted. Again, Plummer assured her it was O.K. "No, Jake, you don't even have a job!" she said sternly. "You have to keep track of your miles. You need the money."
"I played in the NFL for a little while," Plummer said. "I'm O.K."
Dumbstruck, the woman appraised the scruffy man who'd been delivering food for months. "You're that Jake Plummer?"
So, yeah, Plummer's not big on announcing his celebrity. Later in the tournament weekend, at a bar with a bunch of handballers, he is twice elbowed out of the way by a chubby guy in his 20s who is wearing a Tim Tebow Broncos jersey and is intent on getting to the bathroom. Only at the end of the night, tipped off by his friends, does Fat Tebow come over and announce that he is a huuuge fan of Jake Plummer. Plummer smiles, accepts the compliment and then gives the kid grief for not wearing a Kyle Orton jersey.
Plummer's quest to be a regular guy is one reason he loves handball: No one in the sport treats him like a star. This was never more important to him than when he played in Denver, where he was relentlessly compared with Elway, who'd retired in 1998 after leading the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl titles. Plummer signed with Denver as a free agent in 2003, and surrounded by elite talent for the first time, he flourished, finishing the season with a career-best 91.2 passer rating and leading the Broncos to a wild-card berth. The following season he matched or surpassed a handful of Elway's passing records. But Plummer also did things Elway never did. Like flipping off a fan, getting into a traffic dispute with another driver, and berating a Denver gossip columnist for writing about his relationship with Kollette, whom he'd just begun dating. Before the AFC Championship Game in '06 Plummer met the press with shoulder-length hair and a scraggly beard, wearing jeans and a white undershirt. Lincicome called him Jake the Flake, while others preferred Jake the Mistake. Fans on talk radio wondered whether, if the Broncos made the Super Bowl, Plummer would screw it up.