- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Then Plummer is at the upstairs courts, watching the women's matches, telling everyone that they have to see this because the women are a-ma-zing. And now he's watching the pros and talking about the athleticism of the top guys. "It's like Randy Moss or Charles Woodson, right? Right?"
When it's Jake's turn to play, he has a hard time switching modes. His first doubles match is on Saturday morning, when he is paired with a veteran pro named Danny Armijo, whose nickname is the Hand because of his preternatural ability to return shots. Armijo is something of a goofball and, at 48, a handball lifer, having turned pro at 15. Single, with a mop of brown hair and a soul patch, he is known to call WPH founder Dave Vincent before tournaments and leave voice mails such as, Hey, this is Dan. I'm having trouble with my joints. [Pause.] Because of the humidity, you see, I'm having trouble lighting them.
While Armijo warms up, Plummer hurries around trying to locate a keg of beer because what kind of tournament would he be running if he didn't have beer for the competitors at 10:30 a.m.? Once the match starts, Plummer is everywhere. He dives and lunges and whales at the ball. He is quite good, but what's most striking is that while in the NFL he looked small and agile, here he looks large and at times awkward. This is more the fault of the sport than of Plummer; because handball requires quick lateral movement and broad court coverage, it's not a tall man's game. Only one player over six feet has ever won a world title.
Plummer and Armijo split the first two games with their opponents and prevail in a tight third-game tiebreaker that is transfixing. Indeed, handball can be a gorgeous game, full of impossible shots made over the shoulder, through the legs or in mid-pirouette, all delivered with either hand. To watch the lower-level players, though, is to see the game for what it is: a difficult sport with a high barrier to entry, especially physically. Those who play the sport know this but still hold out hope. Nearly everyone at the tournament wants handball to get big. Except Plummer. He wants to help the sport, is happy to lend it his name and money and hold this tournament and put up the players at his lake house, but one reason he loves handball is that it's not the NFL. "I can go anywhere and play handball with some guy and have an instant bond," Plummer says, "and feel like, Hey, man, you're a good dude. And he may not be, but it feels that way. There's a community."
To Plummer, the eternal sandlot player as a quarterback, sports are worth playing only if they're fun. After retiring from the NFL, he approached handball seriously, aiming to go pro. He practiced hard, cut his hair, got the gear and, ultimately, became frustrated. Every couple of months he'd blow up on the court, then go back home, where Kollette would stare at him and say, "Why are you playing handball?" After a few seconds he would grudgingly answer, "To have fun." And then he'd go and apologize profusely to whomever he'd yelled at.
This continued until Plummer decided to stop caring so much. "And not only did I enjoy it a lot more," he says, "but I got better right away." Indeed, Barlow describes Plummer's demeanor during handball as akin to "a runner's high."
Football can still trigger that high for Plummer, but now it's in his role as volunteer assistant coach for Sandpoint High. In 2009, after a dominant regular season, Sandpoint fell behind by three scores during the state championship, and Plummer saw his players' defeated adolescent faces. So he began stalking the sideline, shouting, "Hey, get up! C'mon, you guys. You're going to miss this."
The boys stared back at him blankly. What are we going to miss? Plummer waved his arms, raised his voice. "Watch this," he said, eyes wide. "This is happening." And then, after a good play, "You feel it? You feel it?" And the boys, not sure what they were supposed to feel but now enthused, would answer Yeahhhh! and Plummer would shout right back: "We're coming back, boys! We're coming back! But you have to believe. Let them know how you feel."
Soon the whole bench was standing and yelling, and then the team was coming back. One score, two scores. And in the end Sandpoint came within a minute of pulling out a victory. That it failed didn't matter to Plummer. Now the boys understood. Now they felt it.
Only a handful of pro football players have left the game in their prime—Barry Sanders, Tiki Barber, John Frank. More common is the athlete who can't bring himself to cut the cord, whether he's graceful about it (Jerry Rice) or subjects his fans and teammates to a protracted, sometimes embarrassing ordeal (Brett Favre).