Even those who leave when they should don't necessarily do so easily. "People say, What about Troy Aikman or John Elway?" says Steinberg, the agent. "And I would tell them that they didn't represent that player and weren't part of the phone calls during the first year of retirement, when he desperately wanted to come back."
Steinberg, who represented Plummer from 1997 till 2001, considers him to be the exception. "He would be one of the minuscule few that I could see living a completely fulfilled life away from sport. He was one of the most internally centered athletes I've ever met. He had the perfect temperament for being a leader, because he was as close to an egoless major star as I've seen."
Nate Jackson, who played tight end for the Broncos alongside Plummer for three years, says fans can't imagine how hard it is to maintain a sense of self in the NFL. "Everywhere you go, people are telling you, Can I take your picture?" says Jackson. "But that world is not real. It's a weird little bubble. If you're smart and pay attention, you know it's bogus, and even then it's hard to move on. But Jake was able to maintain his own identity outside the game."
True to form, Plummer turned down endorsements and wasn't the type to hold golf tournaments or sit for photo shoots. (The only reason he sat for this story is to help promote handball.) "I'm here to play football and win games," he told the Rocky Mountain News in 2006. "If [fans] turn on me, it doesn't mean I don't go out there and play as hard as I can. I've always done that. I always will."
Privately, Plummer's friends wondered if it wouldn't be the worst thing for him to go along with the Superstar Quarterback script once in a while, but that wasn't who he was. "Jake's such a giving person," says Parsons, who backed him up in Arizona and Denver, "but he didn't want people to know. He got such a bad rap. They'll say he's a jerk, he flipped off fans. Well, s---, you know how many players want to flip off fans at some point? Every one of them. Jake's just the only one who didn't care enough to actually do it."
On Sunday the Helluva Handball tournament finishes shortly after noon. Chapman wins the singles title, while Eric Plummer loses in the doubles final. (Jake and Armijo lost in the second round, in a tiebreaker.) Once the equipment is packed, Jake loads the family's rickety old Jeep, the one that on startup roars like a garbage truck, and heads out with a carload of pro handball players. He drives south for 20 minutes, then winds down a two-lane road past barns and horses and pine trees. Finally he turns a corner and arrives at his rustic lake house.
Inside there are no signed helmets, game balls or oversized portraits of Plummer. Instead there are photos of the lake, a goofy carved wooden moose with his legs crossed, and pictures of Jake and Kollette at their wedding, held on a rocky outcropping in front of 25 people a half mile down the lake. There are also two energetic, frequently wet, Frisbee-toting dogs, Ray and Kosi, both of whom were adopted from a shelter. It is here, where Plummer spends his summers, that he says he feels most at peace. During his football career, on the day before he had to leave for camp, he would stand hip-deep in the water, staring out at the peaks ringing the lake, and cry.
Four days earlier, when the handball pros first arrived, Jake took them out in his boat. When two of the handballers decided to take a dip in the lake, Plummer initially demurred, having forgotten his bathing suit, then changed his mind. "S---, you're right," he said. "What am I thinking, bringing you guys out here on my boat and not going in the water with you!" So he stripped down to a pair of black compression shorts and leaped off the back of the boat into the 57° water. Later he deemed the experience "awesome."
Today it's more mellow. Cornhole is played. Frisbees are tossed. Coronas are consumed. Plummer spends a good 10 minutes futilely looking for horseshoes he is sure are buried somewhere out on the beach. Then he's off to the kitchen to chop green peppers alongside his mom and his aunt, stopping every few minutes to make goofy faces at little Roland, who is in for a life of manly activities with his father. (Jake is already planning road trips for when Roland turns three.) Kollette, who is slim and pretty and as reserved as Jake is effusive, sits nearby preparing tortillas for tacos.
With dinner prep complete, Plummer is finally ready to talk about football. Heading to the beach, he grabs two Molsons, pulls up a pair of folding lawn chairs and aims them at the sunset. Sitting there, looking out at the lake, he starts talking. Of how he still has his knees, how he can run five miles without pain, how he spends afternoons in the hammock with Roland, how he can go backpacking with his brothers and spend weekends with his parents. He talks of how he misses some things about football, such as "throwing the ball on the run and coming out of the tunnel and the celebration and the screaming when you score a touchdown, and the other things that come out and you don't know where they come from." But he also talks of how his buddy Steve Christensen, an equipment manager with the Cardinals, used to call coaches Sperm because "they all come from that same pool of sperm—you know, two-a-days in the summer, the same you're-never-good-enough mentality." And he talks of how, if the Broncos had won it all in 2006, when he was having "a blast," he says, "I would have been on a jet plane, gone—that would have been a great way to leave." (Plummer says he made the actual decision to quit midway through that season.)