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And why did he leave? Plummer thinks for a moment. "You gotta understand," he says, "I loved playing in the NFL. I put my heart and soul into it. And at that point, especially after Pat [Tillman died], it was like, there's so much more to do in life." He pauses. "And people go, What, it's the NFL! I even told Gruden, 'Hey, I used to watch your games and check the stats. Your quarterback would throw like three picks, and you guys would still win. Now, you don't think I don't want to play for you guys? I can come down there and throw all the picks I want, and we're going to win. But you know what, I still don't want to play for you. It's not against you. It's because I don't want to play. And I don't want to do that to you. If I'm not willing to play, I'm not going to give what you need from me in order to succeed, and that's cheating you and that's cheating all those other players. I can't do that.'"
But what about the money? Plummer would have received $5 million even if he'd been a backup, which isn't exactly the worst gig in the country. Everybody knows pro athletes never turn down money, that it's a measuring stick for success and self-worth and status.
Plummer puts down his beer. "Yeah, I left five million on the table, but they paid me like 30 already," he says. "What was I going to do with five more? You know? S---. I know what it's like to grow up with hardly anything, and now they'd paid me all this money. I mean, I have some things I enjoy doing, but basically I could live on a budget like most every other normal American does. I don't spend money. But it never was about money. I played ball because I loved it. That's the beauty of handball, too. These guys want to make big contracts and all this stuff. But once you get into that realm of sports, there's just a control factor that might take the unstructured fun out of it. You know, the pure joy of it."
By now a few of the handball players have wandered over, and Plummer tells the story of his first big contract, in 2003. How his agent called him on a Friday night to update him on the negotiations. "He calls at 10:30, and I'm already in bed," remembers Plummer. "And he's like, Hey, we got them at eight, but I think we can get more.
"And I'm like, Eight what?
"And he's like, Eight million.
"I'm like, What? You'll get more?"
Plummer cracks up, incredulous. "I said, 'I'm going to bed, man, I need to get ready to play. Call me when you're done in the morning. This is ridiculous.' Like what ... the ... f---! I play a sport! I do the same stuff you guys do"—here Plummer gestures at the handball pros—"but I can throw a ball. I mean there are so many people who could probably do what I did but never had the opportunity or the guidance or the breaks."
As for the life he left? In the four years since Plummer retired, the Broncos have gone 27--37. Shanahan was fired in '08. And last year a columnist for The Gazette suggested the "perfect candidate" for the Broncos' QB, a player who was "efficient," "knows how to win" and is "popular in the locker room": Jake Plummer.
Gruden, for his part, eventually gave up on Plummer. "I've called, I've written, I've gone to see him... . I did everything I could," he said in 2008. Reached in December as rumors swirled that he might take over the 49ers, Gruden chuckled. "Good old Jake the Snake," he said. "If I got the Snake, I might still be coaching. He definitely walked away from the game too soon." But, Gruden added, "the guy has a lot of values. Maybe he was just more advanced than me. I'm looking at right now, and he was looking down the road."