ESPN Network: | | | | ABCSports | EXPN | INSIDER | FANTASY   

Off the bench

Plunkett kept coming back
By Bob Carter
Special to

"It surprised me that he was able to come back because I thought physically he had been so punished that he couldn't come back - and he certainly did," says Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi about Jim Plunkett on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Jim Plunkett
Jim Plunkett, playing for Stanford, won the 1970 Heisman Trophy.
Back and forth he swung, the pendulum passer. Rarely did an athlete reach the highs and lows, and highs again, of Jim Plunkett.

  • Success as a California high school quarterback was followed by an unsteady start in college, a beginning in which his coach almost took the ball from his hands. Then followed three sensational seasons at Stanford, culminating with the 1970 Heisman Trophy.

  • An outstanding rookie year in the NFL with the New England Patriots preceded numerous injuries and a drift to the ranks of the ordinary. He even spent two seasons on the bench with the Raiders.

  • And suddenly, from near-oblivion, a rise again to the top as 1981 Super Bowl MVP. "I'm proud of that game," Plunkett said of Oakland's 27-10 victory over Philadelphia. "Many people felt I was washed up, and I wasn't sure they were wrong."

    Three years later, Plunkett helped Oakland to another Super Bowl triumph, this one over Washington.

    "He has to be one of the great comeback stories of our time," said Raiders owner Al Davis.

    Plunkett was born on Dec. 5, 1947, in San Jose, Calif., the youngest of three children. He grew up in Santa Clara before the family sought less-expensive housing in San Jose.

    His parents were both blind. His mother, Carmen, was sightless since she was 19 because of typhoid fever. His father, William, was legally blind and worked as a news vendor.

    Plunkett delivered newspapers and took odd jobs to earn pocket money but still found time for football. In junior high school, he became a passing quarterback.

    Leading James Lick High School in San Jose to an unbeaten season as a senior, he was chosen for a state all-star game and was heavily recruited by colleges. Wanting to stay near home and attend a university with strong academics, Plunkett selected Stanford over California, in part because the radical political environment in Berkeley could be hard on athletes.

    Surgery for a benign tumor in his neck in August 1966 slowed him physically and academically during his first year at Stanford. He didn't play well for the freshman team, and when his performance didn't improve the next spring, coach John Ralston suggested a switch to defensive end.

    Plunkett, 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, rejected the idea, and Ralston redshirted him in 1967. The year of practice and no play helped Plunkett. In 1968, he threw for 14 touchdowns and set a Pac-8 record with 2,156 yards passing.

    His junior year was even better when he set league records for touchdown passes (20), passing yards (2,673) and total offense (2,786), ranking third nationally in total offense and fifth in passing. "The best college football player I've ever seen," said Washington State coach Jim Sweeney.

    Resisting the temptation to turn pro in 1970, Plunkett stayed for his senior season. It was a memorable year as he surpassed many of his league records, passing for 2,715 yards and 18 touchdowns as Stanford went 8-3 and won the Pac-8.

    With a career total offense of 7,887 yards, including passing for 7,544, Plunkett set an NCAA record. In the "Year of the Quarterback," he was voted the Heisman Trophy, easily beating out Notre Dame's Joe Theismann and Mississippi's Archie Manning. "When I found out I'd finished second to Jim," said Theismann in 1984, "I was genuinely crushed."

    Plunkett, shy and modest, took a different view: "I wanted the Heisman, but my whole life wasn't centered on it."

    He then capped his collegiate career by leading Stanford to a 27-17 upset of unbeaten Ohio State in the 1971 Rose Bowl, completing 20-of-30 passes for 265 yards and one touchdown. "They'd never faced a passing team such as ours," he said.

    Jim Plunkett
    Plunkett threw 62 TD passes in five seasons for the Patriots.
    The Patriots, picking first in the NFL draft, put Plunkett front and center in their future. A prototypical dropback passer who loved to throw long, he helped them to a 6-8 season in 1971, their best record in five years. Plunkett passed for 2,158 yards and 19 touchdowns and was named the AFC Rookie of the Year by The Sporting News. UCLA coach Tommy Prothro had called him the "best pro quarterback prospect I've ever seen," and Plunkett looked the part.

    The 1972 season brought a different look: only eight touchdown passes, 25 interceptions (up from 16 as a rookie), a 3-11 record and many hard knocks. He was sacked six times in one game at Pittsburgh, on his way to 97 sacks over three seasons (1972-74).

    "In 1972 my confidence ran into a stone wall," he said. "I'd never been in a losing situation before."

    Oklahoma's Chuck Fairbanks replaced John Mazur as Patriots coach in 1973 and installed an offense that had Plunkett running some option plays and continuing to take a beating. Although Plunkett passed for 19 touchdowns and led the Pats to a 7-7 record in 1974, injuries mounted. Knee and shoulder surgeries became almost commonplace, and after a season of limited play in 1975, he asked to be traded.

    The next year he was, to San Francisco. "I really thought I was going to be the savior," Plunkett said, "but all I did was put more pressure on myself."

    Before family and friends in Northern California, Plunkett had two inconsistent years with the 49ers and then was released before the 1978 season.

    At 30, Plunkett considered quitting, but two weeks later the Raiders' Davis signed him to a three-year contract for a total of $465,000. As the No. 3 quarterback, Plunkett didn't play in 1978. The next season, he threw only 15 passes. During training camp in 1980, Plunkett asked to be traded because he expected to have virtually no playing time again.

    The Raiders ignored his request and five weeks into the season, Plunkett's resurrection began. He got his opportunity when starter Dan Pastorini suffered a broken leg against Kansas City. Though Plunkett threw five interceptions in the 31-17 defeat, he got the start the next week for the 2-3 Raiders, who thought rookie Marc Wilson was too green.

    Plunkett's performance startled almost everyone as he completed 11-of-14 passes with one touchdown and no interceptions as Oakland defeated San Diego 38-24.

    Plunkett didn't stop there. He passed for 18 touchdowns and 2,299 yards during the season, guiding the Raiders to nine victories in their last 11 games and a wild-card spot in the playoffs. The NFL's Comeback Player of the Year then led four postseason wins,
    Jim Plunkett
    Plunkett was the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year in 1980.
    the first three on the road. He completed 14-of-18 passes for 261 yards and two touchdowns in the 34-27 AFC title victory over San Diego.

    Then he threw for 261 yards again in the Super Bowl. Completing 13-of-21 passes and three scoring strikes, two to Cliff Branch and an 80-yarder to Kenny King, he accounted for all of Oakland's touchdowns in the 27-10 victory. With a Super Bowl MVP in hand, Plunkett's comeback season was complete.

    "After 10 years and struggling with New England and San Francisco," he said, "that first one meant a lot to me."

    The second title came after more struggles, after losing his starting job to Wilson and then regaining it after Wilson was injured. In the 1984 Super Bowl, Plunkett passed for 172 yards and one touchdown in the Raiders' 38-9 rout of Washington, to that point the biggest Super Bowl victory margin.

    From 1984-86, Plunkett made only 17 starts, mostly because of injury. He sat out all of 1987 with a shoulder injury and his NFL career ended in the 1988 preseason when, at 40, the Raiders released him. For his career, Plunkett completed 1,943-of-3,701 passes for 25,882 yards with 164 touchdowns and 198 interceptions.

    The once-reticent Plunkett does Raiders postgame radio interviews and a weekly TV highlights show and gives corporate speeches. He also owns a beer distributorship.

    Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories