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Original Issue

Sherman's Battle of the Bulge

Every other member of the New York Jets had dressed after the workout and gone over to the Hofstra student union for lunch, but still lying naked on the rubdown table was Sherman Plunkett, a hulk of a man whose flesh descends from his neck to his waist in ever-larger folds, like a soft pyramid. Plunkett was not eating lunch last week or breakfast either. At 336 pounds, he was the most overweight regular reporting to a pro football training camp.

Coach Weeb Ewbank was angry. Well aware of Plunkett's off-season ballooning, Ewbank had ordered him not to weigh more than 300 pounds upon arrival. As the scale quivered, Ewbank quavered and announced that Plunkett (a) had lost his job as first-string offensive right tackle and (b) would have to pay his own expenses at camp until he melts off a couple of dozen pounds.

"If he gets down to 310, we may argue," said Ewbank. "He's supposed to report in good shape and he's not. I just told him that, with 19 games, one of these years his legs are going to give out. And he's lost speed and agility because of his excessive weight."

The legs have stood up so far for the 6'2" Plunkett. Since coming to the Jets from the San Diego Chargers in 1963, he has not missed a game. His value is in pass protection, where he is more like Sherman Tank, serving as a roadblock against linemen trying to get through to white-shoed Joe Namath, the quarterback with the million-dollar arm and 39¢ knees. Teams with a strong running attack need mobile offensive linemen, but on the pass-crazy Jets there is room for a Plunkett, so long as he's not too stationary. Thus, Sherm was lounging on the rubdown table while his mates were at the dining table.

"I thought I was much lower, about 300," he said. "I felt that I had lost. I knew I was going to be fined, but I thought it was going to be less.

"My biggest problem is not how much I eat but when I eat. When I'm at home in Baltimore, my wife is working, so when she gets home to fix dinner it's 7:30. There's nothing to do after dinner in Baltimore, so I watch TV and fall asleep. Maybe I should form the habit of eating at 4 in the afternoon."

There are those who suspect that Sherman did nothing but loll around the house, but his wife Betty claimed that he played tennis and golf, ran around a park lake and even played a little football. Mrs. Plunkett also insisted her menus were not to blame.

I"ll give him two months after the season to eat what he wants," she said, "because it's a shame not to be able to eat anything all year. But around the first of March I put him on a diet. I feed him things like steak and salads, and he does wonderfully—at least in the home." Then she reflected a moment and allowed, "I do get a little suspicious of what he eats outside the house."

Mrs. Plunkett's suspicions are probably well-founded, according to Jim Parker, one of Sherman's roommates when he was with the Baltimore Colts. "He was the only fat man I ever saw who never ate anything." said Parker. "To listen to him, he never ate any breakfast, lunch or dinner, just some crackers and cheese. I remember once Weeb [who coached the Colts then] sent him to Johns Hopkins Hospital to have his thyroid checked to see if anything was wrong with him. When he came back and knew he was all right he couldn't understand why he put on weight.

"But I knew. One night when we were rooming together he thought I was asleep. He pulled out some crackers and cheese in the middle of the night and started eating them. I told him I thought a rat was in the room when I smelled all that cheese."

Plunkett has been bulky for a long time, going back to his days at Douglass High School in Oklahoma City. He went both ways as a tackle and was very fast for a big man. One of his coaches remembered that he weighed 235, but Sherm admits he was 280 even then. At Maryland State he did drop down to about 240.

"I got sick or something," he said. "I was younger then."

After being cut by the Cleveland Browns, he spent two years playing at Fort Dix, N.J., learning from Roosevelt Grier and other pros in the service. When he got out he joined Ewbank and the Colts. "I weighed about 270." he said. "Weeb was happy with it. That first year I could run a five-flat 40."

"We could tell how much he weighed by the wrinkles in his neck," said former Colt star Art Donovan. "If he had three wrinkles he weighed 320, and if he had four he weighed 360."

In 1961 the Colts offered Plunkett a $500 bonus if he reported at 275; he missed by 25 pounds. When Weeb got him back for the Jets in 1963, he tried a new scheme. He offered Betty Plunkett $1,000 to get Sherman's poundage down. She didn't collect, either; and Ewbank fined him this time.

Right now, Plunkett is faced with winning his job back from rookie Sam Walton, a 276-pounder from East Texas State. Then he has to keep playing better than Walton and another challenger, Jim Harris, who reported at 303 instead of 275 (he has slimmed to 286), and also was made to pay his own way at camp.

To accomplish these things, Plunkett absolutely must get his weight down. Ewbank has decreed it, and, as Sherm says, "He's the boss. I'll go on one meal a day as long as I can. I've been through this before, just about every year. When I was 286, they wanted me 275. But I'll be able to get down to 300 like he wants—by the time the season starts, if he keeps me."

Besides eating only the evening meal, Plunkett is sweating off some of the surplus in the Jets' two-a-day drills. He runs laps with the team and finishes last. He does jumping jacks, but he does not touch hands above his head. He does eight push-ups or so and ambles through the new plays introduced each session. And, presumably, he's laying off the cheese and crackers at 3 a.m.

Plunkett can take some small comfort in the fact that he is not the only tackle in pro football with a weight problem. The Miami Dolphins' ninth draft choice, 6'7" Sam McDowell of Southwest Missouri State, was required by his contract to report at 295. Instead, he checked in at 371, making Plunkett look like a ballerina by comparison.

"I can't understand it," wailed McDowell. "I only weighed 316 back home in Lebanon."

"If he did," said Miami Coach George Wilson, "he must have come to camp in a dining car."