There are flecks of gray in his coal-black hair, particularly around the sideburns and at the back of his neck. Heisman quarterbacks never seem to age, but Jim Plunkett is 32 now, and when he smiles it's sad and slow because 10 years in the NFL have taught him that darkness follows light and that the good things have a way of turning ugly.
It is two days before last Sunday's game against Seattle, and Plunkett is sitting in a restaurant a mile away from the Oakland Raiders' practice field, fiddling with a cup of coffee. Every few minutes a waitress shows up with a handful of things for him to autograph. "Three more," she says, handing him two napkins and a menu. Plunkett smiles and reaches for his pen.
Two games are all it has taken to get the fans back in Plunkett's corner again, two games in which he has been the starting quarterback, a job he inherited when a pair of Kansas City linemen decided to meet at Dan Pastorini's right leg, totaling him for the season.
The chef comes out. He wants Plunkett to autograph his toque. "You don't want his autograph?" he says to the waitress. "Oh no," she says, "I got it last year—before he started doing all that wild passing."
The wild passing had come in the Oct. 20 Monday night game against the Steelers—a 45-yard touchdown to Morris Bradshaw, a 56-yard TD to Cliff Branch, a 34-yard scoring toss to Branch that put the game away. The last TD to Branch was memorable; Plunkett stepped up into the teeth of a blitz and let the ball go just before he went down.
It hadn't been so wild the week before against San Diego, though. For Plunkett, that one was a surgical job, an 11-for-14 day when he was knocked out of action but returned to beat another of the NFL's superpowers.
"I try to take this as lightly as possible," Plunkett says. "I tell people, 'Well, it's only two games, so don't go wild.' But I guess everyone likes fairy tales."
Make that three games. On Sunday in Oakland, Plunkett threw three touchdown passes in the Raiders' 33-14 victory over Seattle. He completed 16 of 25 passes for 214 yards. His three starts show the following: three victories, in which the Raiders have averaged 38.7 points; seven touchdown passes; no interceptions; a 67% completion average. And the Raiders are now 5-3, and tied with San Diego for first in the AFC West.
Ten years ago Plunkett was a scriptwriter's dream, a fairy tale come true. The Mexican-American kid from San Jose's east side, the kid who worked 50 hours a week to help support his mother, who was blind, and his father, who was partially blind; the glory years at Stanford; the Heisman Trophy; the great Rose Bowl win over one of the finest Ohio State teams in history.
Seven first-round draft choices came out of that game, but the NFL didn't treat them kindly. Stanford's Greg Sampson, retired for medical reasons; Ohio State's John Brockington, a wreck before he was 28; Buckeyes Leo Hayden and Tim Anderson, gone; Buckeye Jack Tatum, an afterthought at Houston; Stanford's Jeff Siemon, struggling through still another injury-racked season at Minnesota. And Plunkett? Two years ago he was down for a nine-count, cut by San Francisco, which was to finish with pro football's worst record that season. "Gun-shy and inconsistent," they called him. The end of the dream.
"That period is very vivid in my mind," Plunkett says. "Why do you always remember the bad things so clearly? It's always the interceptions that stick in your mind, not the touchdowns."
He remembers wandering around in a deep depression after the 49ers cut him and sitting in Bob Moore's apartment in Alameda, staring into a forest of empty beer bottles. "Well, our careers are over now," he'd say. Bob Moore, who caught the big pass in the final quarter of the Rose Bowl, was an NFL gypsy who'd just been cut by Chicago. Plunkett and Moore. Two gypsies.
"It was the most miserable period in my life," Plunkett says. "It wasn't so much a feeling of shock as 'What the hell am I going to do now?' I'd sit around Bobby's house or I'd stay home. I didn't want to be with people, to have to talk football with them."
In 1971 UCLA's Tommy Prothro, who was soon to take over as the Rams' head coach, called Plunkett "the best pro quarterback prospect I've ever seen." When it became clear New England would draft him No. 1, their stock jumped 6¼ points, or $1.6 million on paper. In his first NFL game Plunkett threw two touchdown passes as New England upset Oakland 20-6; the next day The Boston Globe ran a picture of Plunkett that took up one-quarter of the front page. "The Toast of New England," the headline said.
He was on his way, but there was an ominous historical fact at work. The best college quarterbacks usually go to the worst NFL teams, the teams that draft highest, and they usually wind up playing right away—behind offensive lines that can't protect them. The NFL has been known to eat its young. But what the hell, Plunkett was 23 years old and he had a 6'2", 220-pound body that could take the shots. He finished his rookie season with 19 touchdown passes, second-most in history by a rookie, and the Patriots won six games, the most in five years. Plunkett was named Rookie of the Year. Then the rush got to him.
He was sacked 112 times over the next three seasons. He went through three knee operations. "I can tell what day it is by the way he's walking," said his agent, Bob Woolf. In one 1972 game in Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers sacked him six times. On the Patriots' bus back to the airport, Charlie Gogolak pushed his seat back with a loud bang and Plunkett jumped. "I'm getting gun-shy, even on buses," Plunkett said. He had come out of the game with a sprained shoulder, bruised ribs and a black eye. "It seems like I'm getting hurt more this year," he said then. "I got hit last year and I got right back up. This year sometimes I don't get up so quick."
In 1973 Chuck Fairbanks arrived in New England from Oklahoma, where quarterbacks don't call their own plays, as Plunkett had been doing, and where they run the option. In an exhibition game in 1975, San Diego's Coy Bacon put Plunkett out of action with a separated shoulder. A pin was inserted. Six weeks later Plunkett was playing against the 49ers. Fairbanks sent in an option play on short yardage, and Plunkett picked up a first down. "Dave Washington, their linebacker, said to me, 'Hey, don't be running that thing. You'll get yourself killed,' " Plunkett says. "Next series Chuck sent it in again, and this time Washington got me from the blind side and knocked the pin loose." Three weeks later he was back, and this time a knee injury finished him for the season. In December, Plunkett asked to be traded. New England obliged on April 5, 1976, and in a deal that four years later is still lovingly recorded in the Pats' press guide, they sent Plunkett to the 49ers for three No. 1 draft choices, a No. 2 and backup Quarterback Tom Owen.
Plunkett was inconsistent in San Francisco, and the fans booed him. In his second year with the club, General Manager Joe Thomas canned Coach Monte Clarke and brought in Ken Meyer. He was Plunkett's fifth coach in seven seasons. "He'd call the plays from the sidelines by a system of body signals," Plunkett says. "It was so ridiculous. All the parts of the body referred to certain numbers. It was actually funny."
Plunkett's pass protection was spotty. Once, in New England, Fairbanks had taken him into the film room and shown him that when he set up to pass, his feet were positioned for running rather than passing—which seemed like a sensible thing to do, given the basic human instinct for survival. Now, in San Francisco, Plunkett was reverting to those escapist tendencies.
"I guess I was gun-shy," Plunkett says. "Pain is a mental thing. You can always bounce back, but the hard part is the realization that it's not going to stop. It's like the Chinese water torture. A couple of drops won't hurt you, but the idea of all of them is what drives you nuts."
In 1978 the 49ers gave up on Plunkett and cut him six days before the regular season began. Four days later the Raiders had him over for a tryout. The Raiders. The court of last resort, the legion of the damned. Give us your tired, your broken in spirit. But the Raiders did have a rich tradition of passing quarterbacks, and a big league line to protect them.
"We just wanted to see if his arm was sound, and we found out it was," says Raider owner Al Davis. "He was beat, he was hurt. He'd been whipped in two cities, but he still felt he could play. We told him, 'Relax, watch, learn, throw. Get yourself back in shape.' "
In 1978 Plunkett didn't play in a game. In 1979 he threw 15 passes, completing seven. He was picking up splinters, but another thing was happening. His body was getting strong. He was catching on to a real live offensive system. He wanted to play. He asked to be traded. Be patient, the Raiders told him.
Six weeks ago, in the Raiders' overtime loss at San Diego, Plunkett came in for one play, when Pastorini was knocked out of action. With 33 seconds to go, he threw a fourth-down touchdown pass to Ray Chester that sent the game into sudden death. Then Pastorini came back.
"Sure, that bothered me," Plunkett says.
"It was a tough decision," says Raider Coach Tom Flores, "but I had to go with the guy who'd been playing the whole way, who had the feel of the game."
Three weeks later Pastorini went down for the season, and the Raiders found themselves with a living and breathing Jim Plunkett, who has yet to experience defeat as a starter this season.
"Four games—only four so far—let's hold off on the excitement," says Plunkett, who knows what it's like when the dream dies.
Plunkett riddled Seattle for three touchdowns.
After seven sad seasons, Jim can smile now.