Burying his eyes under the bill of a weathered baseball cap,
Jake Plummer enters a brew pub near the Arizona State campus and
tries to blend into the crowd of revelers. The chance of
Plummer, a former Sun Devils star who is now the Arizona
Cardinals' starting quarterback, escaping celebrity in his
adopted home state is about as great as that of the Valley of
the Sun freezing over, but a young man can dream, can't he?
Lured to a Phoenix-area night spot for the first time in months,
Plummer, a 23-year-old passer anointed as the next Joe Montana
by the quarterback's own mentor, Bill Walsh, wages a constant
battle to stay out of the spotlight and remain one of the guys.
Hang with those close to Plummer, and it's easy to see why he's
at least succeeding at the latter. Humility is only an insult
away, and Plummer is getting plenty of good-natured jabs from
the circle of friends in his midst: girlfriend Sonia Flores,
childhood chum Ty Hamilton and teammate Pat Tillman, a former
Arizona State linebacker who in April was a seventh-round draft
choice of the Cardinals. They start in on Plummer as soon as he
takes his seat at their dimly lit table, citing everything from
his bad haircut to his awkward dance moves to his penchant for
nose-picking, an example of which was broadcast live on network
television last December. "In a lot of ways Jake comes off as a
geek," Tillman says of the man who nearly brought the Sun Devils
a national title in '96. Many star athletes have a posse;
Plummer has a band of roasters.
As the youngest member of a competition-crazed clan that
includes two brothers and six male cousins, Plummer has spent a
lifetime absorbing friendly abuse. "We've always competed in
everything you could think of, and growing up, Jake never won
anything--ever," says his eldest brother, 30-year-old Brett.
"Even now, we try to humble him whenever possible."
Adds Hamilton, "If he ever did start to get a big head, his
brothers would kick his ass."
Plummer may be the only quarterback in NFL history to have been
tricked into carrying a skunk into his training-camp dorm room.
(Cardinals fullback Larry Centers, who had collected the wounded
animal from the middle of a highway and placed it in a plastic
bag, handed it to Plummer and told him it was an order of
chicken wings.) On road trips during his rookie season, Plummer
dutifully toted a pint of Jack Daniel's for one Arizona
defensive starter's postgame indulgence. Vulnerability is a
given with this Idaho native, who doesn't fit the NFL
stereotype: He grew up eating tofu and soybean burgers at the
urging of his health-conscious parents (his mom, Marilyn, once
described herself as a former hippie, though she now contends
she merely "had long, straight hair and wore beads" in the
'70s), and he says he enjoys making pottery. He admits that he's
scared of the water, a fear that stems from the time, at age
four, when he fell off an inner tube during a run down the Boise
River rapids and was quickly fished out by his father, Steve.
He's also contrary enough to think that his nickname, Jake the
Snake, "is a little too obvious. Something unique would be
better." Such as? "Jake the Rake, because I'm so skinny."
For the record Plummer stands 6'2", weighs 197 pounds and has an
arm that caused most NFL talent evaluators to scoff rather than
drool as the '97 draft approached. He lasted until the 12th pick
of the second round, when Arizona, in a move viewed as a
not-so-subtle attempt to boost its ticket sales, chose the local
hero. Were that draft restaged today, Plummer would almost
certainly be a top-10 selection, though Walsh, the Hall of Fame
coach and esteemed quarterback guru, insists that "a lot of
teams would still pass, because they hold fast to the rule that
quarterbacks have to be a certain size. They'd be making a
mistake, because so many of the great ones don't have
overwhelming arms or physical tools. Football has evolved to
where the more athletic quarterbacks, who can get away from the
pass rush and make things happen on the run, are the ones who
will perform successfully over a long period."
Based on his performance as the Cardinals' starter in the final
nine games of '97, Plummer, who pulled out a couple of tight
victories and threw for an NFL rookie-record 388 yards in a loss
to the eventual NFC East champion New York Giants, is now
grouped with the Jacksonville Jaguars' Mark Brunell and the
Pittsburgh Steelers' Kordell Stewart as representing the latest
breed of pro quarterback. But while Brunell and Stewart are
accomplished runners who evoke images of the San Francisco
49ers' Steve Young, it is Plummer who has consistently drawn
comparisons to Young's predecessor in San Francisco, Montana. No
pressure there--other than the fact that Montana won four Super
Bowls in as many tries, threw for 11 touchdowns with no
interceptions in those victories and is the greatest quarterback
of all time. It's one thing to be compared to Montana by former
USC and Los Angeles Rams coach John Robinson or Arizona State
teammates, but it's another thing altogether to be held up as
Montana-like by Walsh.
Walsh waited until the third round of the '79 draft to snag
Montana. Eighteen years later, while working as a front-office
consultant, Walsh grew frustrated as the Niners' decision makers
ignored his advice to take Plummer. They instead used their
first-round pick (No. 26) on Virginia Tech's Jim Druckenmiller,
who had a strong arm but was less suited to the 49ers' system, at
least in the eyes of Walsh, the man who created it.
"We're happy with what we did, but if you look at it now,
picking Plummer would've been a good move also," San Francisco
director of football operations Dwight Clark says. "We thought
Jake was very exciting and productive and a lot like Joe with
his ability to make something happen out of the pocket. But we
felt that Druck had the most ability, the strongest arm, the
most poise in the pocket and the best ability to read second and
third receivers. It's easy to second-guess now."
Says Walsh, "Barring the unforeseen injury, and provided he
someday has a supporting cast and system that can allow him to
flourish, I see Jake having a Montana-like career, including the
Super Bowls." Walsh sees these traces of Montana in Plummer: an
ability to throw beautiful touch passes, a knack for
improvisation, quick feet, vision, coolness under fire and
uncanny leadership qualities that seem to be most effective when
circumstances are the most pressing.
Also like Montana, Plummer has shown that he can set aside his
field general's persona and mix well with teammates away from
the game. Through practical jokes, self-effacing comments and a
general refusal to take himself too seriously, Montana
counteracted his commanding game-day presence and put teammates
at ease. In comparison Plummer tends to expose more of himself,
sometimes literally. Whereas Montana was known to sneak out of
meetings in training camp and decorate the trees with his
teammates' mountain bikes, Plummer, while at Arizona State,
sometimes stepped out of the locker-room shower and did the
Chicken Dance--bunching his wet hair atop his head so that it
stuck straight up, flapping his arms wildly and making chicken
noises, au naturel. "I did it because it made Juan Roque laugh
his ass off every time," Plummer says, referring to the 6'8",
320-pound offensive tackle now with the Detroit Lions. Tillman
recalls being awakened at 1 a.m. in his dorm room at the Sun
Devils' August training site in northern Arizona "by a
buck-naked guy with a clown mask making weird noises and
pounding on everyone's bed with a big stick. But Jake has a
pretty, shall we say, distinctive body type, so everyone knew it
In terms of debunking one's own legend, not even Montana ever
produced the kind of signature scene that Plummer did in a game
against the New Orleans Saints. While standing on the Superdome
sidelines, Plummer was captured by Fox-TV cameras placing his
index finger inside his nose. The tight shot lasted several
seconds as Jake snaked his finger around one nostril. Back home
in Boise, many of Plummer's friends and family members had
gathered at a tavern to watch the game and were simultaneously
exhilarated and mortified. Says an apologetic Marilyn, "It was
every mother's worst nightmare. He has a little bit of an
allergy problem, and living in the desert really dries it out.
Really, it was more like he was scratching. For his birthday,
one of his friends gave him a box of Kleenex with a sign on it
that said, 'Only to be used on national television.'"
Plummer is sitting on the floor of a Tempe hotel room, penning
his name, along with the snake symbol that has been part of his
signature since college, to 2,000 trading cards. For this
two-hour endeavor Plummer will receive $10,000. "Can you believe
this?" he says. "It's like highway robbery. It takes my brother
Eric, who's a roofer, about four months to make that."
The disparity could be a lot worse--and probably will be down
the road. Jake's agent, Leigh Steinberg, says Plummer "has
turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars in endorsements
since joining the Cardinals. We have kept a lid on his marketing
because it makes no sense to put him on every billboard at this
stage of his career."
But Plummer, who as a senior led the Sun Devils on a stirring
season-long run that ended with a last-minute Rose Bowl loss to
Ohio State, has little chance of keeping a low profile. Since the
Cardinals moved from St. Louis in 1988, they have been without a
bona fide hero. With 10 nonwinning seasons, chronically poor
attendance and an uninspiring parade of starting
quarterbacks--among them Gary Hogeboom, Timm Rosenbach, Tom Tupa
and Jay Schroeder--the Cardinals created a vacuum for Plummer to
Thirty minutes after drafting him, the team opened the box
office at its Tempe training facility to accommodate a surge of
ticket requests. When Plummer made his first start, against the
Tennessee Oilers last Oct. 26, there were more than 5,000
walk-up sales. After Arizona went three-and-out on its first
possession, Plummer received a standing ovation.
"He's like a god," says second-year wideout Chad Carpenter, one
of Plummer's closest friends on the team. "We go to a restaurant
and people stand up and clap when he walks by. No wonder he's a
There is another, more painful reason Plummer rarely ventures
out past the dinner hour when he's in the Phoenix area. In April
1997, just days before he was drafted, Plummer was investigated
by the police on sexual-assault charges stemming from an
incident the previous month at a Tempe dance club. Four women
accused Plummer of groping them, and one claimed he kicked her
in the leg after she confronted him in the parking lot. Charged
with four counts of felony sexual abuse and one count of
misdemeanor assault, Plummer, worried about the publicity a
trial would bring, pleaded no contest to misdemeanor disorderly
conduct in lieu of assault and had the felony charges dropped.
He was sentenced to two years' probation and 100 hours of
community service; in March, after Plummer completed the
community service, a Maricopa County judge placed him on
reduced-supervision probation. Plummer also reached a settlement
with three of the women.
Plummer, who admits he was drinking that night, says he learned
a hard lesson about the hazards of celebrity. So did his mother.
"We don't know what will happen to those girls in their lives,
but I'll bet it won't be good things," says Marilyn. "What they
did was unscrupulous for women in general and a setback to so
many women's rights we have fought really hard to get. It was so
ludicrous what they alleged. I know Jake, and he's a very
Foster Robberson, an attorney who represented the three women
with whom Plummer settled, declined to comment. But the mother
of one of the women, who does not wish to be identified, says,
"My daughter and the other girls went through hard times with
the public criticism from the media. This situation was not
about money or getting rich. It dealt with the dignity and
self-respect they needed to uphold. The public seems to forget
that the girls were innocent victims. They were not looking to
be in the spotlight. Basically, the past is behind them. Yet the
image of Jake Plummer will always be there. Why is it his
agents, lawyers and mother are constantly protecting his image?
It sounds like Mrs. Plummer is still working on Jake's image."
The incident tarnished Plummer's reputation--one elementary
school withdrew an invitation to have him speak at an
assembly--and has provoked a limited amount of public razzing.
But he has remained largely popular, partly because of his lack
of pretentiousness. Before a game in Baltimore last November,
Plummer was heckled by Ravens fans as he and backup Stoney Case
threw warmup passes from the end zone. Plummer placed his hand
on Case's rear end, and the fans went nuts. "They were yelling,
'Look, he's doing it again,' but it was good-natured," Plummer
says. He had the last laugh, leading Arizona on a game-winning,
It was one of many instances in which Plummer demonstrated his
poise, beginning with a stunning debut that made instant
believers of his teammates. With starter Kent Graham injured and
Case having struggled for three-plus quarters, coach Vince Tobin
threw Plummer into an Oct. 19 game in Philadelphia. The
Cardinals, who trailed 7-3, were on their two-yard line. "I was
like a virgin being sent into a war," Plummer says, showing a
flair for the mixed metaphor. He was more like a surgeon, coolly
engineering a 98-yard scoring march in which he completed 4 of 6
passes for 89 yards, including a 31-yard touchdown to wideout
Kevin Williams. Arizona failed to hold the lead and lost in
overtime, but Plummer, expected to sit on the bench for at least
one season, had won the starting job.
He had plenty of rocky moments, including a four-interception
debacle in his first start and two games in which he was sacked
a total of 16 times. However, he also threw for 2,203 yards and
15 touchdowns in nine-plus games, and displayed scrambling
ability that evoked images of Fran Tarkenton. The Montana
comparisons persisted, thanks to Plummer's late-game poise
against the Eagles and the Ravens and to a game-winning
touchdown march in the final two minutes of a season-ending
29-26 triumph over the Atlanta Falcons.
"The thing that separates him from other players is his
confidence level," says Darren Woodson, the Dallas Cowboys'
All-Pro safety. "You can just sense it when he's in there--he
takes control of that offense."
When Plummer faced Washington on Dec. 7--a game the Cardinals
lost, 38-28--Redskins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan adjusted
his game plan to account for the rookie's playmaking ability.
"We brought a ton of pressure, partly because he's a young guy,
but also because I was really worried that if we sat back and
put it on him to make plays, he'd beat us," says Nolan. "The
big, fast, athletic guys don't scare me nearly as much as the
guys who find a way to win. I hate to compare him to Joe
Montana, but I'm going to do it anyway: He's a scrawny guy who
doesn't look that imposing, but he's a competitor and he has
those intangibles like Joe did. He'll learn the rest."
Like Montana, Plummer has a hard time explaining his calm amid
the storm. "It's so high-energy," he says of playing under
pressure, "yet everything is narrowed to one goal, and your
focus goes toward that. It's a powerful situation. It's like
you're driving around a tight corner and you see a diesel coming
at you--you either find an escape route or you go over a cliff.
I don't hear the crowd. It's like whatever senses don't need to
be on just turn off."
There is an understated simplicity to Plummer's leadership that
is even more difficult to quantify. It starts with the
egalitarian values imparted by his parents, who separated when
Jake was eight and later divorced but remain good enough friends
that Steve's answering-machine greeting features Marilyn's
voice. "He has always been able to relate to people from all
walks," Brett says of his younger brother. "He's able to look
for the good qualities in people and understand them better than
anyone I know, and there's nothing contrived about it."
This is evident at the brew pub as Tillman professes his
affinity for radio shock-jock Howard Stern and Plummer takes
exception. "He's funny," Plummer says, his voice rising, "but I
don't think the statements he makes about black people are very
nice. It's racist. And he picks on people with mental handicaps.
He makes the choice to do that, but they're not in that
situation by choice. For me it doesn't work."
As Tillman argues back, Plummer lifts a glass to his lips with
one hand and removes his baseball cap with the other. His glare
is intense, his cheeks are flushed pink. For the first time all
night, he isn't worried about being noticed.
COLOR PHOTO: DIGITALLY ENHANCED PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFF LOWE DOUBLE TAKE The unimposing Plummer didn't impress most pro scouts, but as a Cardinal he has quickly grown into a quarterback of stature. [Double image of Jake Plummer looking at himself suited up in football uniform]
COLOR PHOTO: JENSEN ASSOCIATES SNAKE EYES Despite appearing in only 10 games in '97, Plummer struck for 15 touchdowns and more than 2,200 yards. [Jake Plummer and others in game]
COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF STEVE PLUMMER HARD KNOCKS Stiff competition and periodic poundings from his older brothers and cousins taught Jake to be scrappy. [Jake Plummer as a boy in game]
Walsh says he can see Plummer "a Montana-like career, including
the Super Bowls."
Plummer is such a hero in Arizona he got a standing ovation
after going three-and-out on his first series as a starter.