By Mike Antonucci
The most celebrated player in Stanford football history came from just down the road, and a world away. He was a hard-knocks kid from San Jose, a Mexican-American with an Irish surname, who gravitated to Stanford in part because he wanted to stay close to his parents, both of whom were blind. He was a quarterback, although the coaches weren’t so sure he should be. And he ended up an emblem of individual and shared achievement on a team that’s linked forever by one revered season.
Jim Plunkett arrived with other young players — Jack Lasater, Bob Moore, Jack Schultz — who, like him, felt the pangs of being an outsider. They were from poor or middle-class families, and they wondered how they would ever fit in at a university swarming with well-heeled classmates. “We’d all gone to public schools instead of prep schools, and none of us had a lump of cash in our pocket,” Lasater recalls. Randy Vataha had the same misgivings when he transferred in as a junior.
By their senior season in 1970, the insecurities that had pulled them all together had matured into a deep bond, stoked by stubborn dreams and maddening frustration. Back-to-back winning seasons had been blemished by key losses, and they were down to their last chance to win a championship. It was never “just football” to them, Schultz remembers. “We had experienced an awful lot of disappointment,” including two straight defeats to USC on late field goals. “We didn’t want to live through that again.”
The USC game fell halfway into that 1970 season. Plunkett, by then a star with growing national acclaim, threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to Moore to key a 24-14 victory, Stanford’s first over the Trojans in 13 years. Two weeks later, Stanford beat UCLA for the first time in eight years. Wins over Oregon State and Washington nailed down the Pac-8 title and a January 1 Rose Bowl berth. The opponent: undefeated and heavily favored Ohio State.
Plunkett, who on November 24 had been named the winner of the Heisman Trophy, directed a fourth-quarter comeback for an electrifying 27-17 upset over the Buckeyes. That game is credited with returning the Stanford football program to prominence, and Plunkett’s performance helped established a template for what soon became a college football staple: offenses dedicated to passing the ball.
Plunkett went on to an NFL career that included two Super Bowl victories while quarterbacking the Raiders, but also included years of physical trauma that left him hobbled and in near constant pain. Today, he carries the various hurts he has suffered—physical and emotional—gamely. And the people who grew close to him 40 years ago are the same ones who are closest to him today: a circle of love and mutual support that owes its origins to a team and a time that shaped Jim Plunkett’s life, and those of many others.
Plinkett’s Stanford Career nearly ended before it began. A month before his enrollment, Plunkett was told by doctors that the lump he had felt at the base of his neck was cancerous. In a call with Rod Rust, the assistant coach who had recruited him, Plunkett relayed his fears. The surgery required to remove a malignant tumor would end his football playing days. Rust didn’t hesitate: We will honor your scholarship, he said.
Rust, now 82, remembers making that promise impulsively, confident that Stanford would back him up. Rust’s mother had gone blind, and he related so strongly to the Plunkett family’s closeness that he had moved beyond any concern about what Plunkett could contribute to Stanford. “I worried more about Stanford being good enough for Jim Plunkett,” he says.
The tumor turned out to be benign, but Plunkett has never forgotten the generosity shown by Rust. It foretold the enduring intensity of Plunkett’s relationship with Stanford. Only his family means more, and even in that context, there is a special rapport. “Stanford is in both our hearts,” says Gerry Plunkett, Jim’s wife of 28 years, “because I see how very much it means to him.”
Although Plunkett is easily spotted at Stanford events and extends his help to each new generation of athletes, his connection to Lasater, Moore, Schultz and Vataha is part of his identity. They are a permanent set: Plunk, Red, B.M., Schultzie and Rabbit.
“We’re as close as any group of guys can be,” says Plunkett. “We socialize together, we do business together, and we tell lies together about how great we used to be.”
It hasn’t all been laughs. Perhaps the most profound expression of the men’s continuing devotion occurred during the anguish that overwhelmed them when the Plunketts’ 25-year-old son Jimmy died two years ago. “Bob [Moore] and Jack Schultz came to our house every day,” Gerry Plunkett recalls.
“We’ve all tasted what life has to deliver,” says Schultz. “Some of it has been wonderful and some of it has been absolutely horrific. And we’ve known that we’re there for each other.”
Current Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh describes Plunkett as an “iconic” figure, and as the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner, Plunkett resides in a special place in Stanford’s athletic pantheon. But none of it came easily.
There was a famous juncture at which Stanford head coach John Ralston, an eventual college football Hall of Famer, almost coached Plunkett out of quarterback contention. Slow to recover from the surgery on his neck, Plunkett didn’t impress anybody during spring practice at the end of his freshman year. An outstanding high school wrestler, Plunkett struck Ralston and his staff as someone they might convert to a defensive end. Had they insisted on it, the number of Heisman Trophy winners at Stanford would still be zero. “I don’t know where I would have gone,” Plunkett says, “but I would have transferred.”
In addition to mustering his physical skills, Plunkett had to change the coaches’ perception of what a leader was. He had some natural shyness, plus an unconventionally low-key approach to taking charge. To this day he has a tendency to drop into the background, heightened sometimes by the pervasive sadness of his son’s death. “I was extremely quiet when I got to Stanford,” acknowledges Plunkett. “I wasn’t an in-your-face guy.” But he also was gifted with staunch confidence and a ferocious appetite for challenges. Teammates never doubted who was in command if they didn’t do their jobs. “You got the look from Jim,” recalls Vataha, a wide receiver, “and the look was not comfortable.”
Assistant coach Mike White—who later was head coach for Cal, the University of Illinois and the Oakland Raiders—remembers vividly the doubts about whether Plunkett “could project enough” to motivate a team as a quarterback. “We came so close to making an unbelievably catastrophic decision. But he taught us a new meaning to the word temperament as we rode his success. . . . Geez, you’d think that we could have seen pretty quickly that he could throw the ball.”
Even Plunkett’s buddies underestimated him occasionally. Moore, a tight end who went on to an eight-year NFL career, talked himself into a one-on-one foot race with Plunkett the summer before their senior season, when players gave up trips home and time off to continue training together.
‘I got so many great letters. Some of them said my story gave them a new sense of purpose in life. I still feel good when I think about it.’
The race was 440 yards, and Moore says he expected to beat Plunkett, “who never looked good as a runner,” by 30 yards or more.
“He was on my shoulder the whole time,” Moore recalls. “He gutted out that entire run. That’s where he was a leader. He’s as tough a guy as I’ve ever met.”
Each former teammate, it seems, has a singular piece of lore. What John Sande, ’71, the team’s center, remembers is a sound. “I’d never known anybody could throw a football so hard it whistled until Jim did it.”
Plunkett’s against-the-odds story drew legions of fans, including some who were only casual football rooters. His father died before his junior season and Plunkett made sure there was time to spend with his mother no matter how great the pressures at Stanford. “People had read about my parents, about my family life growing up,” says Plunkett, his voice catching. “I got so many great letters. Some of them said my story gave them a new sense of purpose in life. I still feel good when I think about it.”
The rest of the Stanford cast was anything but ordinary. The defense included linebacker Jeff Siemon, ’72, and tackle Pete Lazetich, ’72, who became first-team All-Americans the following season and helped lead Stanford back to the Rose Bowl. But Plunkett was the face of the team’s success, that strong chin like a pointer for his powerful arm.
“The team was full of an awful lot of talented guys as well as egos,” says Schultz, who was a strong safety. “But there was no hint whatsoever of jealousy for all of the accolades and attention being heaped on Jim. He also shined the light back on everybody else.”
Playing for a traditionally mediocre program on the West Coast, Plunkett was a long-shot Heisman candidate compared to the other favorites: quarterbacks Archie Manning of Mississippi and Joe Theismann of Notre Dame. But his stellar performances week after week, as well as a bootstrapped marketing campaign by the athletic department, increased Plunkett’s visibility. When the Heisman vote was announced, Plunkett had won by a wide margin.
Forty years later, his impact on college football hasn’t lost any luster, even though the sport has become far more freewheeling and ratcheted up the stats of quarterbacks everywhere. Plunkett, who had assumed the starting quarterback job as a sophomore, piled up three seasons of record-breaking numbers, all long ago eclipsed by other Stanford players. But in a Stanford timeline, the ultimate demarcation is Before Plunkett and After Plunkett.
As White notes, the Stanford coaching staff had learned football as mostly an exercise in running the ball. And in three of the four seasons before Plunkett’s emergence, Stanford had gone 5-5. The coaches realized everything had to be different, and they happened to discover the difference maker. “It was almost a miracle,” says White, “that Jim Plunkett showed up at Stanford exactly as we were searching for a new football identity.”
Four hours before a Raiders preseason game in Oakland, Plunkett can walk in relative anonymity through the smattering of fans near the stadium’s press entrance. But it’s not so much a walk as a trudge. It’s the trudge that comes from aching knees, although they’ve been better since he had bone and cartilage replaced with titanium and Teflon a couple of years ago. It’s the trudge of 15 surgeries and back pain that makes it difficult for him to stand for more than an hour at a time. His mind only replays moments; his body replays every minute of damage.
Once in the press box, he growls “lousy” when asked how he’s feeling. But he’s quick to turn conversations into the kind of comedic sparring he perfected in locker rooms. “I’m 10 years older than you,” says a sportswriter celebrating his 72nd birthday. “You look a lot worse than that,” Plunkett responds.
Plunkett’s pro career started promisingly after the New England Patriots made him the No. 1 pick in the 1971 draft. He was named Rookie of the Year that first season, but little worked out for either him or the team from that point on, and he took a steady beating behind the Pats’ weak offensive line. “Years of getting my butt kicked,” Plunkett says.
He was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in 1976, released two seasons later, then signed by the Raiders. When starting quarterback Dan Pastorini suffered a broken leg early in the 1980 season, Plunkett stepped in and led the Raiders all the way to a 27-10 Super Bowl victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, throwing three TD passes and becoming the game’s most valuable player. In 1983, Marc Wilson was the Raiders starter who went down hurt, and Plunkett again came off the bench, and again spurred the team to a Super Bowl championship, a 38-9 trouncing of the Washington Redskins. He played for the last time in 1986, his injuries and pain settling the issue.
He’s still connected to the Raiders. During the NFL season, Plunkett co-hosts the team’s weekly TV program, The Silver and Black Show, and he sits with owner Al Davis during games. It’s another thread of allegiance in a life emblazoned by attachments formed under exceptional circumstances.
Harbaugh, who has a reverence for football tradition, is emphatic about Plunkett’s identity now. “I said iconic,” notes Harbaugh, “but he lives it with such little fanfare. He gives of his time, his energy, his money, and he’s got a genuine humility. He’s a good guy.”
And then there’s family. For any number of questions about what sustains Plunkett, what fulfills him, there is just one answer: “I love my wife. I love my daughter.”
In 2009, Jim, Gerry and their daughter, Meghan, filmed an episode of the TV program Dog Whisperer featuring the pit bull, Gotti, that had belonged to Jimmy. After Jimmy’s death, Meghan chose to keep the dog with her in part to honor what she believed would have been her brother’s wish. When the dog began to display some nervous aggression, Meghan despaired. “Our daughter was very upset; she didn’t want to feel she was letting Jimmy down,” says Plunkett. “The show became kind of a tribute to him.”
In the family’s home, one room is dedicated to Plunkett’s accomplishments. Prominent among the photos and memorabilia is a famous trophy depicting a football player in a classic stiff-arm pose. When Gerry Plunkett recently won her sixth Stanford Women’s Golf Club championship—she and Jim are avid players —she told friends that an appropriate celebration should have included temporarily covering up her husband’s Heisman, just to emphasize her moment in the spotlight.
Hearing the story again, Jim Plunkett, the One and Only, smiles and rolls his eyes to his wife’s amusement. Nothing got draped over the Heisman.
Also on Stanford Knowledgebase: