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Jim Plunkett: California Split Quarterback

By Joy Horowitz

What a juxtaposition. Jim Plunkett, the player to Jim Plunkett, the man. It's a wonder that the two can co-exist.

On the line of scrimmage, you've got the New England Patriot's aggressive, loud, and confident quarterback who can deftly read defensive formations, call his own plays and execute them gracefully. At home, you see a man of few words, who matter-of-factly offers you a Michelob in a quiet and self-conscious manner.

In tense goal-to-goal situations, Plunkett is poised and powerful. Sitting in his modest Chestnut Hill apartment, he's ill-at-ease and soft-spoken. He'll crack a smile about as often as he'll fumble a football--hardly ever.

With pigskin in hand, the 6 ft.-2 in. Californian is cool and smooth. With a telephone cord nervously wrapped between his knockwurst sized fingers, the high cheekbones, battered nose, and crack between the front teeth express discomfort and tension.

So it's no surprise that the Patriots' Number 16 is quick to discuss football and is just as quick to end conversation about his personal life.

It's also no surprise that he would pick Joe Namath as the quarterback for whom he has the most respect because Namath plays injured. "A guy's got a lot of guts to go out there week after week knowing that the next time he gets hit, it may be the last time because he might not be able to walk again," Plunkett says.

One can't help but wonder, though, if Plunkett's respect for Namath isn't also laced with a deep-seated desire to be as "gutsy" or flashy as the charismatic Broadway Joe--off the field as well as on. Plunkett's walk-on role in the newly released movie, Airport 1975, may be a step in that direction--he brashly tells a stewardess that the Pats will go "all the way" this season.

Though Plunkett's past performance on the gridiron has been more conservative than flashy, it obviously speaks for itself. The honors and accolades have been heaped on him. During his career at Stanford, where he majored in political science, he shattered NCAA records, beat Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, made every All-American team, and won the Maxwell Award as well as the highly-touted Heisman Trophy.

During his first year with the Pats, he earned Rookie-of-the-Year honors. And, of course, he's been instrumental in leading the young Patriot team to a possible shot at the Super Bowl this year. He is ranked third in the NFL efficiency ratings with a passing record of 53 per cent--180 attempts and 96 completions for 1366 yards with 14 touchdowns.

Even opposing coaches have nothing but praise for the young quarterback. Lou Saban, head coach of the Buffalo Bills and former Patriots coach, says, "Jim Plunkett is certainly one of the fine young quarterbacks in professional football. He is an intelligent player with outstanding tools. He particularly impresses us with his ability to read defenses and to set up and deliver the ball before the pass rush can reach him."

But Plunkett's athletic triumphs and praise have been matched with personal hardships. His Mexican-American mother, who lives in San Jose, Calif., is blind as was his part-Irish father who ran a tobacco shop before he died in 1969. Plunkett and his two older sisters helped to support their family when they were on welfare. In high school, he worked in gas stations and grocery stores, and between summers in college, he joined construction crews.

The combination of professional glory and personal pathos has had a humbling effect on Plunkett. Though he'll readily admit to being "one of the best in the NFL," he modestly attributes the Pats' success this season to Coach Chuck Fairbank's 3-4 defense, rather than to his ability at calling plays--something which he didn't do in years past.

"Calling the vast majority of the plays is better for the team as well as me. It's a lot less mechanized and makes the game more of a game," Plunkett says. "I also don't have to wait for a play to be called in, which causes me great anxiety."

"But the defense is the major reason why we've been winning. We don't have to take chances on the offense. We can punt the ball away knowing that we'll probably get it back not in eight minutes, but in two."

Plunkett's respect for Fairbanks is equalled only by his fondness for former Stanford coach, John Ralston, now with the Denver Broncos. "John Ralston is personable and mingles with the people, whereas Coach Fairbanks doesn't say much to anybody. He keeps to himself and if he says something, you'd better listen because you might not hear something for awhile. They're both tremendous organizers. But Coach Fairbanks has more authority as head coach than any coach we've had before."

Though he's gained 739 yards rushing in four years (averaging 5.2 yards per run) Plunkett prefers not to run with the ball. "I don't mind running on the option play, but would rather pitch out," he says. "I can't do it 10 or 15 times a game. I'd rather not take that kind of punishment."

But he's certainly endured the beatings. During the summer before his freshman year at Stanford, he had a tumor removed from his neck and doctors thought he'd never be able to play again. Since then, he's had two operations on his knees, broken his ribs several times, and suffered other minor injuries.

The injuries and operations and Plunkett's description of himself as a "day to day person" make the spectre of a sudden end to his career a real one. And though he says that he can't worry about what will happen in the future, he admits that lacking any long-range plans is a "pitfall." He simply accepts pain as a fundamental part of his profession. "You always play hurt. Most athletes play hurt."

Plunkett has also become desensitized to the mental pain of losing a game over the years. He says that he was "depressed, discouraged and questioned my own abilities" during his first couple of years with the Pats. "For awhile, [losing] hurt me just as bad and hit me just as hard as it did when I was younger because I took it so personally. But I fell I've overcome that somewhat."

Then again, it's easier to overcome losing when you're doing less of it than in previous years. The support and devotion of Patriots fans also helps. According to Plunkett, "Fans everywhere are fickle," but Boston fans are more "fanatical" than California fans. "They know their sports. They're more knowledgeable than a lot of fans throughout the country because they follow it so much more."

"Massachusetts has relatively few big-time college sports in basketball, football, or baseball. Except Harvard always wins its division in baseball but after that doesn't do anything. Since there are fewer college teams to follow here, people follow the pros."

"Boston is a good place to play for an athlete. Sure, I'd like to play out west. My friends and family are there. But I don't have the choice. And even if I played with San Francisco when I got out of college, I probably wouldn't have been able to play right away."

Plunkett's west coast bias seeps through when he admits his preference for California women, apologizes for knowing next-to-nothing about hockey, and complains about Boston weather: "I just can't stand the cold. It drives me crazy."

But besides the Boston cold, Plunkett has been dismayed by the goings-on in South Boston. He's not nearly as outspoken about the issue as teammate "Mini Mack" Herron, who has publicly denounced busing opponents Councilwoman Louise Day Hicks and School Committee Chairman John Kerrigan. Plunkett says," I think it's a sad situation. There should be more understanding. I want busing to work. Desegregation should start when kids are very young rather than later in their lives."

As for racial tension in professional football, he explains, "Racial problems are overlooked somewhat in football because people simply don't want to get cut. You hear about some teams that don't have a racial situation. If a black is ahead of a white and a white bitches or vice versa, the team is not going to be one of the best to play for."

"But our team seems to be a fairly cohesive unit. Of course, there are the cliques. Blacks mostly hang around with blacks and whites with whites. I'm the only Mexican, so I can go either way."

He may not have a strong Chicano identification or admonish disputes between teammates, but he likes to regard his profession as a controversial one, as he says sportscaster Howard Cosell does. "I like Howard. I think he's added a lot to sport broadcasting because he's controversial with his attitude that 'a sport is just a microcosm of life.' People hated him at first, but they continued to listen to him."

Still, Jim Plunket is one of the less polemical of personalities in the sports world. His devotion to his profession is unquestioned. If he has a free evening, away from reviewing films or an oversized playbook, he might spend it reading and listening to Stevie Wonder or eating at Himmy's Harborside or Charlie's. But he generally shies away from the limelight and prefers to have "little get-togethers" with teammates or friends from Stanford, including his old-time friend and favorite receiver Randy Vataha.

Another Stanford chum says of Plunkett, "He always has struck me as being more boring than exciting. He's a really shy, edgy guy. But he's loosened up a lot within the past few years."

Perhaps the "loosening up" is a prelude to Plunkett's abandonment of his solemn, almost humorless tone. But it will take some time, if ever, for the dichotomy between Plunkett the offensive player and Plunkett the defensive man to become less distinctive.

As for the off-season, when his uniform is locked up somewhere in Schaeffer Stadium, he'll be taking it easy in San Jose with his mother. and maybe it is only then that the quiet and somber Jim Plunkett can best be understood as a complete man.

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