J. Brady McCollough
J. Brady McCollough - Courtside Allen Field House


Sunday, January 22, 2006

The lone rider
 

Broncos' Plummer tries to avoid spotlight, not just Elway’s shadow


By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH

The Kansas City Star


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — This was supposed to be an answer session.

 

We were supposed to find out, once and for all, how Jake Plummer has improved enough to have his team firmly placed on the cusp of greatness.

We were supposed to get a cutesy sound bite about his hair and beard, which have become more Jesus than Mountain Man.

Last and most important, we were going to hear about how much Jake Plummer has learned from John Elway, how Plummer grew up wanting to be the next John Elway and how he has that chance today, when the Broncos play the Steelers in the AFC championship game at Invesco Field.

Instead, we found out what the city of Denver is still battling with after three years: Jason Steven Plummer leaves more questions than answers.

Wednesday at the Broncos’ Dove Valley complex, Plummer stood on the podium in a cramped media room wearing a ski cap to cover his mane. The inevitable Elway question was posed, and Plummer let out a little chuckle under his breath.

“I haven’t talked to John in a while,” Plummer says begrudgingly. “I see him around occasionally. I’ve done plenty of interviews where I talked about our relationship.”

Jake, what’s it like to play in the shadow of Elway?

“I’ve talked about that plenty of times, too,” Plummer says.

Mind talking about it again?

“Let’s keep it on the Steelers, man.”

The Elway topic seems obvious to everybody but Plummer and his Broncos teammates. When Plummer drives to work from his Englewood home, he passes John Elway Subaru South, John Elway Toyota and John Elway Dodge to his left on Arapahoe Blvd.

Of course, Plummer has never pulled off into the Elway Toyota lot and mingled with the shoppers. But he probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the man wearing a Broncos sweatshirt on Friday afternoon is not ready to buy a car from Jake Plummer. Not yet, anyway.

“I’ve bought three or four cars from Elway,” says Rick Meckstroth, a Broncos season-ticket holder. “Up until this year, I wouldn’t have bought a car from Plummer. We’ll see how many good years he has.”

Elway’s shadow is alive and well, but Plummer simply can’t see it because he’s not looking for it.

“Jake knows that he’s not John Elway,” says Broncos backup quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt, “and I don’t think he really wants to be.”

Plummer isn’t selling cars, not now, not in the future. Whatever Denver wants Plummer to be, he’s going to be the opposite. So clearly, he is not going to be Elway.

“He wants to go and be his own person,” says his mother, Marilyn Plummer. “I don’t think he’s out to create a legend for himself.”

***

 

Tall pine trees and thick bushes guard Plummer’s Englewood home. On Friday morning, they’re coated with a few fresh inches of snow. During the season, Plummer spends most of his time away from football cooped up here.

Plummer’s only respite is the wide-view window on the second floor, where he can see the beginnings of the Rocky Mountains sprawling in front of him. The mountains beckon, calling him home, reminding him that there is still more to life than watching film and hurling pigskin.

 

Plummer grew up outside of Boise, Idaho, in the foothills of the mountains that surround the city. His father, Steve, was in the lumber business and his mother was a school teacher.

 

Marilyn wanted her three boys to be different. She wanted them to experience all that life in Idaho had to offer, to think for themselves. The Plummer boys, of which Jake was the youngest, didn’t have video games because Marilyn thought Super Mario was a waste of time.

 

Instead, the Plummer boys played outside. When they got tired of traditional sports, they’d make up their own. Marilyn recalled some game where they hit golf balls off the top of a foothill. No matter what the game, Jake was the loser early on, as Brett, seven years his senior and Eric, three years older, taught him an early lesson about not giving up.

 

“I’ve seen him on the short end of many a Cardinal game,” says Eric, 34. “To his credit, I’ve never seen him mail it in. He always used to throw Hail Marys at the end of every half, trying to make something happen.”

 

The Plummers moved up to the Sawtooth Mountains for two years when Jake was younger. They couldn’t even get TV reception, but Steve would be on the roof on Monday nights, messing with the antenna so that they boys could watch “Monday Night Football.”

The boys went cross-country skiing, they backpacked in the mountains, they learned to depend on themselves in the wild.

 

“When you spend a lot of time in the mountains,” Marilyn says, “you have a confidence in yourself.”

 

As the Plummer boys aged and progressed into higher levels of school, they had their own style, which was always against the grain.

 

“All my boys are nonconformist,” Steve says. “In high school and junior high, if some clothing was popular, they’d be the last ones to wear it. They’re not trying to impress anybody.”

 

Growing up, Jake’s favorite player wasn’t Joe Montana, Dan Marino or Elway. He worshipped who else but Steve Grogan, No. 14 on the New England Patriots.

 

“I don’t know why,” says Brett, 38, laughing. “I almost bought him a throwback jersey for Christmas this year.”

 

Brett went to Brown University in Rhode Island and is now in real estate in Boise. Eric is the Managing Sports Editor of the Bonner County Daily Bee in Sandpoint, Idaho. And Jake is, well, Jake.

 

“He or his brothers will never be someone who just follows the trend or falls in line,” Marilyn says. “They’re individuals.”

 

***

 

Jake couldn’t throw a football further than Eric until his senior year at Arizona State in 1996. Once he proved he could beat his brother, he started doing the same to defenses.

 

Arizona State hadn’t been to the Rose Bowl since 1987. It was your average college football program, competing for bowl games and a conference title every once in a while. On a hot desert night in mid-September, that all changed. The Sun Devils knocked off defending national champion and No. 1 Nebraska 19-0 and “Jake the Snake” was born. Soon, there would be “Jake for Heisman” signs all over Tempe.

 

“He became a folk hero,” says John Pettas, his quarterbacks coach at Arizona State. “They were writing songs on the radio about him. None of that affected him. It was water off a duck’s back.”

 

Arizona State went undefeated but lost in a Rose Bowl thriller to Ohio State. Plummer was drafted by the hometown Arizona Cardinals, and by 1998, he had the Cardinals in the second round of the playoffs after beating Dallas in Texas Stadium.

 

The next year, though, Plummer threw nine touchdowns and 24 interceptions, and the Cardinals went 6-10. It only went downhill from there, as Jake the Snake quickly became Jake the Mistake. That confidence and swagger forged in the Sawtooth many years ago was slowly draining from Plummer.

 

“He was languishing there,” Eric says. “The last couple years, you saw he had lost a little of the fire he always had. It just seemed like it became a hapless situation for him.”

 

Plummer wanted to turn around the Cardinals like he did Arizona State. Maybe he tried too hard.

 

“It was frustrating for him,” Marilyn says, “not to be able to make a difference.”

 

After the Cardinals went 5-11 in 2002, Plummer’s contract was up, and nobody in Arizona wanted him back. He was the scapegoat for the organization’s ongoing futility.

 

Meanwhile, in Denver, an offensive genius pulled the file on Plummer, looked past his numbers and saw the raw talent that was still there. Mike Shanahan saw the mobility that Brian Griese didn’t have and had visions of a Plummer revival in the Rockies.

 

Plummer signed a seven-year, $40 million contract with the Broncos. He flew his parents in for the introductory news conference in Denver. He posed with a picture of Elway in the background.

 

At one point, he pointed to a Super Bowl ring in a display and said to Steve, “That’s why I’m here, Dad. That’s what I want.”

 

***

 

Denver appeared to be the perfect landing place for Plummer. The only true Western town left in the NFL, it would be like Idaho all over again. He’d get to go hiking or mountain biking and disappear whenever he wanted.

 

Plummer knew the pressure would increase with the altitude. What Plummer didn’t know was that he’d have his own press corps as the Broncos starting quarterback and that his personal life would be fodder for town gossip. In fact, there might not be a position as highly-scrutinized in all of professional sports.

 

“I don’t know of any place in the country where a QB’s name is on 16 car dealerships, a steak restaurant and the arena football team,” says Woody Paige, a longtime Denver Post sports columnist who now stars on ESPN’s “Cold Pizza.” “Elway has been pushed to run for governor.

 

“Denver is the biggest small town in the country. Even though it’s a metro area of 2 million, it still seems like an old dusty cow town of 100 thousand.”

 

Even Elway had to get used to Denver. As a rookie, he didn’t understand why the two local papers had columns called the “Elway Watch.” On Halloween, the papers printed what kind of candy Elway was handing out.

 

The quarterback of the Broncos is almost like the high school quarterback in a small town. Brian Griese later admitted that he had cracked under that pressure. Broncos fans worried that Plummer was going to be another Griese, Elway’s successor who had been arrested on suspicion of drunken driving and never meshed with the city of Denver.

 

“It’s a love and hate affair,” Paige says. “It’s the Wild Wild West. Broncos QBs were heroes and villains, including John Elway. He was the biggest villain in town after they lost to San Francisco 55-10 in the Super Bowl.”

 

Plummer has played the villain often in his three years in Denver, oftentimes because he tried too hard to be the hero. He threw 20 interceptions last season and was blamed for the Broncos’ failure to advance in the playoffs for a second-straight year.

 

Plummer alienated Broncos fans last season by flipping off an Invesco fan who had heckled him the entire game. This season, after a Rocky Mountain News gossip columnist wrote about Plummer dating a Broncos cheerleader, Plummer called the writer and lashed out at her for writing about his private life.

 

“You think Denver has the greatest fans?” Plummer said to her. “Well, they aren’t.”

 

Plummer wears his pride for the world to see, and Denver has feasted on it. Where Elway learned to bask in the spotlight, becoming the “Duke of Denver,” Plummer just wants to be left alone.

 

“What’s bothered him is that sometimes people have gotten the best of him,” Van Pelt says. “It’s really hard when people attack him personally. He’s thinking, ‘Let me be me. Stop trying to force me to be something I’m not. This is not cookie cutter. I’m not going to have the girlfriend you want me to have. Just get over it.’ ”

 

Two more wins, and Plummer’s wish will come true.

 

***

 

At Friday’s official pre-game news conference at the Westin downtown, the Broncos are wearing designer suits and jackets. Jake Plummer walks up to the podium sporting a long-sleeve T-shirt, jeans and hiking shoes. Upon seeing his long, flowing hair and scraggly beard, a woman yelps, “OH MY GOD!” and giggles.

 

This is Jake Plummer, the same kid who refused to wear brand-name jeans when he was younger. There is still pressure to conform, maybe even more in the image-conscious NFL, but Plummer is done with all of that.

 

“I think he would have cut the hair off a long time ago if everyone didn’t make such a big deal about it,” Marilyn says, laughing. “I really do. It’s the resistance to it.”

 

Plummer fields his questions and issues the same typical responses. He leaves with a limp and makes his way down to his vehicle of choice, a Honda Element. Plummer is on his second Element, a compact SUV that goes for around $20,000 and is known for fuel efficiency. Plummer is planning to sell that Mercedes in his garage. After all, he can’t take his two dogs anywhere in that hog.

 

While Denver laughs and rolls its eyes at Jake’s antics, the Broncos applaud him. They feel like they’re seeing the real Jake this year.

 

“I hate to say it,” Van Pelt says, “but I don’t think Jake was always himself. I think you’re just starting to see Jake be what Jake wants to be.”

 

Van Pelt says Plummer has stopped going out to public places. He sticks to his hole-in-the-wall establishments where he can feel like a normal guy. Plummer, a music lover who enjoys reggae and blues the most, is piped into the local music scene. He’ll catch a show every so often.

 

“He doesn’t really go around town anymore,” Van Pelt says. “He doesn’t want the spotlight. He wants to have fun at his house and stick by the people he respects and that respect him. He’s not going around looking for love.”

 

On the field, Plummer has put together a Pro-Bowl season, leading the Broncos to a 14-3 record. He’s thrown for 3,366 yards, 18 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.

 

“It was time for Jake to move out of the situation he was in and get a fresh start,” Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith says. “The Pro Bowl QB you see now was probably in him the whole time. He doesn’t have to be a hero on this football team.”

 

Even though success has come his way, friends and family don’t talk about football with Jake, who once told Marilyn, “Don’t be Mom Madden.” Marilyn didn’t even know that her Jake was on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week.

 

SI’s cover illustrates one crucial thing: Jake Plummer, whether he wants to be or not, is the face of the Broncos. Not Champ Bailey. Not John Lynch. Not Smith.

But does Denver have room in its heart for two quarterbacks? Maybe, maybe not. Luckily, Plummer doesn’t care. He’s not a forward thinker, and despite feeling more at home in Denver, he could just as easily ride off into the sunset of the Sawtooth Mountains when it’s all over.

Maybe that’s why Plummer has the Mile High City knocking on heaven’s door once again.

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