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Sport: Saturday’s Hero

6 minute read

The hero is a poor Mexican-American kid. He delivers newspapers to help support his parents, both of whom are blind. At age 14, he enters a schoolboy contest, and, while officials look on in disbelief, he flips a football 63 yds. He soon becomes a star high school quarterback, rushing from practice each day to work long hours as a gas-station attendant and grocery-store clerk. A scout from a big college watches the hero passing and shouts: “Lookit the ball! Lookit where the ball is! Right on the chest every time!” The hero wins a scholarship to a big college and, overcoming injuries and a serious operation, wins a starting assignment. A crisis arises when pro scouts storm the hero’s frat house and try to persuade him to turn pro. But the hero refuses. He tells his coach that he will play out his final year to help the team and set a good example for youth. “I rate team achievements,” he says, “above individual attainments.” The hero breaks school, conference and national passing records, wins the Heisman Trophy as the most outstanding college football player in the U.S. Then, in a slambang finale, he leads his team to a thrilling upset victory in the Rose Bowl.

The scenario is straight out of the Late Late Show. It is the kind of rah-rah rouser that might have starred Pat O’Brien as the coach and Ronald Reagan as Saturday’s hero. Yet it all happened—all, that is, except the finale. Last week Jim Plunkett of Stanford University won the Heisman Trophy by a large margin. But the climax of his college career will not come until New Year’s Day, when he will lead the Indians to their first Rose Bowl in 18 years. Stanford will meet unbeaten Ohio State in a classic confrontation that will pit Plunkett’s passing against the Buckeyes’ vaunted running attack.

If anyone is capable of providing a Hollywood finish to this year’s Rose Bowl, it is Plunkett. In three seasons. he has completed a remarkable 55% of his passes (530 out of 962 attempts) for 7,544 yds. and 52 touchdowns. His career mark of 7,887 yds. in total offense eclipsed by an astounding 1,319 yds. the N.C.A.A. record set last year by North Texas State’s Steve Ramsey. A shrewd field general, Plunkett has a sharp eye for reading defenses, and his strapping size (6 ft. 3 in., 210 Ibs.) allows him to shake off tacklers as though they were so many rag dolls. “Plunkett is the best drop-back passer I’ve seen in college football,” says U.C.L.A. Coach Tommy Prothro. “He has real strength and good speed. If you go all out to blitz him, he’ll eat you alive.” Adds University of Oregon Coach Jerry Frei, a 33-10 victim of Plunkett’s passing: “I’m very happy to see him graduate.”

Mark of Zorro. Plunkett is happy to have the opportunity to graduate. His late father, afflicted with progressive blindness, was a news vendor who had to support his sightless wife along with Jim and two older daughters. Raised in San Jose, Calif., Plunkett chose for his childhood hero Zorro, the Spanish Robin Hood. (Plunkett says that he is 90% Mexican; an Irish-German great-grandfather passed on the Anglo surname.) He became seriously interested in football at the age of 14, when he grew to 5 ft. 11 in. and 150 Ibs., an advantage that helped him star in basketball, baseball, track and wrestling as well. At Stanford, though, his size almost caused a change in careers. Weakened by a thyroid operation, Plunkett was so unimpressive as a freshman quarterback that Coach John Ralston wanted to switch him to defensive end. But Plunkett was adamant. “I,” he informed Ralston, “am a quarterback.”

Determined to prove it, Plunkett went home that summer and “worked my tail off. I threw almost every day to my old high school receivers.” He worked even harder in his sophomore year as a “redshirt,” practicing with the varsity but not playing in any games —so that he would have an additional year of eligibility. Finally, he started his first varsity game in 1968 against San Jose State College. Connecting on 10 out of 13 passes for 277 yds., he buried San Jose by throwing for four touchdowns and running for a fifth. A few spectacular performances later, and the usually blase Stanford fans took up a new chant: “Plunkett to ’em!” Though hobbled by a knee injury in his last seven games that season, he completed 142 out of 268 passes, for 2,156 yds. and 14 touchdowns.

Ten for 15. The next season he exploded for 2,673 yds. and 20 touchdowns, breaking virtually every passing record in the Pacific Eight Conference. This season, deftly mixing short bullets with long bombs, Plunkett was all but untouchable. In the opener he led Stanford to a 34-28 win over Arkansas by constantly outfoxing the defense. Noting that Plunkett completed ten first-down passes in 15 third-down situations, Arkansas Coach Frank Broyles marveled: “That’s great quarterbacking!”

Against Southern Cat, a team that Stanford had not beaten in twelve years, Plunkett completed a remarkable 61% of his passes to down the Spartans 24-14. Said U.S.C. Coach John McKay afterward, “Plunkett is not just a drop-back passer. He can roll out, run when he’s in trouble, and get rid of the ball with guys hanging all over him.”

Plunkett figures to have the pro scouts hanging all over him throughout the winter. “He could play for the pros right now,” says the Dallas Cowboys’ Gil Brandt. “He’ll undoubtedly be the first guy selected in the draft.” Far from resenting the publicity heaped on Plunkett, his teammates regard him as their personal property. “If anyone ever got by me and hurt Jim,” says Offensive Tackle Bill Meyers, “I think I’d turn in my uniform.” After cinching the Rose Bowl bid, Stanford lost its final two games —a letdown that the players regretted because “it might hurt Jim in the Heisman voting.” It did not. Historically, Heisman winners have not fared well in the pros. But that is one trend Plunkett aims to correct: “I would like to start playing immediately,” he says. “I don’t want to come up to the pros and sit on the bench. You can’t win there.”

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