WHERE ARE they now? When the question concerns Jim Plunkett's knees, the answer is easy: Follow the pain.
On this pleasant late-June morning the former Super Bowl MVP is resting his perpetually aching joints while sitting on a bench outside a Peet's Coffee in San Mateo, Calif. Surgically repaired four times and devoid of most of their cartilage, Plunkett's knees eventually will need to be replaced. No such convenient remedy exists for his decimated left shoulder (six surgeries, can't raise his arm above the breast line), chronically sore neck (two surgeries) and various back ailments (compressed disks and spinal column, sciatica). He has trouble walking, sleeping and playing golf, especially at courses on which you have to keep the cart on the path.
"No relief," Plunkett says, grimacing. "There's never any relief. Day in, day out, I feel like crap. Don't believe anything people say about those golden years of your life. They suck."
At 57, Plunkett is paying the price for one of the more improbable careers in NFL history. In the summer of 1978 the former Heisman Trophy winner from Stanford and No. 1 pick, by the New England Patriots, was an NFL washout, having been waived by the San Francisco 49ers after two mostly excruciating seasons. Plunkett, who'd spent much of the previous year taking painkilling shots for his battered ribs, was depressed and resigned to an unhappy ending. I've got to quit, he thought to himself. I can't take this anymore.
But two weeks later the Raiders signed him as a backup, and though Plunkett asked for a trade after sitting behind Ken Stabler for two years, Oakland boss Al Davis made him stick around for the 1980 season. When new starter Dan Pastorini broke his leg in early October, Plunkett came in and rallied the Raiders from a 2-3 start all the way to a Super Bowl XV triumph over the Philadelphia Eagles. He completed 13 of 21 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns in Oakland's 27-10 victory, earning MVP honors and cementing one of the great comeback stories of that or any other season.
Plunkett wasn't through: He led the team to a second Super Bowl triumph three seasons later--the franchise's third and most recent championship--and stayed on the Raiders' roster until he was 40, finally retiring when he was waived shortly before the 1988 season.
Other than the pain, retirement has been good to Plunkett. He still owns the Stockton, Calif., Coors distributorship he bought toward the end of his days with the Raiders and still lives with his wife of 23 years, Gerry, in the first house he ever bought, in Atherton. They're a five-minute drive from his alma mater, where he serves on the seating committee for Stanford's planned stadium renovation and habitually attends on-campus sporting events ranging from football to women's golf. Plunkett has remained involved with the Raiders, appearing as an analyst on a team-produced weekly highlight show on Bay Area TV and often sitting in Davis's box on game days. He and Gerry also make frequent trips to visit their children--son Jimmy, 22, is a student at Arizona State, and daughter Meghan, 20, is an outside hitter on the Manhattan volleyball team.
Though Plunkett still works out occasionally on an elliptical machine and with weights--and though his rocket right arm, he says, remains robust--he calls himself a physical wreck. However, he hasn't stopped setting goals. "I'd like to make it until I'm 60 before I get my knees replaced," he says. "And I'm looking forward to seeing the Raiders win another Super Bowl before I move on--or, at least, before Al does."
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