I knew Oakland Quarterback Jim Plunkett was shy and guarded around people he didn't know. To break the ice at our first interview, I decided I would tell him that we had once played football against each other, which we had, at the 1971 Coaches All-America Game in Lubbock, Texas. I assumed he wouldn't remember me (no one remembers defensive backs), but I felt that, by bringing up our shared experience, I might remove certain barriers between us.
I reminded Plunkett of the game. I told him I had even intercepted one of his passes during it. (This was true, though I mentioned it only for ironic, even humorous, purposes. Obviously, I had never been a threat to Plunkett's career.)
Plunkett shrugged. He may have sighed.
"One of many," he said of the interception. The discussion was over. The barriers hadn't moved an inch.
Plunkett, like an increasing number of pro athletes, doesn't want to be bothered by the press. It was clear during my entire stay in the Bay Area that Plunkett didn't want to talk to me, that he was doing so only out of courtesy. Like other athletes, Plunkett has grown weary of being analyzed in print, of having certain things in his past brought up again and again. "If I ask you anything you've never been asked before, will you let me know?" I said. "I will," he replied. I never did.
In my story on Plunkett, the 1981 Super Bowl MVP and NFL Comeback Player of the Year, I described him as "brooding." I have since learned that Plunkett didn't like that description, and maybe he is justified.
Is he brooding? Brooding is an adjective, a judgement. The word means "pondering in a troubled or morbid way." Plunkett seemed like a brooding individual to me. But the judgement was mine.
In a sense, what that means is that I am more responsible for a certain public's opinion of Plunkett than he is. This is a big power for a sportswriter to have.
I have never been a star athlete whose story was coveted by the media. And if I were, I'm not sure that I would talk openly with reporters, or let them close enough to make judgements about me. You can only gain so much, but you can lose a lot. A brooding Jim Plunkett made me think of this.