A New Light On An Old Poll

Jan. 23, 1984
Jan. 23, 1984

Table of Contents
Jan. 23, 1984

Ski Team
The Masters
Super Bowl Preview
The Sneaker War
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

A New Light On An Old Poll

After many a year Joe Theismann still has a Heisman bone to pick with Jim Plunkett, in Super Bowl XVIII.

Notre DameStadium. A sunny fall afternoon, 1969. Whack! Joe Theismann's first pass in thefirst game of his junior year hits me in the chest. I'm playing rightcornerback for Northwestern and I stagger forward until I'm crushed by severalNotre Dame offensive linemen.

This is an article from the Jan. 23, 1984 issue Original Layout

Jones Stadium,Lubbock, Texas. A hot summer night, 1971. The Coaches' All-America Game. I'mplaying strong safety for the East, and I back into the right-side curl area. Iraise my hands, catch a ball and run it into West territory. I've intercepted aJim Plunkett pass.

Sure, everybody'sscrambling for an angle on the two Super Bowl quarterbacks, and some of theangles are pretty loose, and maybe mine is, too. But hey, it's mine. And I'musing it because I absolutely guarantee not another sports-writer in the worldhas intercepted passes from the two starting quarterbacks of any Super Bowl, nomatter when.

I mention this toPlunkett the day after the Raiders beat Seattle for the AFC Championship, andhe shrugs. He's sitting outside the Raiders' locker room in the L.A. suburb ofEl Segundo, wearing a T shirt promoting a Bay Area marathon he ran in lastyear. The marathon nearly finished him. "I didn't recover for a month,"he says. Why did he run? "Said I'd do it, so I did it," he snaps.

That's Plunkett.Honest, curt, no baloney. My interception means nothing to him. He doesn'tremember it, doesn't try to remember it. "One of many," he says.

Two days later,Joe Theismann and I are taking the air shuttle from New York to Washington,D.C. The Redskins had beaten San Francisco for the NFC title the previousSunday and now Theismann is returning from a banquet in Manhattan at which hereceived the Professional Football Writers of America Most Valuable PlayerAward for 1983.

Theismann's cufflinks are gold numeral 7s, his jersey number. On his right hand he wears lastyear's Super Bowl championship ring, a diamond-studded monster. If the Redskinswin the Super Bowl this year, Theismann says he'll definitely wear both ringsat the same time, "maybe on the same finger."

Theismann doesn'tremember my interception, either. He was a gambler in college, alwaysscrambling, always trying for big plays. He had a high completion rate, but hethrew a lot of interceptions, too. He was so skinny then, and he always woreeye-black on his cheeks (he still does) and he just reeked arrogance as hecrouched behind the center.

"We killedyou in that game, didn't we?" says Theismann, grinning. Yes. The finalscore was 35-10, Notre Dame. And that's it: Joe Theismann won, and the restdoesn't count.

It's Nov. 24,1970, and the Heisman votes are in. Plunkett and Theismann are seniors and thetwo top candidates for the award. Archie Manning of Ole Miss was up there withthem, but he broke his left arm two weeks ago and now he's a long shot.Theismann thinks the voting resembles a political election. When he hears theresults he's devastated: Stanford's Plunkett, by a lot.

"When I foundout I'd finished second to Jim, I was genuinely crushed," says Theismannnow. "I said all the right things, but it hurt. I admire a guy like EdMarinaro, who finished second in the Heisman voting in 1971 and said somethinglike, 'Damn, I don't like this! I should have won.' That's how I felt."

Plunkett wantedto win, too, but he wasn't as passionate about it.

"I wanted theHeisman, but my whole life wasn't centered on it," Plunkett says. "Thepressure during my last year in school was bad. I couldn't concentrate onanything because of all the interviews and things. After a while I felt likesaying, 'Hey, leave me alone!' "

It has been along time since that 1970 Heisman, but its effects are still with the twoquarterbacks. I remember how good each of them was then. They're engaged in anew campaign this week, but it seems to me it's a lot like the old one.

They called 1970the Year of the College Quarterback. Plunkett, Theismann, Manning, Lynn Dickey,Scott Hunter, Ken Anderson, Rex Kern, Dan Pastorini, Chuck Hixson—fine helmsmenwere everywhere. "This could be the greatest year for drafting quarterbacksin the history of pro football," wrote the Dallas Cowboys' chief personnelman, Gil Brandt, in a preseason magazine.

Plunkett andTheismann were very much aware of each other. Before the season they'd gone toChicago, along with Manning and Kern, to pose for a cover shot for Sportmagazine. Each then went on to have a stellar season. Plunkett completed 53% ofhis passes for 2,715 yards and 18 TDs, and led Stanford to an 8-3 record and anupset win over Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Both his career total yardage andpassing yardage (7,887 and 7,544) set NCAA records.

Theismann ledNotre Dame to a 9-1 record, a Cotton Bowl win and AP's No. 2 national ranking.That season he completed 58% of his passes for 2,429 yards and 16 TDs, andbroke most of Notre Dame's passing and total offense records.

Even before theHeisman race heated up, observers were acquainted with the remarkable contrastbetween Plunkett and Theismann. Plunkett, from San Jose, Calif., the son ofblind parents of Mexican-American descent, was the big—6'3", 205pounds—prototype drop-back passer. Shy, reserved, stoic, he was described byone pro scout as "a big, strong boy who can take a beating." Somber andcuriously uptight, Plunkett burned with a fire no one could quite gauge.

Theismann, on theother hand, was "Methodist Joe" of the Golden Dome, a hyper, mouthyyoungster from a working-class Protestant family in South River, N.J. Theismannsays that "as a kid I always played with older kids, so I got used to beingout of my environment." When he set off for South Bend as a 5'11",148-pound freshman, a local New Jersey paper headlined a story: LITTLE JOE TOGET KILLED AT NOTRE DAME.

Even as a 6-foot,170-pound senior he looked as though he was in constant jeopardy on the field.But nobody ever got a clean shot at him, and in 1970 he carried the ball moreoften than any other Irish runner. He was just a natural athlete: He could dunka basketball with two hands and play third base well enough to get offers fromthe major leagues. And if you wanted to know more, all you had to do was askhim.

Both Stanford andNotre Dame were concerned about maintaining dignity during the Heismancampaign. Ole Miss's campaign for Manning had started with a mere poster in thespring of '70. But the entire South caught Archie Fever, and ultimately therewere Archie buttons, life-size Archie balloons, Archie burgers, even a recordcalled The Ballad of Archie Who. The torrent of gimmicks was so heavy that itstunned and embarrassed Manning himself. "The only thing I can figure outis that Archie is a different name," he said at the time. "Maybe if itwere Bill or something, none of this would have started."

But it had, andStanford and Notre Dame knew they couldn't sit still. Sports informationdirectors, after all, have lost their jobs for not promoting athletes. Inmidsummer, Stanford countered the early promo barrage for Manning by sending aletter to all major sportswriters, pointing out that Plunkett's pre-1970 statswere better than Manning's. "Manning's early promotion was a huge setbackto us," says Gary Cavalli, who was a student working as the assistantsports information director at Stanford in '70 and is now the head of an adagency in Palo Alto. "But it was the thing that got us going. We didn'twant people to say Plunkett was a distant second before the footballs were evenblown up for the season."

At Notre Dame,the sports information director Roger Valdiserri had already made his mostcunning Heisman maneuver, persuading Theismann when he was a freshman to changethe pronunciation of his name from "thees-man" to "thighs-man,"as in Heisman. The wonder isn't that Theismann agreed to the change—"When Igo back to Jersey I'm still Joey 'Thees-man,' " he says—but that anyonecould have seen All-Star potential in that 18-year-old runt.

"Honest toGod, you could tell there was something extra about him even then," saysValdiserri. "He always looked like he was plugged into a 220outlet."

Valdiserrielected not to do much else. Notre Dame's games were carried over 140 TV and380 radio stations, and that seemed enough. The Irish mystique had helped winsix Heismans for Notre Dame players, including one in 1956 for Paul Hornung,whose team went 2-8, making him the only Heisman winner ever selected from alosing team. But the Irish magic faltered when Stanford got serious in the fallof '70.

"When theycame out with their brochure, the whole atmosphere changed," saysValdiserri. "Bob Murphy, their sports information director, and I keptsaying we wouldn't do that sort of thing. And then they did it."

What Stanfordproduced was a four-page, two-color print and picture foldout entitled"Stanford University's Heisman Trophy Nominee." It listed Plunkett'sfootball achievements, showed him in action and carried quotes such as this onefrom Washington State coach Jim Sweeney: "Jim Plunkett is the best collegefootball player I've ever seen." It also told about Plunkett's blindparents and how he "often worked long hours in high school as a groceryclerk, gas station attendant and paper boy to help his family earn aliving."

"Murph wantedto put out a brochure earlier," recalls Cavalli. "But I said, 'Let'swait until he's set an NCAA record.' So after we beat Washington State 63-16and Plunkett threw a 96-yard TD pass to [Randy] Vataha, thereby setting thealltime NCAA career total offense mark, we brought it out. Jim felt veryuncomfortable with the publicity. But we said, 'Jim, if we don't put this out,you won't have a chance at getting the honors you deserve.' We didn't want himto feel so uncomfortable about it, but we felt if Stanford stood still, Jimwould be swallowed up by the other guys."

The brochure metwith enthusiastic media response. It was reprinted in several major newspapersand displayed on an NBC national newscast. But even as he sent it out, Cavallihad doubts. "I think it only cost $236 to produce, and it wasn'tglossy," he says. "But I was worried that maybe we'd overdoneit."

After the Heismanvotes had been cast, Stanford lost its last game of the season to Cal, and onNov. 28, four days after Plunkett had won the award, Theismann played the bestgame of his college career. In a 38-28 loss to Southern Cal in pouring rain, hecompleted 33 of 58 passes for 526 yards, threw for two TDs and ran for twomore. Some sportswriters felt the Heisman balloting had come too soon. Othersbelieved the voters had been unduly swayed by Plunkett's rags-to-richesstory.

Plunkett simplyfelt relieved that it was all over. He was taken as the first player in the NFLdraft, by the Patriots, and after a fine first season was voted the 1971 NFLRookie of the Year. Theismann took a much different road. He wasn't drafteduntil the fourth round, by the Miami Dolphins, and rather than ride the pinebehind Bob Griese, he joined the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian FootballLeague, where he played quarterback, returned punts and fumed.

"The thing Iwas most upset about at losing the Heisman wasn't the honor, but how it meant Iwould be drafted," says Theismann. "There's no way the NFL can overlooka Heisman Trophy winner for four rounds. It was dollars out of my pocket, and Iwas already economically oriented."

After that firstpro season, Plunkett's career began to sag. The Patriots were a bad team with aweak offensive line, and Plunkett was getting battered. From 1972 to '74 he wassacked 97 times. He had several knee and shoulder operations and hisconfidence, he says, "ran into a brick wall." The Pats traded him tothe San Francisco 49ers in 1976, and after he completed no passes in 11attempts in a 1978 preseason game, they released him. "That's when Ithought I was done," says Plunkett. "I didn't think that I could playthe game anymore."

But instead ofquitting he signed on with the Raiders. He sat on the bench and healed for twoyears before leading them to the 1981 Super Bowl championship. He was namedSuper Bowl MVP that year but couldn't escape the unsettling conviction that iffirst-string quarterback Dan Pastorini hadn't broken a leg in the fifth game ofthe season, he, Plunkett, might never have played at all.

Several yearsearlier, Theismann had signed on with the Redskins and begun mouthing off. Hewanted to start in front of veterans Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer, and hewanted everyone to know it. "I'm not proud of the way I handled things backthen," he says. "But I just wanted everybody to get so sick of methey'd have to give me a shot."

When he got hischance in 1978, he seized it with a death grip. When a reporter recently saidto him, "Nobody knows who the Redskins' other two quarterbacks are,"Theismann instantly replied, "May it forever stay that way."

Theismann showsno signs of slowing down. He's 20 pounds heavier than he was at Notre Dame, andhis arm is stronger. He's still a gambler, but his seasoning shows—hisinterception rate this year (2.4%) was the lowest of his career by far.Essentially, he's doing the same things he did in college. In fact, his topreceiver at Notre Dame, Tom Gatewood, told me the other day, "The Redskinsoperate around Joe's strength just like we did at school—a lot of play action,bootlegs and rolling out, almost always faking the run before setting up tothrow." As for Plunkett, he's ideally suited to the Raiders'drop-back-and-fling-it style. His arm isn't the wonderful cannon it once was,but he has improved his short-passing game and this year had the highestcompletion percentage (60.7) of his 13-year pro career.

Off the field,Theismann now tries to harness his bubbling ego, but it's hard—he hopes youunderstand—when you're a walking conglomerate-celebrity who occasionally dineswith President Reagan at the White House. He has always wanted to be a star,and now that he is—with four agents, two restaurants, a TV show, a radio show,a newsletter, speaking engagements, endorsements and charitable acts up thewazoo—why not talk about it? "My God," marveled a TV reporter afterasking Theismann a simple question at the football writers' award ceremony,"it's like turning on a faucet!"

Plunkett rents ahouse in Hermosa Beach, near L.A., during the season, but on off days he fliesup to the Bay Area to be with his wife, Gerry, and new son, James. He tries tospend his time quietly. He never wears his Super Bowl ring, and he gave hisHeisman Trophy to his mother. "I don't need a lot of that stuffaround," he says.

There is awounded quality about Plunkett, and perhaps a little bitterness. Over what,it's hard to say. He certainly didn't like getting benched earlier this yearand then being reinstated only because Marc Wilson broke his left shoulder. Butego-battering is just a routine part of pro ball. It's possible Plunkett isoverly sensitive—overly decent—for such a brutish game, and always hasbeen.

When Manningbroke his arm in 1970, Plunkett went to Murphy and said they ought to sendArchie a telegram. Murphy wrote: "Sorry about your broken arm. I was hopingwe could fight it out to the very end." Plunkett didn't like that, soMurphy told him to write the telegram himself. Plunkett wrote: "Sorry aboutyour broken arm. It's a shame you couldn't end your college career the way youhave always played—brilliantly."

Theismann looksat an old picture in the file I've collected for this story. It's of Plunkettas a Stanford undergrad, smiling as he whips the ball in classic form.

"He can'tthrow like that anymore," says Theismann knowingly. "The guy's beenbeat up."

And so hasTheismann. He has temporary caps on a couple of his teeth, and his nose hasbeen broken seven times. But he's also been beaten emotionally. By Plunkett.There was the 1971 Hula Bowl, for instance, in which Plunkett playedquarterback and Theismann just ran back punts.

"All thatstuff happened so long ago," Theismann says. "Neither of us had anycontrol over it. It doesn't have anything to do with now."

But a littlelater he admits, "I'd hoped it would come down to this. And you know why?Because at 35 out of every 50 banquets I go to I'm introduced as the HeismanTrophy winner. Maybe it's because my name rhymes with it. But the first thing Ihave to do is stand up and set the record straight. I don't like beingrecognized for something I didn't do."

Well, I'd like tobe recognized for something I did do—make those interceptions. But thequarterbacks aren't interested, so like everyone else, I'll settle for watchingthem set their records straight this Sunday. May the best candidate win.

TWO PHOTOSThe Heisman pick in 1970, Plunkett is now going after the NFL's big one, the Lombardi.THREE PHOTOSFriends back in Jersey still say Theismann, as in knees-man, despite his switcheroo.TWO PHOTOSTheismann-to-Gatewood beats the author (above).PHOTOPlunkett's arm was strong at Stanford...PHOTO...but with the Patriots his body took a beating.TWO PHOTOSTheismann was 20 pounds lighter at Notre Dame, but even then he talked a big game.