On a January night in 1993, Arizona State football coach Bruce
Snyder sat slumped at the edge of his bed in a budget motel room
in Boise, Idaho, every minute of his 52 years weighing on him
like a slab of granite. He had flown in from Phoenix that
afternoon and ridden through a snowstorm to visit the rural home
of an 18-year-old high school quarterback named Jake Plummer.
Following the meeting Snyder had trudged into the wet snow--in a
business suit, without boots, gloves or topcoat--and pushed a
rented Cadillac driven by assistant coach Bobby Petrino down a
dirt driveway and across a narrow wooden bridge to the pavement
on Hill Road.
For all that effort Snyder had not even gotten an oral
commitment from Plummer, a shaggy, skinny, 6'2", 170-pound kid
who had already told a local television station and a national
recruiting magazine that he was probably going to sign with
Washington State. It was almost 11 p.m. Snyder's ruined shoes
were stuffed against a heater, and the frustrations of his
life's work had been encapsulated in one cold evening.
"I'd just finished a hard year of coaching [his first at Arizona
State, in which the Sun Devils had gone 6-5], and now I'm away
from my family, I've ruined a new, $300 pair of shoes, and for
what? This mousy little kid with long hair who might not turn
out to be any good? Who knows with recruits? Maybe somebody knew
with Bo Jackson, but usually you don't know. And I didn't think
Jake was going to call me back. I don't know if it was
depression, but I was definitely taking an inventory of my life
and my career."
As if on cue, the phone rang. In the 30 minutes since Snyder had
slogged away from the Plummer home, Jake had talked with his
mother, Marilyn, his father, Steve, his 24-year-old brother,
Brett, and his coach at Boise's Capital High, Steve Vogel. Jake
had thought about the silly little board game, a recruiting
gimmick, that Snyder had set up on the Plummers' living room
floor. Snyder had asked Jake to compare Arizona State with
Washington State in all 12 categories on the game board, among
them WEATHER, EARN DEGREE and, most important to Plummer,
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP. The Sun Devils had come out ahead. Now
Plummer was calling Snyder to invite him back through the snow
to accept his scholarship offer. Signing day was weeks away, so
when Snyder reached the house, he and Plummer sealed their
agreement with an embrace. "Welcome to the family," Snyder said.
November 4, 1996
"I'm a Sun Devil," Plummer told his friends the next day at
He was one player among many that Snyder would land that winter,
just another wisp of potential, albeit at a vital position. A
little shy of midnight in Boise, Snyder collapsed on his stiff
motel bed, victorious, exhausted, most of all uncertain. "Even
at the moment you do something, in recruiting and probably in a
lot of jobs," says Snyder, "you seldom appreciate how important
it might be, how much it might mean down the road."
Nearly four years later Snyder knows. It has led to the
development of a frail recruit into a Heisman Trophy candidate
and an NFL prospect, to the rebirth of a program, to the
elevation of a coaching career and to the sweetest, most
improbable story of this college football season, this autumn's
Northwestern. It has meant everything.
In last Saturday's 41-9 waxing of Stanford, Plummer, now
familiar to Sun Devils fans as Snake, completed 21 of 34 passes
for 316 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for another score, a
routine performance in a season that has defied convention. The
Sun Devils, ranked No. 4, are 8-0, their most impressive win
having been an epochal 19-0 upset of then No. 1-ranked Nebraska
on Sept. 21, and they are on pace to make their first Rose Bowl
appearance since 1987. Three times Plummer has virtually dragged
Arizona State to victory by force of his will, first in a
season-opening, last-play 45-42 win over Washington and then in
successive, desperate comeback victories over UCLA and USC.
"He's this thoroughbred, running fast, and we've just jumped on
his back," says Sun Devils quarterbacks coach John Pettas.
After Saturday's victory Plummer walked briskly up a steep
hillside leading from the visitors' locker room at Stanford
Stadium to a wide, full parking lot. He pulled the sleeves of
his white turtleneck over his hands to fight the steady, cool
breeze and wore a baseball cap turned backward. At the gate to
the lot Plummer was besieged for autographs. He signed hats,
programs and posters, affixing to each a scribbly Jake "the
At last he pulled free and crunched across dry leaves to meet
his family and friends, two dozen strong. Theirs was a brief
celebration, percolating with fresh energy, the by-product of
sudden success. Steve Plummer hugged his son and then stepped
back from the scrum. "What a year," he said. "What a wild year."
Plummer is a senior who has started 36 consecutive games,
beginning in the middle of his true freshman year, but only now
has he seized Arizona State by its collective throat and carried
it into contention for the Pac-10 title, the Rose Bowl and the
national championship. "The way he performs under pressure, I
think he'd make a great emergency room surgeon," says Kirk
Robertson, Arizona State's fifth-year senior center and a
zoology major. "He's got the kind of personality I'd like to see
in somebody working on me in that situation." Adds senior Juan
Roque, the Sun Devils' 6'8", 320-pound All-America left tackle,
"We would follow Jake anywhere."
A rare few college football players have about them an
indefinable magic. Having this magic doesn't mean they will win
the Heisman (some do, some don't) or become pro stars (ditto),
only that they will make memories and sometimes create victories
from dust. Archie Manning was such a player at Ole Miss. So were
Doug Flutie at Boston College and Tommie Frazier at Nebraska.
Plummer has the magic. He has grown to 192 pounds, but he is
neither strong (250 pounds, max, in the bench press) nor fast
(4.9 for the 40). His gifts are subtle: courage, quick feet,
quicker release and an ethereal cool that deepens in the fourth
Having led Arizona State to 12 wins in its last 13 games, he has
become a folk hero of sorts. In Phoenix, country music radio
station KMLE has fashioned a song about him. After the victory
over Southern Cal, Trojans coach John Robinson compared Plummer
with Joe Montana. The next day, after Arizona Cardinals
quarterback Kent Graham scrambled for 40 yards on six carries in
a victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he said, "I was just
trying to be like Jake Plummer." That night Plummer went grocery
shopping at 11 o'clock and signed autographs in the store for 15
minutes. All of this adoration, all of this esteem, all this
success leaves Plummer uncharacteristically flat-footed. "I
don't know how to explain what's happening this year," he says.
"I'm just pretty much going full speed, every game, every play.
There isn't any time to think about it. Right now I guess I feel
like I'm bulletproof."
They would laugh at all this in Boise, where Jason Steven
Plummer was born, the youngest of Marilyn and Steve Plummer's
three sons. They would laugh because for so many years Jake was
a scrawny tagalong, the youngest of nine male cousins living in
Boise. Yet they would understand, too, because Jake grew strong
from the experience of getting beaten in various games, until he
was the fiercest competitor of them all. On the Thursday before
this year's game against Stanford, a cluster of friends and
family members gathered in Marilyn's kitchen (Marilyn and Steve
were divorced in 1983, when Jake was eight; she raised Jake, but
he remains close to his father, a lumber wholesaler who lives in
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho) and traded tales of Jake's youth. On one
point they all agreed: "We watch these comebacks every weekend
and say, 'We've seen him do this since he was 12,'" said family
friend Robert Wikle.
Marilyn and Steve were sufficiently countercultural ("I guess
you could call us hippies," says Marilyn) that in 1977, when
Jake was three, they moved their family from Boise to the tiny
community of Smiley Creek (pop. 50), in the foothills of the
Sawtooth Mountains in south-central Idaho. The town was so small
that Marilyn taught kindergarten through fourth grade in a
two-room schoolhouse. During their three years in the town Jason
became Jake, courtesy of Buzz Cheatam and Jody Robb, a couple
who operated the Smiley Creek Lodge. When little Jake would
scurry about filling salt shakers and the like, they called him
Jaker Baker the Money Maker. The Snake nickname came later, when
Jake was in seventh grade. His next-oldest brother, Eric, three
years Jake's senior, gave him former NFL quarterback Kenny (the
Snake) Stabler's autobiography and threw in the nickname as part
of the deal. "Good thing I became a scrambler," says Jake.
Smiley Creek forged in all the Plummer boys an independence that
grew into athletic competitiveness. Yet Jake possessed something
extra: not just the nimble feet that would make him such an
adept scrambler, but also a passion for playing. When he was 11
he tore up a youth football game, making more than 20 tackles in
an effort to impress his father, who was in Boise for the game.
"He was one of the littlest kids on the field, and he was just
killing everybody," says Brett. "Halfway through the game he was
crying, because he was so pumped up."
Three years later, during an evening session of summer pickup
basketball in Coeur d'Alene, 14-year-old Jake was the youngest
member of a team that included his brothers. "We're playing this
really good team of older guys from Spokane," says Brett. "I'm
nervous, because these guys can play, but Jake just comes out
and starts hitting three-pointers. That's when I figured he
might be a little different."
In the last game of his high school football career, Jake drove
Capital 80 yards in the final 90 seconds to an apparent tying
touchdown against Pocatello High in the Idaho Class A1 title
game. A missed extra point left Capital a point short, 14-13.
His physical presence impressed nobody when he arrived at
Arizona State--"I saw him, and I thought, This skinny white kid
is our savior?" says senior wideout Keith Poole, who caught 10
passes for 161 yards on Saturday--but Plummer started the sixth
game of his freshman year and hasn't been displaced since. He
grew like any young quarterback. The Sun Devils went 6-5 that
season but 3-8 the next. Last year's 6-5 record included three
Pac-10 losses by a total of eight points, an encouraging sign.
Through all the defeats Plummer did not lose any of his
competitiveness, on the football field or off. Last spring his
girlfriend, Sonia Flores, a 22-year-old Arizona State senior,
beat him in a game of H-O-R-S-E. "He was so mad, I just turned
my back so he couldn't see my face," says Flores. When USC
freshman linebacker Chris Claiborne intercepted one of his
passes in this season's game with the Trojans, Plummer tried to
lay a big hit on the 235-pound Claiborne, who instead drilled
Plummer in the neck and shoulder, leaving him stiff for a week.
"He's a good Gumby," said Arizona State trainer Perry Edinger,
referring to Plummer's rubbery, resilient body, as he worked on
the quarterback's neck four days before the game with Stanford.
Plummer, lying on the padded table and occasionally groaning,
sounded as if he planned to be more prudent about trying to
level defensive players in the future. "I've learned, I'm no
hitter," he said. But on Saturday, after throwing his only
interception of the game, there was Plummer, searching for a
defensive tackle who had been tormenting him for much of the day.
This competitiveness has value: It discourages submission and
fuels comebacks. Eight times in his career Plummer has brought
the Sun Devils back from fourth-quarter deficits, never letting
a game or a play die without a struggle. "Jake is like the
little kid at recess who cuts open his arm and still wants to
keep playing," says friend Isaiah Mustafa, a Sun Devils wide
receiver. "Jake never wants recess to end."
Stanford learned. With Saturday's game still young and
scoreless, Cardinal linebacker Brian Batson blitzed and arrived
untouched at Plummer's right side. Seemingly doomed, Plummer
stepped inside Batson--"Just trying to stay alive," he said
later--and threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to J.R. Redmond.
Batson was left flailing, empty-handed, trying to do what can't
be done this autumn, trying to catch a Snake with his bare hands.