In the summer of 2007 Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden flew seven hours from Tampa to Spokane. There he rented a car and drove 44 miles east to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. His traveling partner was Bruce Allen, the Bucs' general manager, and they carried with them two footballs and a pair of new cleats. Shortly after 6 p.m. the duo walked into Capone's, a sports bar in Coeur d'Alene where people gather to watch Broncos games, play pool and drink $3 Molsons.
Ten minutes later Jake Plummer and his wife, Kollette, walked in. Gruden rose and mustered all of his considerable charm, pumping Jake's hand and telling him how excited he, Jon Gruden, guru of quarterbacks, was to sit down and talk football with Jake Plummer, the ultimate gunslinger. Beers were consumed, pizzas were ordered. By and by, Gruden and Allen made their pitch. Two months earlier the Buccaneers had made a trade with the Broncos for the rights to Plummer, even though he had announced that he was retiring from the NFL at age 32. In doing so, Plummer not only walked away from the game in his prime—he'd led the Broncos to the AFC Championship Game a season earlier—but also turned down the $5.3 million he would've earned during the 2007 season.
Gruden leaned in and started selling. Join us in Tampa Bay, he said, and with our defense and your leadership we'll have a shot at the Big One. Come to Florida, he said, and you'll be the hero you could never be in Denver in the shadow of John Elway. And then the kicker: Sign with us, Gruden whispered, and we'll donate a million dollars to your Alzheimer's foundation.
Plummer looked at the two men, considered the offer and said, "That sounds sweet, man." Then he took a swig of his beer. As he did, he couldn't help but notice that, under the table, Allen had extended his fist to Gruden, who gleefully tapped it with his.
Jake Plummer never went to Tampa Bay, of course, just as he never offered his services to any other NFL team. Upon retiring in March 2007, he held a press conference at the Denver Athletic Club. Grasping a lectern, he told a crowd of reporters that he was "running away from the game" but not in "fear or fright." He credited his teammates for his success, invoked his friend Pat Tillman and pointed to his chest and promised that "there will not be a jersey with an NFL patch here." He said he was excited to move on and "take on new challenges," because "life is grand, life is exciting." Then, without taking questions, Plummer bid goodbye and walked down the hall to play a doubles handball match with his brother Eric.
And after that? Well, after that Jake Plummer pretty much disappeared, at least by the standards of modern pro athletes. He moved to Sandpoint, a town of 8,300 people in northern Idaho, a short drive from the Canadian border, where he lives five minutes from Eric and within an hour of his dad, Steve. So far Plummer hasn't surfaced to do TV commentary or Dancing with the Stars or tweet or scribble his signature at an autograph show. He hasn't hinted at a comeback, and other than to promote handball, a game his family holds near and dear, he has kept his distance from the media.
Still, in the wake of another Super Bowl, people might think about Plummer on occasion and wonder, What the hell was he thinking? After all, when asked to name their dream job, American men overwhelmingly choose pro athlete over movie star or president of the United States. And no pro athlete is as mythologized as the quarterback. He's Joe Namath guaranteeing a Super Bowl victory, Joe Montana lofting perfect spirals, Tom Brady squiring the most beautiful woman on the planet. Who in his right mind would walk away from such a job? Who requests a wake-up call from the American Dream?
Jake Plummer is amped up. It is a fall weekend in 2010, and in a few minutes he'll be playing a pro-am handball match. From his rumpled blue sports bag he pulls out a Ziploc bag full of white pellets, tosses two into his mouth and takes a swig of beer from a red plastic cup. "I know it looks nasty," he says of the spearmint-gum-and-Bud-Light combo, "but it really wakes me up."
Properly jazzed, Plummer hops onto the court and engages in a spirited warmup, leaping and raising his knees high and smacking his hands together. He is wearing a faded white T-shirt that says wonder bread, cutoff gray sweatpants, thick gray sweat socks and a grungy white headband. His hair is long and stringy, his beard robust. He looks as if he just wandered off the Appalachian Trail. Until he starts throwing, that is. Right-, then lefthanded, Plummer fires the small, hard rubber ball against the front wall of the court, loosening up his arm. The ball detonates with remarkable violence. Crack! Crack! Watching him, lean and agile and powerful at 6' 2" and about 195 pounds, it's hard not to conclude that, at 35, Jake Plummer could still be a damn good NFL quarterback.
In an hour Plummer will leave the court drenched in sweat and on his third T-shirt, grinning like a man at his own wedding and high-fiving his teammate. In 12 hours he will be at a bar with 20-odd handball players, acting as host and designated driver as they regale one another with tales of kick serves and back-wall shots and lives lived in translucent 30-by-40-foot glass boxes. And in 30 hours Plummer will be at his modest summer lake house outside Coeur d'Alene, with his dogs and his wife and his infant son, and he will be drinking a Molson and talking about why he left the NFL. But that is all to come. For now, let's go back to the last thing most Denver fans remember about Jake Plummer.