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For Plunkett, Honor Well-Deserved : Self-Confidence Now One of Raider Quarterback’s Strong Points

Times Staff Writer

They flew America’s still-reigning comeback kid, 37-year-old Raider quarterback Jim Plunkett, here Thursday to accept an award from The Sporting News on behalf of a deodorant company seeking to honor an athlete who exemplified self-confidence.

Plunkett was chosen in a vote of fans over fellow nominees Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mary Decker Slaney, Wayne Gretzky, Dale Murphy, Martina Navratilova and Cal Ripken Jr.

Plunkett may not be able to shoot skyhooks with Abdul-Jabbar or trade backhands with Navratilova. But after a career of being cut on, cut up and cut, period; after four shoulder operations, a trade, an outright release and several benchings, he knows something about self-confidence, all right.

And about its lack.

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And about the secret of his fabled toughness. He felt, just like everyone else. He was just willing to pay a higher price.

“I know when I’ve lost confidence, I haven’t played well,” Plunkett said before the luncheon ceremony at a restaurant off Broadway. “And when I’ve had it, there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do with a football. . . .

“I’ve had some low ebbs--when I got cut by the ‘Niners. I don’t think I ever felt any lower. . . . When I went to San Francisco, that was a new start after New England. Back to my hometown, so to speak. . . . Here I was, No. 1 pick in the draft seven years before that, and all of a sudden, I’m cut. It was as if nobody believed I could play quarterback in the NFL. . . . “When I got cut, I got calls from several NFL teams. The way I felt, being down and depressed, I wasn’t going to leave the area, pack my bags, go somewhere else. The Raiders afforded me the chance to stay there and play. . . .

“Some of the things I’ve had to endure were hard to handle, being cut. I don’t know how to explain it, but I’ve seen other people in the same situation who wound up quitting. I pondered retirement when things were going bad. When I got to San Francisco. When I got to the Raiders and Ken Stabler was playing. I pondered it heavily, ’76, ’77, ’78. . . .

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“That time in ’80 when (then-Raider quarterback Dan) Pastorini hurt his leg, I figured it was now or never. If I didn’t step in and perform when I was given the opportunity, my career might be up. If I could figure out how I did it, I’d bottle it. I don’t know what it was, whether it was just my determination to finish the game on top, rather than the bottom.”

Plunkett was the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year in 1980, not to forget Most Valuable Player in the Super Bowl victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. A scant three years later, he quarterbacked the 38-9 rout of the Washington Redskins, the Super Bowl’s most one-sided victory.

Of course, in the interim, he also lost his job to Marc Wilson and had to win it back.

And last year, coming off his second Super Bowl victory, he was hurt, sat out much of the season, got his job back for the playoffs and quarterbacked the season-ending loss in Seattle. Right now, he’s pretty sure he’s still No. 1. . . .

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“I’ve heard ‘em all,” Plunkett was saying. “Unless you guys can think of another one today. I’ve been pretty well covered. . . .

“This game is mental. You get down for whatever reason. You think the coach is slighting you. The press gets on you. It’s tough to live with.

“Like two years ago (the ’83 Super Bowl season), when I got benched (after a number of sacks). I couldn’t do anything right. I tried to drop back quicker, get rid of the ball quicker. Nothing I could do would go right. It was like hitting my head against a wall.

“Then, I didn’t play for 2 1/2 games. I sat back and told myself, ‘You’ve just got to play like heck.’

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“I got back in in the fourth quarter against Kansas City. Marc broke his shoulder. I started right away, moving the ball downfield. I called the first play wrong and had to audible to get out of it. I tried to take charge right away. Everything I called, it all worked. When you call the wrong play and it still works, you know you’re doing pretty well. . . .

“Sometimes, you have to fake it a little bit. Sometimes, your preparation isn’t good because it’s been a short week, or you can’t get a grasp on what the other team is doing. I get lost out there sometimes. I still call a play, maybe a little louder than normal. The guys will look at me and clap their hands and go to the line of scrimmage. They’re going to make it work.”

In a month, Plunkett will start his 14th training camp. Since Seattle, the Raiders have acquired one more quarterback, Rich Campbell, and were reportedly eyeing another, Bobby Hebert of the USFL’s Oakland Invaders. Plunkett says he normally goes through the veterans’ pre-camp funk--"Do I want to go through this again?"--but not this time.

“I’ve worked hard,” he said. “I’ve been throwing. I don’t throw as much as I used to. There are only so many throws in this arm, and I don’t want to waste them in spring. But if I show ‘em that I’m ready to play and start, if I show ‘em that right away. . . .

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“I ran the first unit in our mini-camp. Of course, Marc couldn’t throw normally. . . .

“I feel I’m the Raider quarterback . . . and we’ll see.”


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