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Plummer Ready for Next Step : Football: The Chargers’ overachieving linebacker figures the time has come for him to play in a Pro Bowl.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charger inside linebacker Gary Plummer said the story of his football life has been written before, and the theme never varies.

The tale is a simple one, the hook a natural.

The Gary Lee Plummer story is all about a player who never gave up on himself, no matter what he was told or how often he was ignored.

It tells of a player who was twice turned down for college scholarships, was bypassed in the NFL draft, was left without a job when the United States Football League folded in 1986 and came to the Chargers as a free agent three weeks before the start of the 1986 season. And it tells of a player who had gone on to become the leading tackler on a defense that last season ranked sixth in the NFL.

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All in all, it’s an inspiring success story about which Plummer has every reason to feel proud. And he does feel proud, but only to a point.

Plummer is ready to play a new role in his football life. The underachiever who made good was fine for 12 years. But Plummer is 30 now, the father of three. He is tired of being cast as the Little Engine That Could.

In his mind, he has made it up the hill. He is at the pinnacle now and before he heads down the other side, he wants the recognition he feels his achievements have earned him. No longer is he content to be respected for how far he has come. He wants to be known as among the best at his position, period.

“Most of the stories about me have focused on the past,” Plummer said. “They all sound the same. I want people to start looking at what is there for me now.

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“I plan on making the Pro Bowl. That’s my big goal. I could never even dream of making that before. That shows myself how far I have come. I have gone from just worrying about making the team two years ago as a special teams player to now having aspirations of making the Pro Bowl. And I feel I deserve it if I play the way I have the past two years.”

But that might be easier said than done. Not so much because Plummer has not distinguished himself on the field--his team-leading 424 tackles over the past four seasons, including a team-high 146 last year is proof enough of that--but because of the marquee competition he faces from his own teammates.

Six of the projected starters were first-round NFL draft choices--Gill Byrd (1983), Billy Ray Smith (1983), Lee Williams (1984 supplemental), Leslie O’Neal (1986), Burt Grossman (1989) and Junior Seau (1990). That doesn’t leave a lot of attention to spread around.

But Plummer said he is used to being surrounded by higher-profile teammates. That is just another part of why the Plummer saga reads so well.

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“It’s been that way my whole career,” Plummer said. “That stuff doesn’t mean anything to me. I really find solace in the fact that I’m a blue-colar worker. I do my job, and I do it well. They can talk all they want about the high-profile guys, but I led the team in tackles. I take pride in what I’ve been able to accomplish.”

And while Plummer might have tired of the hard-work-makes-good theme, he has to admit that when it comes to his football career, he has lived the role to perfection.

At Mission San Jose High School in Freemont, he started on a team that had 12 players earn college scholarships. But no one offered Plummer a free ride. He stayed home and went to Ohlone College, a community college in Freemont.

At Ohlone, he starred at linebacker. But when the major-college coaches came recruiting, they overlooked Plummer again. He said he has not forgotten the hurt that rejection caused.

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“I went home for two weeks and just felt sorry for myself,” Plummer said.

But to give up would not be the Plummer way. Determined to prove the doubters wrong, he took a year off from college, lifted weights and put on 30 pounds. Still without a scholarship offer, he walked on the next year at Cal Berkeley.

His impact was immediate. At 6-feet-2 and 210 pounds, he was about as small as a nose tackle could be, yet he was named the team’s most valuable defensive lineman.

Those Berkeley years were to help shape his pro career. There he met assistant coaches Ron Lynn and Mike Haluchak. Since then, the three have been inseparable.

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It was Lynn and Haluchak who gave Plummer his break when they were coaches with the Oakland Invaders of the USFL. And when they moved to the Chargers after the USFL folded, they brought Plummer with them.

“I owe everything right now to Ron Lynn and Mike Haluchak,” Plummer said. “I started in the USFL as a nose guard with a two-point stance because that was how I played in college. I should have been cut in the first week. I was horrible. But they had the patience.”

Good stuff, all of it. But most of it’s about Plummer as a young adult. Those were good times, but, as Plummer takes note, these are more mature times.

Maybe it was turning 30 in January or helping his wife, Leigh-Anna, with the birth of their third child, Kristina, a month later. But for whatever reasons, Plummer is taking everything a little more philosophically these days.

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This doesn’t mean he has gone soft. He still likes to mix it up. ut he does seem to be taking this thirtysomething stuff to heart.

“I think of myself differently now,” Plummer said. “I used to take everything from year to year. But now as I get older, I’m looking four or five years down the road. That’s how much longer I want to play football.”

His life outside football has grown with him.

Plummer was raised with five brothers and three sisters, including stepchildren, and said he wanted a large family for himself.

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“There is so much love in a large family,” Plummer said. “I have fond memories of growing up that way, and I want my kids to feel the same way.”

Plummer takes his fatherly role seriously. He was with Leigh-Anna providing support during the delivery of their first two children--sons Grant, 4, and Garrett, 2. But he went one step further with the birth of Kristina, actually assisting in the birth.

It seems the doctor was a Stanford graduate and Plummer, being a Cal man, could not resist giving him a hard time.

“I told him I couldn’t believe that he gets paid $2,000 to do a job women used to do all by themselves,” Plummer said. “I told him anybody could do that. He said, ‘OK, you try it, Mr. Golden Bear.’ I thought he was joking. But about a minute before she was going to give birth, the nurse put the gloves on my hands, gave me a smock and gave me all the instructions. It was just like taking a snap from center. So I got to deliver my daughter; that was really special.”

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The closeness of the Plummer family can be seen at practice. They are a frequent sight at training camp at UC San Diego. Last week, two visiting nephews were added to the crew.

What they are seeing is a more confident Plummer, a man finally secure in the knowledge he has proved that he belongs.


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