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SUPER BOWL XXIX : HARDLY A LEAD-PIPE CINCH. . . . : Plummer Proves Doubters All Wet

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He couldn’t get a college scholarship, was bypassed in the NFL draft and when the U.S. Football League folded he was suddenly unemployed.

“When I was trying to get in college, George Seifert was an assistant at Stanford and he wrote me these wonderful letters, telling me how he wanted to give me a scholarship. And then he came to see me, and he said, ‘You’re Gary Plummer?’ And he just laughed.

“I literally saw his face laughing at me every time I lifted a weight or every time I ran. It’s so motivating to have somebody tell you you can’t do something. I remember him saying to me, ‘Son, you’re too small. You can’t play in the Pac-10.’ ”

Sunday, linebacker Gary Plummer will play in Super Bowl XXIX for Seifert and the San Francisco 49ers.

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“Got my own podium on Picture Day,” Plummer said. “They tell me they have special interview arrangements for Steve Young, Deion Sanders and myself. I told them they might want to get one for Jerry Rice, too.”

Plummer didn’t laugh at his own joke. Too tired, he said, from pinching himself the last few days.

“How many times have I played ‘Rocky’ running on my treadmill, envisioning myself as the guy nobody believed in, now with the opportunity to be the heavyweight champion of the world?”

Twelve players on his Mission San Jose High football team earned college scholarships, but not Plummer. Two years at Ohlone College, a community college in Fremont and then the school dropped football. Two more walk-on seasons as starting nose tackle for the University of California.

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“When they moved me from linebacker to nose tackle, I cried,” he said. “I thought I could only try so much.”

Three years of trying to pay the bills with the Oakland Invaders. Eight years and 792 tackles in anonymity for the San Diego Chargers. And all along destiny had Jan. 29, 1995, pegged as Plummer’s reward for standing rugged in shoulder pads.

“How ironic,” Plummer said. “My old team versus my new team; I guess I was meant to play in this game.

“No matter how it works out, though, I feel more appreciated here. This is an organization that cares about its players. Coach Bobby Ross cares in San Diego; he cried when I told him I was going to San Francisco. But the owner in San Diego didn’t care. He didn’t even know my name.

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“I got on an elevator once with Billy Ray Smith, and (team owner) Alex Spanos gets on and says hi to Billy Ray and has no idea who I am. I had surgery on Tuesday and played on Sunday for that man, and he didn’t know my name. I really don’t want to be negative because the only negative aspect in my experience down there was the lack of respect I got from ownership.

“And that’s changed now because (son) Dean Spanos is running the ballclub instead of Alex Spanos. Oh my, what a coincidence: Dean Spanos starts running the ballclub and they get in the Super Bowl for the first time. If (Alex) Spanos had stayed in control, Bobby Beathard and Bobby Ross would have left and then you would have been talking about a Cincinnati or Tampa Bay and a perpetual losing organization.

“People ask me about Alex Spanos this week and I’m going to tell them the truth: Dean Spanos has done a great job.”

Alex Spanos, who turned control of the Chargers over to Dean this year, said he had no recollection of snubbing Plummer in an elevator.

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“I respected that man,” Spanos said. “When Bobby Beathard said we had to let him go, I said, ‘Do you have to?’ I always liked Gary. He wasn’t a great player, but he was a leader and played his best.

“And imagine that! He would have been in the Super Bowl if he had stayed with the Chargers.”

Spanos’ daughter, Dea, listening to the conversation, said, “You can say that, but we will never really know. The guy who saved the game for us on fourth down in Pittsburgh to put us in the Super Bowl was (Dennis Gibson) the guy who took Plummer’s place.”

One more slap in the face, and that’s how it has gone for Plummer.

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“No matter what he has done in his career there has always been a ‘but’ attached to it,” said Ron Lynn, Washington Redskin defensive coordinator and Plummer’s former boss at Cal and with the Invaders and Chargers. “No matter what he accomplishes, people say, but if he was bigger . . . but if he was faster . . . but if we could get somebody else who is better.

“He’s perceived as the working man’s stiff made good, but I would argue that. This is a pretty good football player.”

Plummer, one of the Chargers’ most popular and productive players and part-time tutor of Junior Seau at inside linebacker, received a contract offer after last season that called for a $75,000 pay cut.

“It wasn’t a slap in the face, it was a knockdown,” Plummer said. “Here we were, entering free agency with a new system rewarding productivity, and I had my ego crushed.

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“I had no intention of leaving San Diego, but I visited San Francisco and they were offering $300,000 more than what the Chargers had offered. They wanted me, and the owner in San Diego who was making a $7-million profit, wanted me to take a pay cut. I sat in the office with Coach Ross and we knew the Chargers weren’t going to come up with any more money and together we cried.”

Now Plummer has his own radio show twice a week and his own TV show, “Insider Report with Gary Plummer.” And his own podium at the Super Bowl.

“The formula for success is so simple,” Plummer said. “If everybody had the work ethic, I’d be out of a job. I certainly don’t have the talent of a lot of guys that I’ve seen come and go, but I’m still here.

“Jerry Rice and I were talking recently and we both realized that we haven’t been on a vacation in nine years. I mean, I couldn’t afford to take a week off. The season ends, and I’m lifting weights, doing martial arts and running to stay ahead of everybody.

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“I’m taking a week this year after the Super Bowl, but I know while I’m off I’ll be looking for a place to lift weights.”

The Oakland Invaders were prepared to release him in 1983, but as Lynn recalled, they said, “Ah, let’s give him another week.” Don Coryell, Charger coach, wanted to cut him in 1986, but special teams coach Hank Bauer saved him.

“Former Charger coach Charlie Joiner told me that when Al Saunders became head coach he wanted to get rid of me in the worst way,” said Plummer, who has played in 113 consecutive games. “I was hanging by a thread every year, and then I’d lead the team in tackles, and the next year we’d start all over again with them looking to replace me.

“I was playing every single down and on five of the six special teams and leaving my heart and soul on the field. I talked to Leslie O’Neal earlier this year after we beat them and he said, ‘What’s it like? What’s it like?’

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“I’ll tell you what I told him, it’s great.”

Now the Chargers are the only thing keeping Plummer from achieving complete “I told you so” satisfaction. And Plummer is concerned.

After San Francisco’s NFC championship victory over Dallas, 49er President Carmen Policy proclaimed, “The Super Bowl, in my opinion, will be anticlimactic.”

Upon hearing the remark, Plummer went to Policy and urged him to recant. The next day, Policy announced, “I was wrong.”

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Plummer relayed the quote to a San Diego reporter in the hopes it would get to the Chargers, but he also understood he was probably wasting his time.

“The thing these people have to understand is that I have been in that other locker room,” Plummer said. “I know what it’s like to feel like we had absolutely no respect from an opponent or no chance to win. We used it as players as a motivating force, and let me tell you, Coach Ross is the master motivator of them all, and the best coach I ever played for.

“You always have to give a chance to a Bobby Ross-coached team. When we played in the playoff game against Kansas City in 1992, he had clipped out newspaper articles and quotes from the Chief players and General Manager Carl Peterson that said they basically didn’t respect us. The night before the game we’re in the hotel and he just starts ripping up those papers and throwing them on the ground, kicking them and then he’s screaming and pounding his fists on the podium. As a team, we were ready to drive over to the Chiefs’ hotel and kick their . . . that very night.”

The next day the Chargers defeated the Chiefs, 17-0, ending a six-game losing streak to Kansas City.

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“A lot of people say that’s high school stuff and is no longer effective in the NFL. But I was 33 years old and in my 11th year of professional football, and wow, he got me jacked up. I guarantee you that quote from Carmen Policy, which he has since rescinded, will be presented to the team.

“And that part about him taking it back, forget it, it won’t be mentioned in the pregame talk.

“Coach Ross is going to talk about the arrogant 49ers and the point spread and tell his players that we’re sitting over here thinking we can just roll our helmets on the field and win. I could probably write his pregame speech for him, and knowing all that, he’d still get me fired up. We’re talking about the king of the underdogs and my job this week is not to give him anything controversial to use.”

Take away the podium.

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“You want to know what this week is all about?” Plummer said. “I’m playing this football game for all the fans who wished they could be playing in a Super Bowl.

“I’m the kid who collected football cards. If I had to write an English essay, it was on football. I was the walk-on at Cal. I was sitting in a dorm for two weeks wondering if the Chargers would give me a chance to come to training camp. They say I’m the overachiever, and to me that’s a badge of honor, because I’m running into people all the time who said I wasn’t good enough.

“Everybody can’t be the best, so I think the true test for an individual is how much he can get out of the ability he has. Well, here I am, and you know what? I saw my old high school coach this week, and now the school wants to retire my number.

“Can you believe that?” he said with a last laugh.

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