Sunday, August 6, 2017

Jim Plunkett's Painful Journey: 'My Life Sucks'

He rises from a chair next to his Heisman Trophy in a room stuffed with dozens of silver and gold keepsakes that recognize a remarkable sports legacy. At 6-foot-3, Jim Plunkett still commands a room.

But underneath the tanned exterior anxiety grows over an uncertain future.

“My life sucks,” said Plunkett, 69. “It’s no fun being in this body right now. Everything hurts.”

The years of daily pain pulsating from the neck, back, knees, shoulders, hips and head have taken a toll on a quarterback who played 15 NFL seasons and led the Raiders to two Super Bowl victories.

His body is a patchwork of medical magic: Artificial knees, an artificial shoulder and a surgically repaired back. After 18 operations, Plunkett’s activities have been reduced to golf and light workouts at home on a Crosstrainer.

A quiet figure during his quarterbacking days, Plunkett represents a generation of men who played football with a taste for violence while locking their emotions in safety deposit boxes. For decades, Sunday’s heroes have suffered in silence from degenerative brain disease, depression, opioid addiction, Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

The price for playing football has come due.

“Think of getting in 50 car wrecks a week for 20 straight weeks a year,” said Hank Bauer, a former San Diego Chargers running back known for his reckless play on special teams. “Everybody hurts at our age. We just hurt more.”

Latest health problems

A year ago, Plunkett contracted Bell’s Palsy, a temporary facial paralysis that causes one side of the face to droop. No sooner had the disorder disappeared than the throbbing headaches began. The head pain has been diagnosed as a neurological disorder that his physician thinks is connected to Bell’s Palsy.

These are the latest in a series of health problems that began four years after Plunkett left the NFL in 1986. He takes six pills in the morning, seven at night for his heart, blood pressure and other problems. Plunkett usually takes an opioid to play a round of golf, but otherwise stays away from the addictive painkillers. In early summer, he even tried hemp oil for a month but stopped when he didn’t see any results.

“There are a couple other drugs I take — I can’t know them all,” he said. “I’ve got to take them every day to quote-unquote survive.”

Plunkett’s football career began in the 1960s at James Lick High School in East San Jose. Then he played four years at Stanford, appearing in 32 games. After winning the Heisman Trophy in 1970 — he remains the only Heisman recipient in Stanford history — Plunkett was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft by the New England Patriots.

He weathered 380 sacks in a pro career from 1971-86, and that doesn’t begin to account for all the times he was hit after throwing.

A year after Plunkett retired, NFL officials began addressing ways to protect their most valuable asset as quarterbacks were getting injured at an alarming rate. They prohibited pass rushers from taking two steps before smashing into a signal caller after the ball had been thrown. Such tactics were legal in Plunkett’s era. So was slamming quarterbacks to the ground. 

by Elliot Almond, Mercury News |  Read more:
Image: Matt Slocum
[ed. How sad. I remember standing next to Jim when he came to practice at my high school football field before the 1971 Hula Bowl game. I was in awe - a Heisman trophy winner, throwing zingers right next to me! He was big, humble, an easy-going guy, signing autographs and joking around with everyone. Highly respected by all.]