Big Plays by the Bay No. 8: Plunkett Brings Home the Bay's First – and Still Only Lonely – Heisman
College football has been played in the Bay Area for 133 years with numerous great players and games—plus some remarkable stories that have been forgotten. Bay Area Blitz contributor Mark Purdy has picked the 10 best stories and will count them down in the monthly newsletter leading up to January’s College Football Playoff National Championship.
[RELATED: Big Plays By The Bay:1 | Big Plays By The Bay:2 | Big Plays By The Bay:3 |Big Plays By The Bay: No. 4 | Big Plays By The Bay: No. 5 | Big Plays By The Bay: No. 6 | Big Plays By The Bay: No. 7 | Big Plays By The Bay: No. 9 | Big Plays By The Bay: No. 10]
Over the decades, thousands of players have suited up for Bay Area college football teams.
Only one man has won the Heisman Trophy.
That would be Jim Plunkett, who in the 1970 season quarterbacked Stanford to a conference title and Rose Bowl victory. Along the way, Plunkett threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 19 touchdown passes and claimed America’s most famous piece of individual football hardware. A pretty neat story. An even better story is how he got there.
Plunkett grew up on the east side of San Jose in a poverty-stricken neighborhood, the son of a Mexican-American news stand vendor and his legally blind wife. Jim, as a teenager, worked at a gas station and bagged groceries to enhance the family income even as he starred at James Lick High School and was recruited by Stanford coach John Ralston.
By Plunkett’s sophomore season on campus, he had won the starting quarterback job. He had an impressive junior year with 20 touchdown passes in 10 games to put his name in the Heisman mix as a senior. But the odds-on favorite to win was Mississippi quarterback Archie Manning, future father of NFL stars Peyton and Eli. The secondary favorite was Joe Theismann of Notre Dame. In those days, college football had limited exposure on national television. To the rest of the country, Stanford was an exotic mystery team on the West Coast and Plunkett was a largely invisible phantom.
Bob Murphy, the school sports information chief, hatched a plan. He asked athletic director Chuck Taylor for some extra money to promote Plunkett’s candidacy. Taylor’s first response was: “Forget about it—if he’s going to win it, he’ll have to do it on the field.” But Murphy kept pestering his boss. and Taylor finally relented. He provided Murphy a “campaign budget” of $350.
Murphy spent most of the money on postage. He sent personal notes to sportswriters and broadcasters across the country, then printed up a cheap two-color brochure and mailed it to voters. Plunkett caught a break when Stanford traveled east to Arkansas early in the season and upset the Razorbacks as he completed 22 passes for 262 yards, a big performance in that era. He went on to throw 19 touchdown passes and ran for three other scores as Stanford clinched the Pac-8 championship with two weeks left in the season. Plunkett was soon posing with the Heisman, the first player of Latino heritage to win it. The trophy then went on a shelf at his childhood home in San Jose, where his mother could only touch it and not see it.
On New Year’s Day, Plunkett and Stanford shocked heavily-favored Ohio State by beating the Buckeyes, 27-17. Plunkett then began a NFL career with some speed bumps and potholes before he finally found success with the Raiders by winning two Super Bowls. After retirement, he’s lived in the Bay Area and worked as a broadcaster. Since 1970, several other Bay Area players have been Heisman finalists. None has ever finished first in the voting. Plunkett’s trophy remains a lonely sentry on that front, certifying him as Northern California’s greatest ever college player.