Spotlighting Jim Plunkett In Honor Of National Hispanic Heritage Month
In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we are featuring our 1970 Heisman Trophy winner, Jim Plunkett.
We celebrated the 50th anniversary of Plunkett’s historic Heisman Trophy two years ago. To do it properly, we also celebrated a life and a career of overcoming challenges and adversity – multiple times over.
He is a Pac-8, Rose Bowl and Super Bowl champion, defying the odds every step of the way. He was the first Latino player to win the Heisman Trophy in 1970 and is the only Latino selected first in the NFL Draft, taken by the New England Patriots in 1971.
He was also the first Latino to start a Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders in 1980 and 60 minutes of football later, he was the first Latino to be named Super Bowl MVP.
Even his upbringing brought unique challenges, raised by parents who were both legally blind. But Plunkett’s story, like his parents’, is of perseverance.
Plunkett was born to William and Carmella Plunkett (his mother was Mexican, his father was also of Mexican descent) in San Jose Calif. His mother lost her sight when she was 20. His father was born legally blind but, with thick enough glasses, could get around, even serving as the cook of the family.
Plunkett’s football career began at James Lick High in San Jose, where he played both quarterback and defensive end, leading the squad to an undefeated season as a 1966 prep senior.
Deciding to stay close to home, Plunkett signed with Stanford, where his freshman season was derailed by surgery to remove a tumor in his neck. First deemed malignant, the tumor was ultimately benign. Bullet dodged.
After redshirting, and resisting the coaching staff’s suggestion to move to the defensive line, Plunkett began to prove himself. As a sophomore he passed for 2,156 yards and 14 TDs and followed that with a 2,673-yard, 20-TD junior season, earning enough recognition to finish eighth in the 1969 Heisman vote.
He was still somewhat of a Heisman longshot as a 1970 senior with Joe Theismann at Notre Dame and Arching Manning at Mississippi leading the award’s discussion.
The nation took notice when Plunkett, directing a pro-set offense, helped Stanford kick off its first 11-game regular season with a 34-28 upset over No. 11 Arkansas, passing for 262 yards and two TDs. He followed it up with a season-high 302 yards and one scoring pass against San Jose State and 250 yards and three TDs in a road win at Oregon.
Plunkett was humbled a week later in a 26-14 loss to un-ranked Purdue in which he threw five interceptions, but that didn’t take away from the shine of their upcoming match-up against No. 15 USC, a contest the entire nation was anticipating.
A year earlier, the Trojans knocked off Stanford on a last-second field goal. The Stanford faithful was eager for the 1970 contest, which was played before a sellout of 86,000.
The game earned the billing “bigger than the Rose Bowl” as Stanford tried to beat USC for the first time since 1959. Plunkett did not disappoint. He rebounded from the Purdue game by throwing for 275 yards and a score, leading Stanford to a convincing 24-14 win over the Trojans.
The victory kickstarted a five-game win streak that saw Stanford also knock off Washington State, UCLA, Oregon State and Washington in which Plunkett averaged almost 250 passing yards a game with 10 TDs.
The stretch helped sway Heisman voters, certainly enough to withstand Stanford’s two late-season losses to No. 16 Air Force and Cal. Stanford had still won the Pac-8 and the balloting reflected Plunkett’s body of work.
When the votes came in, Plunkett was a clear winner with 2,229 points, well ahead of Theismann’s 1,410 and Manning’s 849 totals.
Plunkett capped his brilliant Heisman season by orchestrating a 27-17 victory over No. 1 Ohio State in the 1971 Rose Bowl, spoiling the Buckeyes’ undefeated season and hopes for a national crown.
His career Stanford totals of 530-of-962 passing for 7,544 yards and 52 TDs were all school records, leading to his pick by New England in the ensuing NFL draft.
Pro success was initially elusive, however, for Plunkett. A fine rookie season was followed by struggles and injuries and he was traded to San Francisco in 1976. But his time in a 49er jersey wasn’t the cure and he was released in 1978.
Almost retired at 30, the Oakland Raiders took a chance on Plunkett as a back-up in 1978. He didn’t play a down that season and not much more in 1979.
Still a reserve in 1980, he got his chance when starter Dan Pastorini broke his leg four games into the season. Plunkett took the reins and led the Raiders to the playoffs as a wildcard team, passing for 2,299 yards and 18 touchdowns, earning NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors.
He orchestrated postseason wins over Houston, Cleveland and San Diego to reach the Super Bowl and then led the underdog Raiders – with 261 yards passing and three TDs – to a 27-10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, earning MVP honors, as Oakland became the first wildcard team to win it all.
Three years later, Plunkett earned his second Super Bowl ring as he joined forces with fellow Heisman winner Marcus Allen in a Los Angeles Raiders 38-9 triumph over Washington.
Injuries limited him to just 17 starts between 1984 and 1986 and he missed the entire 1987 season with a shoulder injury ahead of his retirement before the 1988 season. Still, Plunkett remains, with Roger Staubach, one of only two Heisman-winning QBs to start and win a Super Bowl.
He has spent decades working for the Raiders in the broadcast booth since his playing days, something he does to this day. He has also served as a spokesman at many events hosted by the Raiders and remains a de facto ambassador for the team.
In 2018, Plunkett, who has been challenged by post-career injuries for some time, joined NFL greats Ronnie Lott and Steve Young in becoming advisors for TeachAids, an organization that brings awareness and education to young athletes about concussions and other challenges.
He remains an icon at both Stanford and in the Raider organization and as unique of a Heisman winner as there is.