In keeping with the rest of SB Nation's discussion of EA Sports' NCAA Football '13 (need to cop that) and of the men who didn't win the Heisman but should have, and in keeping with the slow summer that allows for nostalgia, I would like to take a journey into the thriller who made me watch more college football than I ever had before, the player who made me change appointments to see him play, the player who made me enjoy every vicious sack Danny Wuerffel took in the pro ranks - Jake Plummer.
In the 90's, I spent some years in the Midwest, and came to know that Nebraska and their fans are relentless, intense, and churlish. Which made the ASU whooping of the Cornhuskers on September 21st that much more sweet.
But one man's amazing year out west isn't enough to wrest the nation's most coveted trophy from a player who had been near-coronated even before the 1996-97 college football season began. Wuerffel was an excellent player, but lacked the Devil-may-care (pun highly intended) panache of Plummer, or the ability to make a decent team and an okay coach into a great national story.
The world is dipped in bias, such is life. But the site allows me to reminisce about one of the best football players I have seen on the college level, and I will take that opportunity and run with it.
The previous year, I had a roommate from Nebraska who often woke me up howling about some running back only getting seven yards against an overmatched, dispirited foe; I was trying to get my sleep on after, you know, going out. Or work. I hated Nebraska fans and their egos, their entitlement, their forgiveness of criminal behavior.
So watching the Huskers, who came to the desert for a night game on a 26-game win bender, get SHUT OUT by these upstarts from the Tempe, these interlopers outside of the pantheon of the game's greats, by a Pac-10 team, got me all kinds of excited.
The nation took notice. The Heisman voters took notice. [see highlight video/ profile of the rising Sun Devils from that year] That year, and that game, introduced me to possibly the slickest, most freelancing college football player I have seen in my lifetime. Jake "the Snake" Plummer couldn't be brought down –
Let me revise. The slippery snake, he could be brought down. He looked like your college buddy with a bunch of pads on, slim and wide-eyed, prone to yelling and hubris and a little bit of laughter on the sidelines. He could miss open receivers by a few yards. He could take a sack or two. He could take some extra hits.
But he could make a whole lot out of plays that a lesser QB would have given up on, twisting and scrambling around the backfield in search of a hint of a clear path, and flinging the ball to where players like Keith Poole and Lenzie Jackson (and the Old Spice Guy, Isaiah Mustafa) could get their hands on it.
He was evasive (video), he was a character – he looked like he could have starred in The Program or some other over-dramatic football movie – freewheeling, big smile, not like the robotic quarterbacks out there…
Like that Danny Wuerffel. He threw for a lot of yards (over 3600). He averaged over 10 yards per passing attempt. He scored over 40 touchdowns. Wuerffel was a good, clean Southern boy, the spawn of a Lutheran minister, too clean to join his All-American Teammates in the requisite Playboy shoot. He had cherubic cheeks, a conservative haircut, a winning smile.
I hated watching him play.
He played Steve Spurrier's offense, known to create mismatches. He threw to at least THREE NFL receivers (including former Giant Ike Hilliard) and had bruising Fred Taylor, who had an excellent NFL career in Jacksonville, in his backfield. Advantages make big numbers much less spectacular in college football, where half of the SEC simply marked a Florida game as a loss. Yes, it was definitely a better conference than the Pac-10; but the Florida media exposure and Wuerffel's fame as a consistent four-year starter put him in the catbird seat for the nation's highest football honor, the Heisman Trophy. Despite his noodle arm.
Should an athlete win because he is consistently excellent with his excellent tools, because he meets expectations with a dominant team?
Or should an athlete win because he drags his team (with a lot of help from the likes of Pat Tillman and a really good, if undersized, defense) to victory?
The sentence construction hints at my bias; Plummer pulled plays straight from where the sun didn't shine, shrugged his shoulders, and made them work like he was advised by Project Runway's Tim Gunn.
Plummer danced from the grasps of linebackers, looked like he didn't always know what the play was, and gave ASU football the improvisational look I so loved from basketball. His elusiveness forced teams to blitz him into mistakes, leaving receivers running free in the secondary - and still he couldn't be brought down.
Jake Plummer was excitement. No one quite knew what Plummer would do, but he'd make plays. He was crafty, he was electric, he was lightning. Wuerffel was a very capable football robot.
But the Heisman voters didn't see it that way. The Heisman is voted on by a phalanx of scribes around the country and former Heisman Trophy winners; their poll submissions are gathered by regions for the masses to see after the fact. Danny Wuerffel was the overwhelming choice of football writers in the Northeast, the Mid Atlantic, and the South (of course).
Back then, it wasn't easy to see Sun Devils games. I was fortunate to see some; the afternoon game in the Midwest was often a Sun Devils game. There was an obvious bias, an obvious predetermination from those who didn't seek out video of the other candidates. [More on the bias from Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden] Plummer's stats weren't tremendous, but what other player willed his team to victories like that?
Plummer wasn't first in any of the regions; but he was dead last by a LOT in the South (of course). At the time, Plummer had led an undefeated Sun Devil team to the Rose Bowl*. Wuerffel's Gators squad had a loss to Florida State.
But it was not to be.
Wuerffel's Heisman win was a reminder to always be wary of award winners - winners come with good publicity, a great supporting cast, and in many people's minds, are decided before the first sweltering summer kickoff.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled St. John's coverage.
*That Rose Bowl game, by the way, was incredible. New Year's Day 1997, an overmatched Arizona State hangs close and engineers a Plummer drive to score (video set to the beginning of ASU's comeback) - but Ohio State has enough time to march down the field for a win. I won't lie to you - I was hung over at kickoff but wouldn't have missed one last Jake Plummer game for the world. Or for nausea.
------------THIS IS THE POST SCRIPT-----------
This post was sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 13. Check out the video for the game below.
EA SPORTS NCAA Football 13 TV: "Son" (via EASPORTS)