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Folktales Inside Plummer
Folktales: Drafting Jake
The Cardinals sought a new QB and a little magic when they took Jake Plummer
By Kyle Odegard, special to Oct 14, 2021
Photographs By Arizona Cardinals/AP

As the news crossed the airwaves, jubilant screams let out from all corners of the Valley.

Cardinals fans, ASU fans, Jake the Snake wannabes – everyone in Arizona lit up the moment Jake Plummer was drafted by the local NFL team.

Everyone, that is, but the man himself.

On the afternoon of April 19, 1997, one of the biggest sports stars in state history was snoozing at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix the moment his name was called, completely oblivious to his professional destination and the seismic reaction it created.

"Let me tell the backstory here," Plummer said 24 years later from Denver, the details still crystal clear in his mind. "As the draft was coming up, I had my family come down and we were having fun parties and living it up, because this was a moment you don't get to experience but once in your life. We had a tee time, me and my brothers and my dad, that morning. Everybody was like, 'You're going to miss the draft. They're going to call your name and you're going to be on the golf course.' I said, 'Don't worry. I'm not going in the first round.' …

"So we went and played golf, and I was extremely tired from partying the two or three nights prior, so I'm like, 'I'm going to go lay down and catch a little sleep.' So I was asleep when I got drafted. Dave Dunn (Plummer's agent) came and tapped me on the shoulder and woke me up. When I came to, he said, 'Hey, man, you're an Arizona Cardinal. I said, 'Oh, wow, OK.'"

Frank Sanders, one of Plummer's favorite targets in the NFL, couldn't help but chuckle when relayed the story.

"That sounds exactly like him," the longtime Cardinals receiver said. "He's intense internally. Externally, he acts like a duck on water."

While Plummer processed the news in his typically muted manner, it wasn't long before he was breathing life into the Cardinals, just like he had done with the Sun Devils the few years prior.

"Fans in the Phoenix area were used to rooting for Jake Plummer," said longtime Arizona Republic reporter Richard Ruelas. "This is Jake the Snake. This is our guy. We already have the jerseys. Cardinals: Put him at quarterback and let's see where this goes."

Plummer was a local legend before he played a snap for the Cardinals.

The laid-back quarterback from Boise, Idaho engineered one of the finest campaigns in Arizona State football history as a senior. The Sun Devils finished the 1996 regular season with a 12-0 record and came within minutes of a Rose Bowl win and a national championship, led by their slithery signal-caller with a flair for the dramatic.

"Obviously, my senior year was remarkable," Plummer said. "It's a team that people remember – and they will forever – because we were so electric and so fun."

Plummer finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting, and as the draft inched closer, it was more than just the fans who wanted the Cardinals to select him.

"We have a hometown kid that is lighting up college and taking his team to new levels," Sanders said. "He is running, passing, willing his team to victory. And we needed a quarterback bad. We'd gone through Dave Krieg, Boomer Esiason, John Buck, Stoney Case. We've got names, but we don't have a leader, per se, at the position. We thought that, as a team, he would be absolutely excellent to come here and try to help move us to the next level."

Pro Bowl fullback Larry Centers liked Plummer so much he openly campaigned for the move.

"As a player you only have so much say, but to anybody who would listen, you've just got to put that bug in their ear," Centers said.

Plummer caught wind of Centers' preference during his draft preparation. While Plummer was a college legend, the NFL was still uncharted territory, and he appreciated the vote of confidence from an established star.

"I remember him being vocal in the press, like, 'Draft this kid; He should be a Cardinal,'" Plummer said. "That made me feel good, because my whole dream from being a child was to play in the NFL. And now it was like, 'Wow, these players are saying they want me to be on their team.'"

The Cardinals finished the 1996 season 7-9, with veterans Esiason and Kent Graham each starting eight games at quarterback. The offense finished No. 22 in the league in points per game.

When the draft evaluations began, the coaching staff and front office naturally studied the local star closely.

"Jake was a very, very exciting player," said Vince Tobin, the Cardinals' head coach from 1996 through 2000. "One of the big things is that, at that time, the Cardinals weren't drawing very well. And so we really felt like Jake could come in and give us a shot in the arm as far as fan support, the adrenaline, just the things that he does on the field."

The Cardinals routinely sell out their home games at State Farm Stadium these days, but they were still angling for widespread support in the 1990s.

"There's no doubt that they saw an opportunity to capitalize on the guy who was probably at the time arguably the most popular athlete in Arizona," said Paul Calvisi, the Cardinals' longtime sideline reporter. "Charles Barkley was gone. The Diamondbacks had yet to exist. The Coyotes had just arrived. So really ASU football and that Rose Bowl team, they were rock stars, and Jake Plummer was the lead singer."

The Cardinals had the No. 9 overall pick, but both sides knew his selection wouldn't happen there. Plummer was not forecasted as a first-round pick.

"At the time, I was too small, too skinny, not durable enough, all this BS that they like to have," Plummer said. "Had I come out now, I might have been a first-round pick in the draft because I have the style that these teams are looking for. But I was fine. I knew that I wasn't going to be drafted early."

Plummer's most realistic shot in the first round came at No. 26 overall, where former 49ers coach Bill Walsh -- then a consultant for the team -- lobbied for San Francisco to take him. Instead, the 49ers went with quarterback Jim Druckenmiller out of Virginia Tech as the heir apparent to Steve Young.

"I was really mad when they didn't take Jake Plummer," Walsh said in 1999. "I told people the continuation of the dynasty was in that decision."

The Cardinals then waited nervously as the second-round selections were made.

"We knew going in that we'd like to get Jake on our team," Tobin said. "Once you've passed on the first round, and it comes down to the second round, there's some anxiety that Walsh or somebody else would jump ahead and trade to move up and take him."

No one did, and the homecoming became official with the Cardinals' second-round selection at No. 42 overall. As Plummer cleared out of his nap-induced haze, he began to process the idea of remaining in Arizona.

"At first, I was like, 'Oh, I've been here; I've lived here,'" Plummer said. "I was excited to maybe go somewhere else. But as it played out, like, to get drafted by the Cardinals, to stay in the town that I was used to -- I knew the roads. I knew how to get around. I had a great support system. I had ASU folks that would support me. I had friends. I had a very good network already there. It was really awesome to get drafted by the Cardinals and make a really easy transition to be ready to go into the league."

Plummer wasn't a starter out of the gate, but that didn't seem to matter.

"He was an immediate icon for our squad," Centers said.

Most backup quarterbacks are mostly anonymous at training camp. Not Plummer.

"Jake had fans everywhere," former Cardinals wide receiver Anthony Edwards said. "It didn't matter where we were at. I remember up at NAU they were everywhere. Everybody's wearing '16' jerseys and he's signing left and right."

Plummer tried to blend in as best he could and keep focused on the steep curve of becoming a successful NFL quarterback.

"It was a big learning experience for me," Plummer said. "It was hard at times, but there were so many amazing players there that took me under their wing. Kent Graham, the starting quarterback, was very supportive of me. He saw the writing on the wall, like, Kent Graham or Jake the Snake? How long was he going to last? And Stoney Case was in the middle there as another quarterback, but we all got along.

"They were helpful to me, along with guys like Larry Centers, Frank Sanders, Lomas Brown. These vets, they all kind of they took me in and they were they were nice to me. They treated me well. I think they saw that down the road, I could be the quarterback that would help them maybe get to where we wanted to go."

The Cardinals started slowly in 1997 as Plummer watched from the sidelines. After five losses in the first six games, rumblings to see him play turned into full-throated demands.

"It wasn't even halfway through his rookie year where fans started chanting his name," Calvisi said. "'We want Jake. We want Jake.'"

Plummer's first NFL action came in the fourth quarter of a Week 8 road game against the Eagles, and the degree of difficulty couldn't have been higher.

Philadelphia led the game 7-3 with 10:26 remaining in the fourth quarter, and Plummer was inserted after a punt that was downed at the Arizona 2.

"I came in with confidence," Plummer said. "I guess I should say cluelessness … I stepped in like, 'Hey, we're going 98 yards. Let's go. Who's with me?' And those veterans looked at me and they got excited."

Centers started the drive with an eight-yard run and the Cardinals were off. Plummer connected on a crucial 34-yard pass to Rob Moore and later capped the possession with a 31-yard touchdown strike to Kevin Williams.

"We went 98 yards and scored on my very first drive as an NFL quarterback, in a pretty hostile environment in Veterans Stadium, where you could still peel the turf up and see concrete under there," Plummer said. "Really for me, it was like, 'Holy smokes. Okay, I can do this.'"

The Cardinals lost the game in overtime, but Plummer had arrived. He started the rest of the season and then riveted the Valley in 1998.

The Cardinals finished 9-7 in his second season on the strength of five fourth-quarter comebacks, securing a playoff berth for the first time since 1982.

They were significant first-round underdogs against the vaunted Dallas Cowboys, but a tenacious effort helped spur a 20-7 win. When the team plane arrived at Sky Harbor Airport following the upset, a sea of red welcomed the Cardinals home.

"We had a fanbase that had waited for so long for us to get to that next level," Sanders said. "We felt like the fanbase got what it had been desiring for years. They got a chance to say they were a playoff team. They got a chance to see what the next level looked like."

The magical run ended in the NFC Divisional Round to the Vikings.

Plummer played a total of six years for the Cardinals but didn't engineer another winning season. His best work came with the Broncos from 2003 through 2006, as Denver went 39-15 in games he started and made the postseason three times.

Even though Plummer's Cardinals stint didn't reach the same heights as his one with Arizona State, he still has the third-most passing yards in team history.

And even though the Cardinals are a much more consistent winner these days, few players have ever grabbed hold of the Valley like Plummer did during that stint in the 1990s.

"Not many athletes get to be a part of something so electric and so exciting," Plummer said. "To be a part of it as a Sun Devil and then a couple years later as a Cardinal, it sure was fun."

Images of the Cardinals' 1997 second-round pick Jake Plummer, who was already a local hero from Arizona State when he came to bring some magic to the local NFL team.

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