The last time I saw Jim Plunkett was in a movie theater in Hollywood. He was on the screen in front of me for about 30 seconds, carrying a little girl to safety in one of those early "Airport" disaster pictures.
He looked like nothing so much as a football player in street clothes trying to look like an actor.
Until recently, most of Plunkett's jobs with the Oakland Raiders were also cameo appearances in games that were lost long before he cranked up his throwing arm or pulled on his helmet. Jim was there to mop up, nothing more.
But all that changed on Oct. 5 when quarterback Dan Pastorini broke his leg in a game against Kansas City and Plunkett inherited the job.
Since then, with Jim at the controls, Oakland has beaten San Diego, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Cincinnati to take over undisputed first place in the National Foot-ball League's AFC West Division. He has often held the ball so long before throwing to his receivers that opposing defenses have been reluctant to overload against him for fear he might exploit their weak side.
Against Pittsburgh, for example, he threw for two touchdowns against the blitz and generally took advantage of everything the defense gave him. His performance against San Diego, where he completed 11 of 14 passes, was more precisionlike, although the threat of the bomb was always there.
Seattle, which has beaten Oakland four straight until it had to face Plunkett , seemed to have no defense for Jim or Bob Chandler, who caught three touchdown passes.
Then Sunday in the 28-17 victory over Cincinnati that lifted the Raiders to the top, Jim hit 19 of 25 attempts for 244 yards and scored a TD himself on a four-yard run.
"We're winning because we're a good team and because we're making the big plays," Plunkett said. "Any time a quarterback consistently throws for touchdowns he's going to be overpraised. It's the nature of the position. All I've really been is part of the system, able to do my job because the offensive linemen are doing theirs."
In 1971 the New England Patriots made Plunkett, who had been a Heisman Trophy winner at Stanford, their No. 1 draft pick.
The Patriots seemed to know exactly what they were getting, an intelligent young man without a lot of speed or scrambling ability, but with an exceptional throwing arm both in terms of strength and accuracy. If they could ever build a pocket strong enough to give him the time to find his receivers, there was no telling what this 6ft. 2in., 220 pound Mexican-American could do.
The blockers never did provide much protection, but Jim's arm and sense of timing were so good that he made things work most of the time anyway.
By the end of the season Jim was voted Rookie of the Year; had thrown 19 TD passes; showed he could whipsaw a defense; and more important, had amazed everyone with his ability to take punishment. Some of the shots he took you could hear up in the press box.
Although the chief problem seemed obvious -- get some talented offensive line-men who could pass-block for Plunkett -- things only got worse. Over the next three years Jim was sacked 112 times, often heard footsteps when there weren't any, misplaced his confidence, and acquired the maximum number of injured knees.
In April of 1976, New England traded Plunkett to San Francisco for quarterback Tom Owen and four high draft picks.
Had the 49ers not felt they had to win so quickly; had Plunkett not had to come back so far physically that he was pressing and inconsistent; had coaches not come and gone like ships in the night, Jim might have made it. Instead he was dumped just six days before the start of the 1978 season. When practically no other NFL team showed any interest in him, it looked as though Jim was through, until Oakland general manager Al Davis offered him a tryout.
"With the kind of experience and background Plunkett had, we knew we wouldn't have to teach him anything," Davis said. "What we had to know was if his arms was still strong and if he was mentally capable of playing football again."
Now Plunkett looks like the NFL's Comeback Player of the Decade.