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ASU’s Jake “The Snake” Slithers Way Onto Handball Court

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It’s an early November day and Jake Plummer has the itch to play again.

No, he’s not pulling a Brett Favre. Plummer is on his way to play handball for the first time in weeks in Sandpoint, ID, the resort town of 7,000 people near the Canadian border where Plummer now lives three years after his abrupt retirement.

Still only 35 years old, Plummer sounds totally carefree, shooting from the hip while yapping on his cell phone, cracking jokes and laughing.
“I lost in our doubles match at my tournament in a tiebreaker and came off the court as happy as I’ve ever been after a loss,” Plummer said. “I was smiling and laughing and (thinking), ‘Hey, this is life.’ ”

Wait, is this the same Jake Plummer that was labeled a brat after wearing out his welcome in Denver for flicking off a fan, cussing out a gossip columnist and being surly with the local sports media?

Hearing Plummer talk now, it sounds like the weight of the world has been lifted off his shoulders since he shockingly walked away from the NFL and $5 million in 2007.

In fact, right now he’s so excited to get back out on the handball court that he’s even breaking one of his cardinal rules – not to be indoors when the weather is nice – to play despite it being a beautiful fall day.

“I hate to say it, I’m driving in today and it’s sunny and 57, but I haven’t played since my tournament so I’m kind of jonesin’ to go play,” Plummer said.

[Related: College Football Players’ Top 10 Unlikeliest Whereabouts]

That tournament would be the third annual Jake Plummer Halloween Handball Bash, of course. Yes, Plummer takes this handball stuff pretty seriously. After a 12-year absence from the sport due to football, he has reconnected with the game taught to him and his two brothers by his father. Plummer plays three to four times a week when it’s not summertime – the most his body can handle.

What’s the summer entail?

“Outdoor stuff,” Plummer said. “Mountain biking, boating, fishing and hiking – not being indoors in an air conditioned room playing handball.”

It’s clear that Plummer is just living the dream these days. He’s so active that after less than two years away from the gridiron, he had already dropped 20 pounds. And his handball game has progressed to the point that he won the Idaho State Handball Championship doubles title last April.

Heck, people are already asking him about his handball legacy:

“I play more doubles than singles, my body’s not able to do the singles thing, it really pounds on my body,” Plummer said.

“I’ve got to count my blessings I’m able to (compete) with my knees and back.”

Instead of dreaming about a Super Bowl ring, Plummer’s new mission is a doubles title at the U.S. Open of Handball with his older brother Eric, the ace of the family and reigning Idaho singles champion that also lives in Sandpoint.

Don’t bet against “The Snake.” This is the same guy that landed in Tempe, AZ, as a skinny kid from Boise, ID, and led Arizona State to the 1997 Rose Bowl and within 100 seconds of a possible share of the national title with a heroic drive vs. Ohio State capped by slithering through the Buckeye defense for a go-ahead touchdown – only for OSU to drive back down the field and win.

Plummer played his NFL ball in the exact same stadium as ASU after he was picked in the second round of the ’97 draft by the Cardinals and word spread like wildfire that none other than former 49ers head coach Bill Walsh compared him to Joe Montana. In just his second year in the league, Plummer led the moribund Cardinals to their first postseason victory since 1947.

But the Cards came back to earth and Plummer finally left the Valley of the Sun for Denver in 2003, where then-Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan was supposed to be getting the quarterback he needed to win another Super Bowl after John Elway’s retirement.

It didn’t work out that way.

The Broncos rolled through the regular season for three straight years with Plummer at the helm only to bomb out in the playoffs each time – twice getting steamrolled by the Colts and in 2006 losing to eventual champion Pittsburgh at home in the AFC Championship Game with Plummer turning the ball over four times.

That was the beginning of the end for Plummer in Denver. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, whom Plummer loved playing for, soon became the head coach for the Houston Texans. Then Shanahan drafted Jay Cutler in the NFL Draft’s first round that spring, benching The Snake mid-way through the following season despite a 7-4 record at the time.

The grind of playing for an uber-perfectionist like Shanahan wore on Plummer during his time in the Rockies.

“I had a coach that, regardless of how well I thought I was playing or how well the majority of fans across the country thought I was playing, it was never good enough for him,” Plummer said, not bitter but very matter-of-fact. “And that kind of gets frustrating.”

“It just seemed like every game I could have completed these four more passes or these five more shots here and it would have been perfect. And that just wasn’t my personality… But Shanahan wanted perfection and he wore a lot of us down there.”

Plummer didn’t sound surprised by the current circus unfolding in Washington, D.C., between Shanahan and Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb.

“I think Shanahan is still searching for John Elway,” Plummer said. “Somehow, someway, he thinks there’s going to be another guy like John Elway.”

“He coached a team to almost perfection (with Elway) so he wanted that again, he wanted that every time we went out there. It’s just not realistic.”

So after being replaced in Denver, Plummer was traded to the Buccaneers in March 2007 but – beaten down by life in the NFL – rumors began to circulate that he would never show up in Tampa Bay and instead retire at the age of 32, walking away like his best friend Pat Tillman did five years earlier. It seemed unthinkable that someone would leave the game with so many good years left and due $5.3 million in 2007.

That is, until Plummer held a press conference in Denver days later to say he was done playing. The speech was short because, well, he had a handball tournament to attend.

He hasn’t looked back since and Plummer’s certainly got his hands full these days. On top of all the physical activities, he’s now a family man, spending time with his wife and former Broncos cheerleader, Kollette, and their newborn son, Roland, whom she had in June.

However, there’s one final thing he fantasizes about doing on the gridiron.

Said Plummer: “I would like to go in one more game and roll to my left and throw a ball, a sick wobbly lob pass to Larry Fitzgerald and he’d go up against eight (defensive backs) and pull it down and make me look good.”

Somewhere, the Cardinals brass frantically just picked up the phone.

 
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