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Jake Plummer's
Last Frontier
By Andrea Kremer
He rose to NFL stardom, then quit football at just 32, disenchanted by it all. Now the retired QB is teaching Alaskan kids what he recently rediscovered: how to love the game.
J ake Plummer is hearing cheers again, this time at an Anchorage high school, not a 70,000-seat NFL stadium.

"I see some future ballers in this group," Plummer tells several hundred screaming 8- to 14-year-olds, who’ve never seen "Jake the Snake" play and probably haven't heard of him before, but nonetheless hang on every word.

The former Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals quarterback recently traveled to Alaska as a Heads Up Football ambassador, working alongside youth leagues to emphasize safety and education. More than 2,800 youth football leagues across the United States, representing more than 580,000 players and 84,000 coaches, have adopted USA Football's signature program, which emphasizes heads-up tackling techniques, coaching certification, concussion recognition and response, and proper equipment fitting.

Being involved in football in such a grassroots manner is fitting for Plummer, who's reintegrating himself into the game that he walked away from while in his prime.

"When we as NFL players say something a coach has said already, whether we are reiterating it or we're just saying it off of the cuff, it kind of puts a stamp of approval on what these coaches are teaching these kids," Plummer says at the Boys & Girls Club of Alaska's Heads Up Football event. "When an ex-NFL player says it, oh man, it must be right because they played in the NFL."

There was a time when being called an NFL player was the last thing Plummer wanted.

"My heart wasn't in it, and I didn't want to be that guy who was letting my teammates down by not coming to work every day."
- Jake Plummer
W

hile addressing the kids, Plummer repeated the phrase "love of the game." It's what he lost at the end of his NFL career, leading to his abrupt retirement in March 2007. He was just 32 and making more than $5 million per season.

"It just was time," Plummer said while standing on the deck of a magnificent home overlooking the ocean, now in Juneau for that city's youth league Heads Up program.

"I was ready (to retire) the year before," Plummer added. "A lot of people don't know that had we gone to the Super Bowl and won it, I was ready to walk off the stage with the MVP trophy and say goodbye.

"If you're not 100 percent energy focused on what you're doing, then you're cheating yourself, but you're also cheating your teammates, coaches, fans, and I didn't ever want to do that. I can tell you with 100 percent honesty that I played every snap with 100 percent effort. All I wanted to do was succeed, no matter what, no matter when, and at the end there, I was just ready to go. My heart wasn't in it, and I didn't want to be that guy who was letting my teammates down by not coming to work every day."

Plummer had the highest winning percentage (.722) for a Broncos quarterback who had started at least 25 games, and he took Denver to within one win of the Super Bowl in the 2005 season. Yet Broncos coach Mike Shanahan benched him in favor of rookie Jay Cutler in December of 2006 and traded Plummer to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the season. Instead of accepting the trade and taking $5.3 million to play for the Bucs, Plummer retired.

"People probably can't understand, but it became very stressful as a quarterback in a city like Denver where I was playing," Plummer said. "I would have a good game, and it would get dissected, and instead they'd (the coaches) say, 'Great play here, good job there.' But they would focus more on what I didn't do right. We would win the game, yet they were constantly focused on what I didn't do right."

Even when Bucs coach Jon Gruden flew to the quarterback's Idaho home to try to persuade him to honor the trade, Plummer refused. Gruden told Plummer he could be the hero he never was in Denver, where John Elway's shadow always loomed large. But Gruden didn't understand -- because few could believe -- that all the quarterback wanted at that time was to cleanse himself of football. Plummer needed time away to realize how much he'd

miss a game he took up at age 12, when he had to beg his mother to let him play. A game that took him to superstar heights at Arizona State and brought him professional success with the Cardinals and Broncos.

"Once I was able to purge, or get over the way it all went down in the end -- getting benched and feeling like it was my team, I had to really get over that," Plummer said. "And realize you can't take those things personally. They're done -- it happens every year where players that should never get replaced get replaced. It's just the nature of the game.

"And I wasn't mad at Jay Cutler -- Jay's a great kid, just wanting to go play himself. He had dreams, too, just like me. So the time off gave me the chance to reflect on that and get away from the game and not feel those pressures and even think about the game. And now, you know, I go and really enjoy it, and it's opened up a lot more doors."

"AFTER A WHILE, PEOPLE WERE COMING BY, 'WHAT'S UP, PLUMMER?' I GOT A BEER BROUGHT TO ME, AND THEN ANOTHER BEER, AND I WAS LIKE, 'THIS AIN'T SO BAD.'"
Jake Plummer on Broncos Fans' reaction when seeing him at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in 2012, at the first game he attended after his retirement.

Plummer continued to fulfill his competitive streak through his family's tradition of playing handball. He and his wife, Kollette, moved back to Colorado and started a family. He began to slowly embrace football again while coaching a local high school team and watching the University of Oregon play.

Jake Plummer (right) had Jay Cutler looking over his shoulder in 2006 and eventually lost his job as the Broncos' starting QB to the rookie.

"That style was really fun to watch, really enticing. It was like, 'Wow, maybe I did get out too early,' " Plummer said, laughing. "When we moved back to Colorado, I went to (Peyton Manning's) first game as a Bronco against the Steelers (in 2012). It was actually the first time I went to a football game with nothing planned. There was no appearance, there was nothing going on. I got invited to go to (Broncos owner Pat) Bowlen's suite, but I was like a caged bird, so I had to bust out of there and go to the mezzanine level, just watch the game from the tunnel."

At first, no one recognized Plummer, but that didn't last long. The man who used to chafe when approached in public as a celebrity was more laid back about the attention he received as a retired player.

"After a while, people were coming by, 'What's up, Plummer?' " he said. "I got a beer brought to me, and then another beer, and I was like, 'This ain't so bad.' I'm watching the game, and when I watched Peyton run out and the crowd go crazy, it was like, whoa, that was me, back here, coming out of the tunnel. And I just remembered how much fun it was and what a real special time in my life. You can never go back and get it back, but I know that I gave it my all while I was doing it, and it was a lot of fun."

Plummer, who's only one year older than Manning, believes he still could play. But he wouldn't want to.

"I would probably be leaving for sure in a wheelchair if I went out and played," Plummer said. "There's no desire, but yeah, if I had to, I could probably go out there and make it happen.

"I have two sons now (Roland and Winston), and I'm really glad with my decision because now I can play with them for who knows how long, and had I played any longer, it might have hobbled me or kept me from enjoying other things in life like backpacking in the summer, wakeboarding, chasing my kids around."

And teaching football -- the love of it -- to other people's kids.

"I love my playing days, and I think if my son, either one of them, wants to play football, then what I want to do is get them prepared for that."
- Jake Plummer
K

elly Parrott, the mom of a 13-year-old youth player, listens intently to Plummer's presentation in Anchorage.

"Concussions are a major concern for my husband and I," she says. "My son suffered a second-degree concussion last year, and unfortunately, what's called post-concussion syndrome, that made him disabled educationally until January. He couldn't attend a full day of school due to the concussion syndrome.

"My hope was that the things that were being said were coming from an NFL player, and that I hoped my son would absorb that information and recognize the importance of (not) leading with your head and head safety."

Plummer, one of more than 75 ex-NFL players to serve as Heads Up Football ambassadors, tells the youngsters: "I was never diagnosed with a concussion. I had my bell rung enough times to know that when I retired, it was a good move. It was time to move on and enjoy the rest of my life. And I feel great, I feel healthy, my knees are in good shape. I played a long time, and what I did was I learned how to play properly and not take the big hits."

Plummer never heard the word "concussion" when he played youth football. Now it's a huge point of emphasis for organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Alaska, which fields 15 youth football teams, with 306 players and 52 coaches. Current Broncos guard Chris Kuper came out of this program.

Pat McDonald, director of facilities and maintenance for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Alaska, has seen vast improvements to the coaching since he started 20 years ago. He said locals used to turn to players' fathers because coaches were sorely needed.

"Dads may have played the game (but) didn't know a lot," McDonald said. "Now we can be more selective and require our coaches to become trained and certified. Give them classes and give them the tools they need to properly coach these kids. The level of education for these coaches and what they teach the kids has gone up quite a bit over these years."

Plummer embraced his visit to Alaska, not just for the travelogue aspects of the trip but for the satisfaction he received in giving back to the game that he loved, lost and now loves again. But the question remains: Would he let his own sons follow in his gridiron footsteps?

"They might have to beg, too, like I had to, but

I'll let them do whatever they want," Plummer said. "I love my playing days, and I think if my son, either one of them, wants to play football, then what I want to do is get them prepared for that, help them learn how to fall correctly and how to avoid big hits, and to play with reckless abandon and not the fear of injury."

Andrea Kremer is a reporter for NFL Media. Follow her on Twitter @Andrea_Kremer.

Jake Plummer engages kids in a passionate discussion about heads up football techniques during an Aug. 30 safety clinic in Juneau, Alaska.