125 Stanford Stories

NO. 18
Looking Back

Heart of a legend: Jim Plunkett

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Stanford's legendary former quarterback Jim Plunkett analyzes the Cardinal for ESPN's College Gameday panel in 2011. Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service
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The 1971 Rose Bowl. Stanford University Archives
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Stanford University Archives

Stanford treasures its first and only Heisman winner

Jim Plunkett, ’71, dodged obstacles even to quarterback for Stanford. The San Jose native learned he needed surgery for a thyroid tumor (benign, as it turned out) a month before the start of freshman year. Assistant coach Rod Rust, who had recruited him, vowed to honor his scholarship no matter what, as Stanford magazine recounted in a 2010 story.

Head coach John Ralston, however, had brought several good quarterbacks onto the roster, figuring that they were versatile enough to shift to other positions. He initially thought Plunkett too shy and unassuming to take a quarterback’s leadership role.

This roadblock, too, quickly melted away.

“You got the look from Jim,” recalled wide receiver Randy Vataha in the magazine, “and the look was not comfortable” if a play was not executed well.

Plunkett went on to set all-time NCAA records in passing yardage and total offense for Stanford. He holds school records for most touchdown pass yardage in a Big Game (229 yards in five passes) and second-longest touchdown pass (96 yards, bettered only by Joe Borchard’s 98-yarder against UCLA in 1999).

“I’d never known anybody could throw a football so hard it whistled until Jim did it,” remembered John Sande, ’71, the team’s center.

By a wide margin of balloting from throughout the country, Plunkett was named Stanford’s first and thus far only Heisman Trophy winner on Nov. 24, 1970   45 years ago.

After Stanford, Plunkett became the number-one draft-pick choice of the New England Patriots and then played with the San Francisco 49ers and, most memorably, the Oakland Raiders, capturing the Super Bowl MVP title in 1980.

Plunkett’s prodigious arm helped to change the notion of college football as a ground game, making it flashier and even more exciting.

He is treasured at Stanford not only for his achievements but also for the humility and allegiance that he manifested from the start. Plunkett is the second of only three Stanford football players to have his jersey number retired. Ernie Nevers, ’26, was first. John Elway, ’83, was third.