The Journey After Pro Sports with Jake Plummer
Jake Plummer is a former professional football player, a quarterback for ten seasons in the National Football League (NFL). He was selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the second round of the 1997 NFL Draft and spent his first six seasons with the Cardinals and the last four with the Denver Broncos.
In this interview, Jake talks about his playing days, his newfound love for medical cannabis, the game of handball, and what he learned from his close friendship with NFL Legend Pat Tillman.
There was a story in 2011 in Sports Illustrated where you met Tampa Bay Head Coach John Gruden and General Manager Bruce Allen. They told you that you had a chance to be the hero in Tampa that you never could be in Denver and even offered to donate a million dollars to an Alzheimer's awareness foundation. But you never showed up to the meeting. In fact, you walked away entirely from the NFL. What made you leave the game?
I retired after my tenth season, and I had plans to retire anyway after we didn’t make the Super Bowl. I still love the game, but I was feeling the effects of it after playing for 14 straight years. My goal and my dream were to win the Super Bowl, and when that didn’t happen, I knew it was time for me to leave.
My last season was a tough one for me since the Broncos drafted a young guy named Jay Cutler. He had a big arm, strong kid and Broncos Head Coach Mike Shanahan liked him. Once they drafted Jay, I had soured my ways with Coach Shanahan through the offseason and was getting mixed messages from him, so I ended up in his doghouse. That last season was also tough because my offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak left and the Broncos brought in a new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger and it was a lot for me to adjust to a new offense and play caller.
And when Shanahan benched me during my last season, I decided then and there I was done with football. I didn't want to ride the bench the rest of my career, so I told Coach Shanahan on the phone that I was done with the game and retiring. He hung up on me and later I found out he had traded me to Tampa Bay even though I had already filed my papers for retirement.
I feel bad for Coach Jon Gruden because he was led on to believe that I was still ready and willing to play in the NFL when I wasn't. Who would've known what would have happened had I played one more time in Tampa? I think about it sometimes, but I knew that it was time for me to walk away in Denver. I was honored Coach Gruden, and General Manager Bruce Allen came up to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho to pitch me on Tampa Bay because it was nice to leave the NFL still wanted and not thrown away, discarded. I was able to exit the game on my terms.
What is the locker room culture like in the NFL?
It’s hard to describe because all locker rooms are different with different players and personalities. Former NFL player and Denver Bronco Nate Jackson paints a great picture of the NFL as this great organization but also having a soldier fall in line, don't speak out or against the NFL culture. But the locker room is an interesting place.
There are different types of leaders, you have your outspoken ones and your quiet ones, but the players have very little control. You do what the coaches tell you to do, and there is no involvement from the players in any of the decisions. Players are supposed to go out there, put on a show and stay healthy, and if you don't stay healthy, you get pushed hard to recover especially if you're an essential part of the 52 man roster. In that case, they need you out there to help the team win ballgames even at the expense of guys coming off Sunday games and playing on Thursday.
That is not enough time for your body to naturally heal and go out to play again.
Jackson calls the Thursday night games CTE factories. CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is a dangerous thing, and whether we have labeled it right or wrong, there is a connection to the constant head banging day-to-day in the NFL and the long-term effects we see with CTE. I'm happy teams are taking a better approach to taking care of the players with more alternative medicines, taking the helmets off in practice and more preventative measures like stretching and nutrition. But you still see guys going 30 minutes away to see an acupuncturist for treatment. The acupuncturist should be in the building for the players, not somewhere where they have to commute 30 minutes just so their body can recover. And it should be the best acupuncturist possible.
But it’s not happening. You still have trainers with 40 years of experience still using ice and stem on your injuries, telling you to get back out there, and you can’t make the club in the tub.
You had a very deep relationship with Former Arizona Cardinals and Army Ranger Pat Tillman. His death affected tons of Americans especially you and inspired you in a lot of ways. What was Pat like and how did he impact you?
Pat was a remarkable dude. We go back to the Arizona State days where we played three years together there, and then we played three years with the Arizona Cardinals. He was a guy who I could count on and one of the best friends I had ever met. He wasn't just a best friend to me but hundreds of people. He would call and check in on you wholeheartedly and make sure those friendships continued.
What made Pat special was his time was not his own. He was gracious and would talk to everyone even the guys who were standing in the back with their hands in their pocket. He brought something out in people and was always challenging himself to be a better man. He was so comfortable in his skin and was so passionate about life. When he played football, he played like a guy with his hair on fire.
When he got killed, it was sad. I was going through a significant life change at the time, and he called to check on me before he left to Afghanistan. His decision to walk away from the NFL and serve his country was part of his legacy that has now made him a historic figure. Pat helped me realize the impact I had with the players, the coaches and the game of football. When I had decided to leave the game, I was so comfortable with my decision.
Pat always said, "you got to live your life and do what you want to do."
I sure do miss that guy.
What were the positives from the NFL that you have carried over into your personal life?
A big positive for me was the respect I earned from my teammates because of the way I played the game. I played my ass off, and I learned about the meaning of passion and putting dedication into something during my time in the NFL. It's been hard for me to find something I can dice into with as much passion like I did with the game of football.
In this chapter in my life, I'm leaning on the work ethic and drive from my playing days into my next venture with CBD and medical cannabis. When you're in the NFL, results are week to week. You either win or lose. With the work our group is doing in policy change of allowing players to use marijuana in the NFL, we don't know what the results will be because they aren't week to week. It's been pretty tough shifting from the week-to-week mindset to a more long-term approach.
I heard you’re a hell of a handball player. I read that during your time as the Denver Broncos quarterback, you use to play handball and get your ass whooped badly by some of the regulars.
Oh yeah, I love handball, during that time when I played for the Broncos and play handball with some of the regulars, that was such a fun time creating memories with those guys.
Handball is a great challenging game, and great people are playing it. I think it’s important for athletes to play multiple sports and I try to introduce it to kids to improve their hand-eye coordination. It's the best sport to play in the offseason for athletes.
Right now, so many athletes are playing their sports year-round, and it can cause burnout because you’re just playing one sport all year round. My brothers are both excellent players, and I have to thank my dad for introducing us to the game of handball. Handball helped me when I retired to help feed that drive for camaraderie and passion. It helped me transition from football into another sport where I could still feel all the great things I felt from being part of the NFL.
What’s the current fight with medical marijuana and the NFL? What are some of the things that you are hoping to accomplish?
I think there is a huge disconnect with the people that run the NFL and the players. I haven’t pushed hard for the use of medical marijuana with the NFL rather the cannabinoids from marijuana. I do believe that hemp oil, the non-psychotropic effects of cannabis where the players aren’t getting high, have a place for not just in sports but in health and medicine. Out country is seeing a shift across the country with people overcoming their perception of the dangers of marijuana in the Eighties with Nancy Reagan and the Nixon Administration.
I believe the NFL has a chance to lead the charge and change healthcare and medicine. The NFL can open up people's eyes with medicine and what else is out there. Right now, the fact players can't choose a natural, healthy option to me is maddening. The players are pissed off about it, there is still all this propaganda still surrounding it, and the NFL still sees marijuana as a dangerous thing.
As aware as NFL players are with what food and supplements they are putting into their bodies, I think a lot of them are using cannabis because of the benefits in reducing inflammation in the body. It’s time for the NFL to put money into the research of CBD and marijuana, so we don’t have to wonder anymore. We can find out more about it and have clinical studies done on the efficacy of what it can do.
What are some pieces of advice that you like to share with our readers?
Listen and follow your heart. Stand up when you know something feels wrong and be passionate. Pat Tillman exemplified that on the field and in life. That’s why we were such kindred spirits because we both played with passion all the time. Accept the challenges and follow your heart when it comes to stepping into it.