As sinister as the Raiders seem in their Darth Vader getups, they own the sentimentalists' hearts now. Come Sunday, the guys in black go against the lightning bolts of the San Diego Chargers, the winner moving to the Super Bowl. Us sob sisters will root like crazy for Jim Plunkett. This story begins with Al Davis.
Once the Raiders' head coach, now the owner and forever the Brooklyn wiseguy with the grease-slice d.a. haircut and eight pounds of cunning in every pocket, Al Davis scours pro football's trash cans. What other people don't want, Davis looks at.
Three years ago Davis watched Jim Plunkett go zero for 11 against Oakland. Not long after that, Plunkett was in the trash can.
Poor Jim Plunkett. America loved the kid. His parents are blind. His dad sold newspapers at a corner stand in San Jose, right outside San Francisco. The day Plunkett threw a football 80 yards and between the uprights of the goalpost, his high school coach blinked against the bright sunlight of a phenomenon.
"I guess a hurricane just came up," Plunkett would say 10 years later.
Staying near home, the kid was an all-American quarterback for Stanford University. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1970. He was the first player picked by the pros, going to the New England Patriots. As it turned out, the Patriots wanted a messiah, not a quarterback, and when Plunkett grew gun-shy behind the terrible Patriots' line, the chorus of criticism became so insistent he was traded to San Francisco.
Home again by the bay, Plunkett might have been comfortable. As bad as New Englands' team had been, thought, it was a juggernaut next to the 49ers. And again Plunkett was asked to do miracles.
"With the 49ers, I worried too much," Plunkett said. "I was coming back home, and I wanted to succeed. I wanted to do well, to carry the team. And then when things didn't fall into place, well. . . "
A week before the 1978 season started, the 49ers released Plunkett.
Trash-canned by the home town team.
But Al Davis wanted him. Davis had been on the sidelines when Oakland destroyed the 49ers and Plunkett in a preseason game two weeks earlier. Plunkett completed none of 11 passes that day.
"I'd always liked him, he is a winner, and his velocity was pretty good," Davis said. "I wanted him."
John Madden, then the coach, resisted hiring Plunkett, Davis said. But the old coach/owner/devil/genius insisted. And three seasons later, Plunkett may take the Raiders to the Super Bowl.
Oakland, Green Bay, Balitmore and the Giants wanted Plunkett when the 49ers dropped him.
"I told Jim I believed in him, that I wouldn't sign him on a whim and that I would pay him whatever he was making with the 49ers," Davis said.
A master of reclamation projects with discarded players, Davis went to work early on Plunkett.
"I felt he had to lay out a year," Davis said.
"He was a hurt guy. He had to get his mind straight. Quarterbacks and head coaches have a private world, a tough life, really tough. I read things about Jim that were unfair. He didn't deserve them. It was tough. He was one of those guys who had reached the pinnacle of life early and then was on the downgrade."
So in 1978, his first season with Oakland, Plunkett didn't play a down.
"I felt terrible," Plunkett said. "I felt out of place, as if I didn't belong. It was a trying time for me, and I wasn't planning on coming to camp in '79."
Talked out of retirement by Davis, Plunkett yet played rarely. In '79, he was only seven for 15 passing. He became the first-string quarterback this season only when Dan Pastorini broke a leg in the fifth game.
By the middle of the '78 season, Plunkett was throwing well in practice. Though the Raiders went with Ken Stabler in '79, Davis now says that may have been a mistake. Plunkett could have done the job then. And when Pastorini -- obtained in a trade for Stabler -- went down early this year, Plunkett was not only ready but eager.
After the Raiders' preseason game with the Redskins, Plunkett said, he went to Coach Tom Flores.
"I told him I wasn't getting a fair chance," Plunkett said. "I told him to either trade me or release me so I could at least have a chance to play somewhere else. I didn't care where."
In Plunkett's first game as the starter, Oakland beat San Diego, 38-24. His second game, Plunkett threw for three touchdowns in Oakland's 45-34 victory over the Steelers on Monday night television.
"Jim Plunkett was probably one of the most underrated quarterbacks in football," Pastorini said then. "He suffered through a lot of hardship, and I'm happy for him."
"Jim Plunkett was the difference," said Pittsburgh cornerback Mel Blount. "We didn't think he could do that. For a big, supposedly slow guy (6-foot-2, 205), he moved around well. He beat us."
"You try to stay out there, to keep yourself under control," Plunkett said of that memorable night."But it was so long since I played that when I threw those touchdown passes, I got carried away. I got excited. I let my emotions show. It really meant something to me."
With Plunkett at quarterback, the Raiders won six straight games, their longest winning streak since the Super Bowl season of 1976. They are 10-2 with Plunkett starting.
His opposite number in Sunday's game, San Diego's Dan Fouts, is properly impressed.
"Quarterbacks feel for other quarterbacks," Fouts said. It's rougher than any of you ever imagine. And to see a guy fight through that, it's a tribute to Jim."
At 33, in his 10th season, Plunkett at last is having fun in the game he loves.
"I like to throw the football," he said.
He is 165 for 320, 51.6 per cent, for 2,299 yards. Those are his best numbers since 1974, the last year he threw more than 250 times.
The high school kid who threw it 80 yards on the fly has connected on two 86-yard touchdown plays this season.
"I really enjoy myself immensely moving the ball downfield," Plunkett said.
Five times with Plunkett, the Raiders have scored at least four touchdowns in a game.
"At times, yes, I think I am the catalyst of this team with some big plays," he said.
It has been -- how long? a life time? -- since he last said those sweet words.