Plummer bounces back by playing it smart
January 12, 2003
Somehow, the designation became an insult. Ahmed Plummer was cerebral. He was a technician, a student of the game. Everyone talked about him that way during the NFL Draft in 2000, when he left Ohio State as a two-time academic All-American.
His coaches and biggest fans felt they had to defend him. They had to point out that the 49ers' cornerback could bench-press over 300 pounds, that he had almost no body fat, that he was more athlete than egghead.
Well, now it's time to revive the insult. Plummer is cerebral. He is a technician. He is a student of the game. He has pure athletic ability, but that's not what makes him special.
He is the son of two Ivy League graduates, one a dentist, the other a psychologist, and it shows. He tied for the top score on the 2000 Wonderlik exam, the equivalent of an intelligence test for NFL prospects.
Yet as a young boy, he was demoted a grade in school. Plummer enjoys telling that part of his life story, as a reminder that there are all sorts of comebacks. He remembers his mother meeting with the school principal, then telling him in the car that he would be returning to first grade.
This wasn't a moment in a movie. It was real life, so it didn't change Plummer like a thunderbolt. But he believes that it encouraged him to compete in the classroom the way he did on the football field. He convinced himself that school was fun.
"I used to call myself 'The Machine,' " he said the other day at the 49ers' training facility. "It was: 'Give me a question, I'm a machine. I can spit back anything you want.' "
In other words, he played mind games with himself -- a skill that reflects practical intelligence more than any test score or academic honor. This weekend in Tampa Bay, he will probably have to cover Keyshawn Johnson, one of the chattiest players in the NFL, a man who likes to infiltrate an opponent's cranium. With Plummer, it won't work.
Johnson might outrun him. He might jump over him. But he won't get inside his head and tear him up there.
Plummer is too smart and too tough. If he weren't, he would have folded last Sunday, surrendered at halftime of the playoff game against the Giants. Matched against New York's Amani Toomer, Plummer had a dreadful first half.
He looked helpless, and Toomer looked unstoppable, plucking passes out of the air as if it were easier than grabbing a butter dish across the dinner table. With every ball that came in their direction, Toomer seemed to grow an inch, and Plummer seemed to shrink one.
His mother, Babette, was in town for the game, watching in the stands with her daughter-in-law, Tiffany. Some fans, seeing their No. 29 jerseys, heckled mercilessly.
"It took all my restraint not to turn around and say something back," she said in a genteel voice from her home in Cincinnati. Her greatest consolation was that, periodically, Garrison Hearst's mother, seated nearby, would get up to go out into the concourse and offer a hug as she walked by.
Normally, when a cornerback is beaten that badly for one half, he is done for the game. His confidence can't be reassembled fast enough. This is where being cerebral comes in handy -- not just being book smart, but being bright enough to know how to dig out of a failure.
When the 49ers made their comeback on the Giants, turning a 24-point deficit into a 39-38 win, Plummer's turnaround mirrored the team's. It helped that the defense made necessary adjustments and that the Giants kept trying to run the ball to eat up the clock. But it was still clear that Plummer was doing a better job of containing receivers, forcing the Giants' quarterback, Kerry Collins, to spend more time looking for an open man, disturbing his rhythm. In the final minute, Plummer had what looked like a game-ending interception. The officials ruled that he hadn't controlled the ball before it squirted out from under his prone body, so the play didn't go into the books as an interception. It went in as a knocked-down pass, still a good play, the kind that could have silenced the hecklers in the first half.
"I learned a lot from that game," said Plummer, ever the student.
In fact, even at his worst, when he couldn't come between Toomer and Collins, Plummer still prevented runs after the catch, diligently wrapping up the receiver in a textbook tackle. A groin injury had inhibited Plummer the athlete, but the technician was still there.
His mother couldn't remember seeing him so emotionally drained. Usually, Plummer can summon the energy to go out for dinner after a game. This time, he just wanted to go home. Babette Plummer understood. The game had depleted her, too. At one point in the second half, she felt her knees practically buckling, her legs going weak. It was right about the time when her son started playing better. She thinks that there was a connection.
"I know it sounds crazy," she said, "but I told Ahmed about it, and he said that he felt a sudden surge of energy. Usually, he gets tired in the fourth quarter, but he wasn't fatigued at all. He got this burst of energy, and I was getting wobbly."
Again, she said she thought it sounded crazy, but she and her son are both deeply religious, and their faith leads even her, Dr. Plummer, a Cornell graduate and a licensed staff psychologist for the Veterans Administration, to believe in things that don't make sense.
Plummer has always taken strength from his mother. After his parents divorced, she went to graduate school while caring for Ahmed and his older brother, Cleon. He remembers going to class with her sometimes, a little boy sitting among doctoral candidates. Her love of education was bound to trickle down to him.
When he was sent back a grade, his mother said, it was mostly because he had entered a new school that year, and he was a shy youngster. It took all of his energy to fit in and find friends, she said.
She knew he was bright, so she didn't have to worry about the stigma of holding him back a year. It was a practical choice, picking actual education over appearances.
Her son shares those values. He eagerly told the story of his classroom defeat when he visited a Bay Area high school two years ago, knowing that he would leave the students with a deeper impression than if he posed as an unmitigated success story.
Plummer knows the difference between pride and hubris. For example, he drives an inexpensive compact car. He explained that he wanted to be careful with his money during his first few years in the league, but he didn't want to reveal the make or model.
Plummer says he plans to buy something nicer soon, and that may explain his reticence. But it's just as likely that he doesn't want his car to make any kind of statement, particularly one that sets him apart from his teammates. He's too smart for that.
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