Plummer: QB Leaves Legacy
It began with some bears.
Jake Plummer's first introduction to the kids at Phoenix Children's came during the holiday season of his rookie year as quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, on board a bus called "the Teddy Bear Express."
"The whole team came down, and we went through pretty much the whole hospital. It was a lot of fun to do. I think we were having a bad year, and it kind of lightened things up - reminded us that things could be a lot worse than a bad year.
"It was something that affected me ... kind of hit real deep. So after I started my own Foundation, we made Phoenix Children's one of my main charities."
That commitment has resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in support for the hospital, and a slew of visits to the patients those dollars support.
"Often when he comes, there's no media," says Lori Schweighardt, a Child Life Specialist at Phoenix Children's, referring to the publicity that draws some celebrities to the hospital. Schweighardt has been a frequent observer of Plummer's forays among the pods. Sometimes he visits, room by room, she says. Sometimes he just finds a group of patients and plays air hockey or pool for an hour or so. "It's usually just him. He just wants to hang out with the kids for awhile and enjoy them."
Schweighardt remembers a particular visit, early on, that was drenched in media coverage - reporters, photo shoots, video equipment. Later, when the rest of the team had returned to the bus, Plummer lingered behind.
"All the rest were already on the bus, ready to leave. They started paging me: 'They need Jake down here.'" Schweighardt communicated the message, and Plummer smiled, said, "Okay," and "turned around and continued to play with an infant in her crib. Nobody else in the room. He's making faces, making sounds. I was just moved by his level of involvement, and by seeing how involved he was, and how genuine it was.
"I was beeped several more times ... but for him, it was more important to finish his playtime with this little baby."
"I like kids," Plummer says. "It's fun to be around them, and I think it's unfair for kids to be sick, so anything I can do is something I want to do."
"He's good at generating conversation, engaging the kids," says Schweighardt. "He's very easygoing, never makes us feel rushed, like we're trying to keep his schedule. And it's okay if you don't root for the Cardinals. People are always very respectful. They'll joke around about the team's record, and he'll joke about it, too."
When one of the children he meets makes a particular impression, and seems physically up to it, Plummer invites him or her to be a part of his annual Jake Plummer Bowl-A-Thon, which brings in dozens of his teammates and other sports celebrities from around the country to drop pins and raise funds for the quarterback's favorite charities, including Phoenix Children's. Other times, he invites kids to watch a Cardinals game from his "Snake Pit."
"Sometimes, one asks for a jersey," he says with a smile. "And they're surprised if I remember to send it."
"He's fun," says Lynnie Reynolds, a former cancer patient who hit it off with Plummer and has been a regular at his Bowl-A-Thons. "I like him. He's nice. He talks to everyone. He's helpful to everybody. He's just an all-around good guy.
"When I first met him, it was like, 'Omigosh! That's Jake Plummer!''Cuz, when you're in the hospital, you don't get to do a lot of things. And when somebody comes in to visit you, it really brightens up your day. It's like, 'Wow - somebody else cares about me.'"
Though he never experienced any childhood maladies himself, Plummer says he appreciates the distinctives of the new Phoenix Children's campus.
"It's bright, it's fun, it has things to distract kids, more space. They did a really good job making it kid-friendly, which is what it's all about."
Plummer himself has pledged $300,000 toward creation of a Teen Lounge in the new hospital, "just to give the kids a room to go have fun in," he says.
"Everybody really appreciates what he does for the hospital," Reynolds says. "He's not stuck up. He doesn't just walk in and hand a gift to the kids. He likes to visit with them."
"Just seeing kids smile," Plummer says, is the main joy of his visits. "I consider myself kind of a grown-up kid. So I like to do whatever I can to help them, whether it's giving them something, or spending time with them, or raising my own ... someday.
"Some kids don't even know who I am - but just to be able to go in there and maybe give them a signed ball or a teddy bear. It's a nice break in the routine for them."
Sometimes, Schweighardt says, it's more than that. She remembers a boy who was laid up in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit after injuring himself playing football. "It was an extra special treat for him," she says. Another boy in the Cancer Center found out Plummer was coming and had his family rush out to buy him a jersey. "He was just so psyched - on the edge of his chair. He could not wait for that day to come. Jake actually spent a lot of time with him."
That's the thing about all the best quarterbacks. They know how to go deep.