It happens to Milt Plum all the time. He meets someone new, and in the course of conversation reveals that he used to play professional football. "Then they'll look me up on the Internet and the next time I'll see them they'll tell me what a great career I had," he says, amused by it all.
For a brief period of time, Plum was the game's most efficient passer, as evidenced by the three straight years he led the league in completion percentage (1959-61). But that was a different time, a different game. The secret, he says, was simple. "We threw short." Well, that and he handed the ball to Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell an awful lot.
A product of Penn State, Plum had seen plenty of Brown already during the annual clashes between the Nittany Lions and Syracuse. He was thrilled to be selected in the second round of the 1957 NFL draft (held in December of 1956) after the team had already picked up Brown with the No. 6 overall selection.
When Plum stood under center for Paul Brown's Cleveland teams of the late 1950s and early '60s, he managed the offense as well as the coach could have hoped. There was no passer rating at the time, but football historians revealed long ago that Plum's 1960 season produced one of the greatest ratings of his or any era — a 110.4 (sixth-best all time, and one of only two all-time top-10 passer ratings posted before 1984). That year he threw 21 touchdowns and just five interceptions, completing 60.4 percent of his passes. The next highest passer rating of 1960 belonged to Philadelphia's Norm Van Brocklin (86.5).
Teams of that era threw when they had to, and most of the time passing was saved for third down and long. But the Browns were different because Paul Brown was different, and, as Plum points out, because the offense was limited in its number of downfield weapons.
"I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but in Cleveland we only had one deep threat — Ray Renfro," Plum says. At one point, Plum petitioned the coaching staff to move Mitchell to flanker and put Preston Carpenter back in the backfield, but the coaching staff would have none of it. Everyone wanted two backs, he says, not a fleet of receivers or a balanced attack. "Green Bay had (Paul) Hornung and (Jim) Taylor … that was the way to go back then. You're not going to throw the ball with two big backs."
Not that it bothered Plum to ruffle the coaches' feathers a little. When he signed his first contract in 1957, he was given an $11,000 base with a $2,000 bonus. The next year asked for an increase to $13,000, and when the contract showed up at his New Jersey home with an offer of $12,000, Plum sent it back unsigned.
"You had nobody to help you back then. Well, I got to camp and Paul Brown came up to me, his teeth grinding, face all red, and looked me in the face and said 'Nobody's ever done that to me before.'
"They told you back then that your contract was between you and your wife. No one else. You just didn't discuss it. You could be making $13,000 as a starter and your backup could make $17,000 if he was a better negotiator. And nobody got more than a two-year contract."
If anything, Plum believed he had earned the pay increase.
"My first year we had something like six quarterbacks in camp. You got to throw like every third day. And then a couple would leave and (Paul) Brown would bring one or two more in. Most guys, he'd bring them into the office and say 'We're counting on you, make arrangements to bring your family in.' Never said that to me."
But Plum stuck and eventually won his coach over, and by the end of the 1961 season had delivered four winning seasons in a row. He was widely considered one of the game's best passers and field generals. And then, in a blink, he was on his way out of Cleveland.
"A newspaper guy (Chuck Heaton of the Cleveland Plain Dealer) got me traded," Plum says. "My neighbor told me on a Thursday that I was headed to Detroit. He'd heard it on the radio. I got a telegram from the Browns on Friday afternoon stating they didn't know how to get ahold of me. Well, my number was in the book, pretty sure the office had my address. I thought that was childish in a way, couldn't make a phone call."
Typical Paul Brown, says Plum.
"I don't think he ever faced anybody to tell them they were cut. It was always done by another method."
According to Plum, Heaton was interested in doing a story on what Browns players did in the offseason. The two met at the team's facility where the men talked about family and offseason jobs. "Then he comes out with an article that said, 'Plum says if we had had an audible system we would have won the championship.' I thought someone from the Browns would have called me and asked if it were true, but no, I was traded."
And that was that. In Detroit, Plum's career was never the same. His completion percentage ranked among the league's best in 1962 and ’64, but the Lions struggled and with it came a high number of interceptions.
In 1968, Plum was ready to retire when George Allen convinced him to play for the Rams.
"I asked Allen if I had a chance to start and he said, 'yes.' Well, that was false. He and Roman Gabriel were like twins."
In 1969, Plum gave it one more shot, agreeing to join Allie Sherman in New York, but by the time the exhibition season was over Sherman had been moved out of town, leaving Plum to sit and watch Fran Tarkenton play every Sunday.
Following his career Plum worked in the wood products industry before settling in North Carolina in the early 1970s. These days the 75-year-old plays golf Tuesdays and Thursdays, tennis two or three times a week, mows his own lawn, and does a little wood-working when the mood strikes.
Once a year, he makes a trip up north to visit his old quarterback coach from his playing days at Penn State — Joe Paterno. He always visits on a Friday when Joe handles his media duties, just for five minutes to shake the 83-year-old Paterno's hand and say 'hello.'
And to this day Plum says he still gets fan mail every month.
"I got one from a guy in prison once. Couldn't get his son anything for Christmas, wondered if I would send a picture."
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