This feature originally appeared in the Sept. 20, 2008 edition of Army Football Gameday vs. Akron.
By Tim Volkmann
You’re 5-foot nothin’, 100 and nothin’, and you have barely a speck of athletic ability. And you hung in there with the best college football players in the land for two years. And you’re gonna walk outta here with a degree. ... In this life, you don’t have to prove nothin’ to nobody but yourself. And after what you’ve gone through, if you haven’t done that by now, it ain’t gonna never happen.
Scene from the movie “Rudy”
Technically John Plumstead is listed at 225 pounds in the Army football media guide, and since he is a two-time state champion in the shot put, you could say he has a bit more than a “speck” of athletic ability. While he has worn a golden helmet on top of his 5-foot, 9-inch frame for the past four years as a member of one of the most storied gridiron programs in the country, his diploma will say West Point on it when he graduates this spring.
What Plumstead has accomplished since his days growing up in rural northern Michigan dreaming about being a soldier and playing Division I football almost could be written into a movie script similar to that of Rudy. From hardly getting recruited out of high school and barely being allowed to walk on to the team in prep school, to working his way into a starting linebacker and being voted a team captain for the 2008 season, his story is one of overcoming obstacles and doing whatever it takes to achieve your goals.
A Man Of Honor
Honor, Michigan, is located about 150 miles northwest of Grand Rapids. A small town with only one stop light, one restaurant and two gas stations, Plumstead spent much of his youth outdoors climbing trees and learning to hunt and fish.
“I never really had the opportunity to ride my bike over to a friend’s house,” smiled Plumstead, the oldest of three siblings. “They lived too far away. There aren’t many people that work in Honor, just a lot of folks living and getting by.”
He started playing football in fifth grade and most of his early success came on the offensive side of the ball. During his time at Benzie High School, he transformed himself into an all-state running back, setting numerous school records, including a junior year that saw him compile 2,068 yards rushing. It was then that he began to set his sights on becoming the first Division I football player from his high school. Being able to parlay that into a military career also seemed to be a reachable goal as well.
“When I realized I could go to college, play Division I football and start a career in the Army all by going to West Point, I knew that was the where I wanted to be.”
He started drawing interest from several smaller schools around the state, but didn’t get as much attention as he was hoping from West Point, or any other Division I program. He hit another roadblock when he broke a toe during the second game of his senior season and had to have a screw inserted into his foot which forced him to miss the next seven games.
“The recruiting process became very discouraging,” sighed Plumstead. “Being from an area where not a lot of guys get scholarship offers, plus missing all those games, I really didn’t have too much going once football season was over. I still wanted to somehow find a way to play Division I football. I looked at Central, Western and Eastern Michigan but they basically didn’t show me much interest. I look back on it now and realize I wouldn’t be where I am today if any one of them had given me a chance.”
Taking His Best Shot
Throughout high school, track & field was always a good way to stay in shape when it wasn’t football season. While he was a solid sprinter, his coaches always “nominated” the stronger guys on the squad to compete in the weight events as well. So when it came time to put the pigskin down, Plumstead passed the time by picking up a shot put. Turns out, he wasn’t that bad.
His junior year, he won his first state championship. Senior year brought another for the most unlikely of weight men.
“I remember when I stood on the podium to receive my medals, I was shorter than the guys on either side of me, even though they were standing a step lower,” chuckled Plumstead. “I was always the shortest and lightest guy out there. I never have thought I was the best athlete, but I think I’m able do a lot with what I have.”
The Army track & field staff soon took notice and he decided to give his dream of attending West Point another chance. Even when people questioned his decision making, he didn’t listen.
“I felt like the odds were stacked against me from the start. I was undersized. I didn’t have blazing speed. I came from a place where no one had ever played at the Division I level. I was no genius in high school and I even had teachers say to me, You know John, West Point is pretty tough academically, are you sure that it is the right place for you to succeed?’ All these things put together just made me want to prove everyone wrong.”
And prove them wrong he did, receiving an appointment to West Point. His first stop would be the U.S. Military Academy Prep School.
Prep School Roots
When Plumstead arrived at the prep school, his aspirations of playing Division I football followed him. However, he wasn’t even sure if there would be an opportunity to try out for the team, and was nervous the coaching staff wouldn’t let him try to walk on. He sought out then prep school head coach Dan Baranik, who told him he was welcome to give it a shot.
“John is a good athlete and plays football with a lot of passion. That was obvious when I first met him,” recalled Baranik, who is in his fourth season as the Black Knights’ wide receivers coach. “He’s a guy that won’t let you tell him he can’t do something because he will go do it just to prove you wrong. All he wanted was a chance.”
Said Plumstead, “Being a walk on was tough because I went from being top-dog in high school to a place where the coaches didn’t know who I was and the recruited guys looked at me like I wouldn’t be up to their caliber.”
Strong safety would be where Plumstead started his collegiate football career. A position he also played in high school, he was able to make a good enough impression on the coaching staff to climb all the way to second on the depth chart by the end of preseason.
Right before the squad’s first game, he was bumped up to the starting slot after an injury slowed the projected starter. Plumstead once again made the most of his opportunity, leading the team in tackles during the first game and tightening his grip on the starting position that he didn’t relinquish for the rest of the season.
On To West Point
After a strong prep year where he led the team in tackles, Plumstead headed to West Point, but again found himself in a familiar position. Moved to linebacker by the coaching staff, he was one of 36 cadets vying for a spot on the team at that position.
“I wasn’t sure how big a jump it would be when I got to West Point, but I was hoping I could at least make the team and contribute. Even if I didn’t get to play my first couple years, I just wanted to try and bring something to the table somewhere along the way.
“During preseason, I remember looking around the locker room and no one could tell who was good, or who wasn’t good. I was lucky to get one or two reps a practice in camp and didn’t think I wasn’t really seeing a lot of success. I felt like I was making plays, but we had so many freshmen in my class, it was hard to get any kind of praise or know where you stood with the coaches.”
The Black Knights started the regular season that year on the road at Boston College. Plumstead didn’t make the travel roster, but went to the game anyway as a spectator. There may not have been another person in the crowd of 40,166 that day which the game had more of an effect on.
“Since coming to West Point, that has been the only game that I have watched from the stands. Just watching the game and not being part of the team as everyone took the field, I don’t think there has ever been something that has motivated me more.”
Plumstead dressed for the next three home games, but didn’t see any playing time. However, he continued giving everything he had in practice, waiting for his opportunity to make an impression.
During the week leading up to the Central Michigan game, the coaching staff was looking for volunteers to play on the scout kickoff team. Plumstead jumped at the chance and recalled making some plays that afternoon, but nothing which really stood out.
“That night, I called my dad. I remember talking to him about how I thought things were going well, but the coaches really weren’t giving me any feedback and I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t really know where I fit in with the team or if I was ever going to see the field. It was a huge low point for me.”
The next day in practice, former head coach Bobby Ross brought everyone together and explained that, after watching the film of practice from the previous day, he had noticed one player in particular that stood out from the rest who was making every play possible and giving all that he could. He also mentioned that person was going to start Saturday’s game on the kickoff team.
Ross announced, “His name is John Plumstead.”
Plumstead remembered, “Within 24 hours, I went from doubting if I should even be on this team, to having Coach Ross stand up in front of the entire team and tell everyone that I was going to start on Saturday.”
The first thing he did after practice was call his father, Marty. After talking for about a half hour and not mentioning a word about what had happened, the elder Plumstead finally broached what he thought was going to be the sticky subject of how practice went that day.
“He knew it was kind of a sore spot, and didn’t really know how to ask, but that’s when out of the blue, I told him I was starting against Central Michigan.”
That Saturday, in front of his father and his stepfather, who had hopped in a car and made the 15-hour and almost 900-mile trek to Michie Stadium, John Plumstead ran onto the field, started his first game and made his first tackle all against a team that had passed him over not too long ago.
“When I got out there, I had to pinch myself. It was amazing.”
Plumstead played on the kickoff and punt teams for the rest of the year, as well as every contest during his sophomore season. Heading into his junior year, however, he was hungry for more.
“Don’t get me wrong, I put everything I had into special teams, but on game day, you only get to play once every 15 plays or so. That just wasn’t good enough after a while.”
During his junior year, Plumstead continued his ascension up the linebacker depth chart, focusing all the while on procuring a starting job. Eight games into the season, the opportunity presented itself. Starting linebacker Charlie Rockwood had gotten injured during the Central Michigan game, and Plumstead was one of the options the coaching staff was looking at to fill the top line of the depth chart for the following week’s game at Georgia Tech.
“You obviously never want to see one of your teammates get hurt, but I couldn’t help but get a little excited about the possibility of starting,” said Plumstead. “All week, no one knew who was going to get the nod. I figured, with my luck, they will just move one of the starting safeties over. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but in the end, I got the job.”
In his first career start, Plumstead totaled nine tackles, including a pair of quarterback sacks. The following two weeks, he compiled a career-best 10 tackles at service academy rival Air Force as well as against Rutgers. He tied his career high with 10 stops in the season finale against arch nemesis Navy to stand sixth on the squad in tackles for the season.
This season, he reached a higher height than he even thought possible. He was voted a team captain by his teammates, a testament to his leadership capabilities that he will look to carry over into his career in the Army.
Leading Into The Future
It may come as no surprise that Plumstead is already working toward his next goal. He hopes to branch infantry and head to Ranger School after graduation.
“The last five years, I have committed myself to Army Football. When I graduate, I want to commit myself to the Army. I will have at least five years to experience everything that I can. I feel like being an infantry officer will allow me to do that. Infantry is about taking a group of guys and leading them in the right direction, collectively, to a common goal.”
Army linebackers coach Robert Lyles sees a lot of those qualities in Plumstead that would serve him well as a Ranger officer.
“John first got my attention before he was even a starter,” explained Lyles. “He used to shout, Linebackers Assemble’ to call all the linebackers together during practice. He took it upon himself to be in a position of leadership and always uses his positive attitude and energy to encourage the other guys when things get tough. He has always accepted the challenges that were laid out in front of him and went after them. He always wants to get better and works hard to do so.”
A humble Plumstead explained, “I would hope my teammates look at me as someone who comes to work every day, leads by example, and takes his job very seriously, but doesn’t necessarily take himself too seriously. I hope they would say I am a lot like them.”
Undersized. Undervalued. Underestimated. Hollywood producers and directors should be taking notes. If most people were dealt those cards, it would be hard not to fold. Plumstead has turned them into a winning hand.
“I’m just a poor kid from Northern Michigan living the American dream. I guess I like to think I’ve done a lot with what I’ve been given.”
Tim Volkmann is the Assistant Director of Athletic Communications at West Point.