How I got hooked on sports: Jake Plummer in the Rose Bowl and a connection that never faded

The memory is now blurred.

All I can see is the pass of Paul Justin, who moves about forty feet through the air as the crowd rises and shoots a Arizona state receiver through the field under the lights of Sun Devil Stadium.

Catch, run, roar.

That’s how it all started for me – a 7-year-old boy, Red Vines and a Paul Justin bomb that exploded on a Saturday night in Tempe, Ariz.

My father died a few years earlier, the victim of a fatal heart attack at the age of 38. Through sports, I had contact with another father figure, the same man who coached my tee-ball team and later wins ASU football newspaper clippings after moving to Illinois after my mother died two years later. I’d read all those clippings, often more than once, then pin them to the wall next to my bed.

In the backyard, I played my own seasons as the Sun Devils’ starting quarterback – scrambled, threw, and recovered ASU football to its rightful place with Rose Bowl wins and Heisman Trophies.

For me, sport was always about connections. Connections to people and places I once knew and dreamed I hoped would one day come true. It is then that a bounce pass finds its target under the basket, a baseball hitting one sweet spot on the bat, spiraling into those outstretched arms across the field.

Catch, run, roar.

When Jake Plummer led the Sun Devils to Pasadena in 1997, my tee-ball coach was standing next to me in the Rose Bowl bleachers. We hugged after the Snake slid into the end zone late in the fourth quarter for a go-ahead touchdown, and comforted each other as Ohio State’s Joe Germain broke our hearts with a last-minute touchdown pass to David Boston.

Years later, he was on those same Sun Devil Stadium booths and I on the field for a contest for the Arizona state student newspaper. I looked up to see him smile and wave.

Paul Justin’s touchdown pass had long since been taken off the scoreboard, but the waves of the moment were still palpable as I waved back.

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