By his own admission, Ken Ploen still thinks it’s strange that a kid from Clinton, Iowa would grow up to win four Grey Cup championships and then have somebody write a book about him.
He also didn’t think the City of Winnipeg would name a street after him, but they’re going to do that, too. When the new Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ football stadium is opened at the University of Manitoba sometime in the next year (maybe even September), the road leading to the park will be called Ken Ploen Way.
“Who would have ever thought a kid from Clinton would ever have a book written about his life and a street named in his honor,” Ploen, 76, said the other day. “I know I didn’t.”
He’s being modest. For those Canadians – and Iowans — who know or remember Ken Ploen, and that list is extremely long, what should be considered even more surprising is that it actually took this long to write a book about the life of one of Canada’s great athletes.
After all, Ploen was the quarterback of the Blue Bombers when the Blue Bombers were the most dominant team in the Canadian Football League. In fact, the greatest decade in Bomber history was celebrated when Ken Ploen played quarterback and Bud Grant was the coach, from 1957-66.
Ken Ploen is still famous. He’s one the greatest athletes in the history of the country. He’s in the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. TSN’s viewers voted him the greatest CFL player of the 1960s. And the book about his life, written in 2011 (better late than never) has become a best-seller.
“Oh, I was lucky,” says Ploen with the aw-shucks response of a kid from small-town Iowa. “I came to Winnipeg and played on some of the best teams with the teammates a football player could ever want. Don’t forget, I was just part of a team. And it was a great team.”
Ploen’s story is one of the most dramatic in the annals of all sports. It’s made for a great book and really would make for a better movie.
In 1957, a young quarterback from Clinton, Iowa who had just led the University of Iowa Hawkeyes to the Rose Bowl championship, decided he had no interest in playing for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns and, instead, signed a “huge” contract in Canada, with the Western Interprovincial Football Union’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
“For me, Winnipeg was a great opportunity,” Ploen said. “I got drafted in the 19th round of the NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns as a defensive back. Milt Plum was the quarterback in Cleveland at the time and they were happy with him. I talked with Cleveland and they didn’t want me as a quarterback, they wanted me as a defensive back. They offered me a $500 signing bonus and a $5,000 contract, which, back then wasn’t bad.
“But up here in Winnipeg and they offered me a $3,000 signing bonus and a $9,000 contract and an opportunity to play quarterback. They also told me that the hunting and fishing was pretty good up here and they also told me you could work on the side.
“So I came up here with a better signing bonus, a better contract, an opportunity to play quarterback and a job with Martin Paper Products as an industrial engineer with my engineering background. Oh yeah, and the Canadian dollar was at a 6.5 per cent premium back then. You kind of roll all those things into one and it was not a very tough decision.”
When he received his signing bonus, young Ken gave the money to his parents.
“My dad was operating the Y Motel in Fulton, Ill., and it needed some work so I gave it to my mom and dad to put into the business,” said Ken. “My dad was a jack of all trades. He quit the Dupont plant because he got tired of working shift work, so he went across the (Mississippi) river to Fulton, Ill., and took over a motel. He ran that motel for quite a few years.”
The head coach in Winnipeg, a fellow named Harry Peter (Bud) Grant, was in his second year at the helm and yet he was only 30 years old. He loved what Ploen’s Iowa coach Forest Evashvski had done with the Hawkeyes and decided he was going to run “Evy’s” Wing-T offence as well. To do it properly, he knew he needed Iowa’s gifted 21-year-old quarterback.
That was a match made in heaven. The quarterback, Ken Ploen, loved to hunt and fish as well as play football and the coach, Bud Grant, would rather hunt and fish than play football. So the former Bomber receiver-turned head coach headed down to Brainerd, Minn., where Ploen and his family were fishing, and convinced the young quarterback to sign in Canada.
For the next 10 years, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers dominated Canadian football. The team went to six Grey Cups and won four of them. And while Ploen wasn’t always the quarterback, he was the Canadian game’s best player. He was an all-star on defence, a kicker, a punter and even a kick returner. As the Bombers became the most feared team in the CFL, Ploen became its greatest all-around player.
“Ken Ploen was a leader,” said his former teammate and still good friend, Henry Janzen. “He wasn’t a leader because he talked or yelled, he was a leader because everyone respected him. When we went into the huddle there wasn’t a sound because everyone on the team was confident that the plays he called would work. He got tremendous respect from his teammates because we all knew he was our leader.”
During his career, Ploen would not take credit for his team’s successes. Even today, Ploen’s personal glory always takes a back seat to the contributions that were made by his teammates.
If you ask Ploen about any situation or any great play, he’ll do one of the following things: 1) credit coach Bud Grant’s strategy; 2) credit the offensive line for its wall of blockers’ 3) call it the result of a great run or a great catch or a great tackle or 4) say that it was a brilliant substitution for an injured player that made the difference.
In truth, it was often all of these things, but without Ploen’s cool leadership and his ability to make plays (from just about any position), its unlikely things would have turned out as well as they did.
Consider these examples:
- He was knocked out of the Bombers’ quarterbacking position after six games in 1958. Trainer Gordie Mackie “trussed up” Ploen’s bad shoulder and he went back out and played halfback, slotback and safety.
- In the ’58 Grey Cup he faked a pass and ran through three Hamilton defenders to the Tiger-Cats one-yard line to set up the winning touchdown. Then later in the game, while playing defensive back, he picked off Bernie Faloney’s the last gasp pass to preserve the victory and end the game.
- In 1959 he played safety and halfback all year and not only tied a Canadian football record, but also set a Bomber record for interceptions in a season.
- When the 1959 Grey Cup rolled around, he was asked to play quarterback again. Jim Van Pelt was injured and after a season as a halfback and safety, Ploen went out and played superbly. He played an entire game of ball control until the very end when he caught the Tiger-Cats off-guard and threw two bombs late in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
- In the 1961 Grey Cup, he played possibly his finest game at quarterback and won the game with a dazzling touchdown run in overtime.
- In 1962, he started the Grey Cup, but was injured late in the first half and shared duties with Hal Ledyard, who played the third quarter. Of course, he still played defensive back throughout the game. Ploen started the scoring spree by rolling out on a bootleg and running 41 yards for a touchdown. Then, at the end of the game (Day 2 of the famous Fog Bowl) with the score 28-27 in favor of the Bombers, Ploen was a punt returner who ran out the last punt to safety at his own two-yard line and preserved the victory.
- As a quarterback, Ken Ploen called all of his own plays for his entire career, He would take suggestions from head coach Bud Grant, but in the end, every offensive play called during the Ken Ploen Era was Ken Ploen’s responsibility. And four Grey Cup victories would suggest he was responsible.
Without Ken Ploen’s remarkable ability to play almost any position and make a legitimate difference in each of the four Grey Cup victories, the Blue Bombers could not possibly have won all of them. The only athlete to match his multi-dimensional play was Edmonton’s Jackie Parker and he won only three Grey Cups.
Ken Ploen was truly a one-of-a-kind football player and his versatility and skill have not been seen since the day of his retirement.
(The coffee table-style book, “The Quiet Hero: The Ken Ploen Story” written by Roy Rosmus and Scott Taylor and published by Roslor Publishing is available for $35 by calling Football Manitoba at 204-925-5769)