The Las Vegas High football team’s linemen were chasing a tennis ball around the weight room during this spring workout.
Here’s the best offensive line in the state and instead of lifting weights to get bigger and stronger, they are aggressively chasing this tennis ball as if it were made of gold.
So, out of curiosity, I questioned the line coach.
Art Plunkett, a massive human being at 6-foot-8 and “too much,” wasn’t having any of the small talk. He seemed bothered to explain how the drill developed agility and footwork, which is just as important as strength in a complete lineman.
I didn’t see Plunkett until the following fall, when Las Vegas wasn’t playing its best on this particular Friday night. He jokingly — at least I think jokingly — credited the poor play to me covering the game on the sideline and suggested moving to the other side of the field.
I did. Las Vegas rallied to win. The next game, when I approached the Las Vegas sideline, he quickly pointed in the other direction.
For the next decade or so, every time our paths would cross, Plunkett assumed Las Vegas would lose because I was in attendance. It took about five years for me to realize he was joking and actually enjoyed having me around. His bark was worse than his bite.
“He’s a grounded guy, a calm guy,” said Kris Cinkovich, the former Las Vegas coach. “He did a really good job from day one of getting the kids to relate to him. He didn’t get mad often. But when he did get mad, the kids responded. He had that touch from the get-go.”
It also took years for me to discover Plunkett’s background because, as I quickly learned, he’s a humble man who doesn’t like attention or talking about himself. He had a nice career in the NFL, including playing in the 1986 Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. He’s a UNLV great, too.
He knows his football, especially working with the offensive line. When Las Vegas was a perennial power, he took small, undersized players and turned them into all-league performers. They always won a lot of games — I’ve argued the Wildcats of the early 2000s would beat modern-day Bishop Gorman.
Plunkett is retiring next week and is moving to the Pacific Northwest. He is one of five finalists for the Unsung Hero award during tonight’s Sun Standout Awards at the South Point. The award is designated for someone who works behind the scenes to help student-athletes be successful and further enjoy the high school experience.
Plunkett, who doubled as the Las Vegas athletic director, did that and more for more than 20 years — all at Las Vegas. He stopped coaching a few years ago because his knees couldn’t hold up, but instead became the school’s most prominent supporter. Whenever the Wildcats would play, and regardless of the outcome, he was there cheering.
It was the only school where he coached and taught. He loves Las Vegas High. The players and teachers love him back.
“He looks tough and gruff, but he’s the teddy bear type and always there for the kids,” said Derek Stafford, the athletic administrator. “He’s old-school. I am glad we got to work together.”
Plunkett returned to Las Vegas after an eight-year NFL career and opened a pizza parlor in Green Valley. After a few years of making pizza and wings, he found his true calling in working with kids. Las Vegas won state championships in 2001, 2005 and 2006.
“We had a good run. We had a very good run,” Plunkett said. “Those kids were hungry to win. We were the eastside kids. They never had respect. ... There is nothing better than seeing a kid succeed and get all fired up, watching them grow from an awkward freshman to a senior. That’s the best part of the whole deal.”
I’m going to miss seeing Plunkett on Friday nights. Probably not as much as the youth at Las Vegas. But at least I can go on the Wildcats’ sideline.
“People are afraid of me. I scared you,” Plunkett said. “I am sarcastic. After people get to know me, I have had them say, ‘I thought you were mean.’ ”