The first time I saw Kenny Ploen, he was one of two dozen tiny figures scurrying about on the tiny black-and-white screen of a living room TV set with rabbit ears (ask your grandparents about that, kids).
I don’t recall if I was watching the 1957, ’58 or ’59 Grey Cup game. I just know that Ploen was in the lineup that afternoon, running the ball, catching the ball, flinging the ball or hauling down foes with the ball as he and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers conspired to deliver the Canadian Football League championship to a town that was to grow accustomed to gridiron glory during his watch.
Jungle Jim Trimble, the big-lunged blowhard who coached the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, warned that his large lads would “waffle” the Winnipegs, but bragging rights belonged to the Bombers, who four times bettered Trimble’s Tabbies in their five Grey Cup arguments between 1957 and ’62.
Ploen wasn’t always the star, but he was always the straw that stirred the Blue-and-Gold drink.
That’s why it was Ploen’s signature that my friend Chester and I most sought when we’d hop on our bikes during the late 1950s and make a twice-daily pilgrimage to Canada Packers Field in St. Boniface, where coach Bud Grant would put our football heroes through their training camp exercises in the morning and again in the afternoon. We seldom missed a shift at that sun-scorched patch of earth, and Ploen never refused an autograph, no matter how often we reached out to him with pen and paper.
“How many of these do you have?” he once asked as he signed my small, white football.
“I don’t know, Mr. Ploen,” I answered. “I hope we aren’t pestering you by asking for your autograph every day.”
“Not at all. I’m glad to do it.”
Kenny Ploen rocked. He still does.
When they add the old quarterback/defensive back/safety/receiver/kick returner’s name to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Ring of Honour on Thursday night at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry, I’m hoping that those of my vintage will speak to younger generations not merely of Ploen as a gridiron great but as a wonderful person.
Ploen came to us as an American college hot shot, fresh from success in the Rose Bowl game where his Iowa Hawkeyes took the measure of the Oregon State Beavers, 35-19. He was saluted as the game’s most valuable performer. Yet he never acted like an American college hot shot MVP. He didn’t have a flashy nickname like the Rocket and he didn’t brand himself The Ordinary Superstar. He didn’t come to River City to take the money and run home to Iowa, either. He did his running on the field, like during the overtime session in the 1961 Grey Cup game, when he fled the grasp of ill-intentioned Tiger-Cats and skedaddled 18 yards down the right sidelines to deliver the decisive points.
Given two words to describe Kenny Ploen, I would use “aw, shucks.” He’s as humble and modest as a Winnipeg winter is cold and gnarly.
Born 81 years ago in Lost Nation, a town of fewer than 500 folks surrounded by corn fields in eastern Iowa, and raised in Clinton on the western shore of the Mississippi River, Ploen could have given the National Football League a go. The Cleveland Browns wanted him in their defensive backfield and were willing to compensate him to the tune of $500 as a signing bonus and a $5,000 salary. He came north instead, accepting a $3,000 bonus and an annual stipend of $9,000 from the Bombers.
It wasn’t the money that lured Ploen here, though. He never spent a penny of his $3,000 bonus. He handed it to his father, who operated a motel in Fulton, Ill.
“I feel like I played at a time when sports were sports,” he said upon the occasion of his induction into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. “I think I had a lot more fun playing when I did than what guys do today. People weren’t chasing dollar bills the way they do now. It was a game.”
So Ploen, who raised three children with his bride Janet, was in River City for a good time and a long time.
Over the years, Kenny Ploen has become our Jean Beliveau. He is to the Bombers and Winnipeg what big Beliveau was to les Canadiens and Montreal, a favorable blend of style and substance, class and dignity, grace and gridiron gallantry, and the athletic bona fides of a champion.
There are none, nor have there been any, so admired as Kenny Ploen.
Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 45 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.