He doesn’t know it, but I have a history with Ken Ploen that goes back more than six decades. “Kenny” Ploen, to Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans of that era, was 23 years old and the team’s star quarterback. I was one of three teenagers who published a monthly sports newspaper called the West Kildonan Sports Sentinel, selling it for 10 cents at the local drug store only because we knew the pharmacist.
In Edition 6, we launched a series: “Great Moments in Sport.” Guess who we wanted as the first subject? My job was to write Ploen a letter with our request. He had played five seasons with the Bombers, guiding them to four championship games and winning three, most recently the first overtime Grey Cup in history.
The letter was sent four months after that game.
“Dear Bob: Enclosed you will find the article you requested. Hope you found it is what you expected. If I can be off any assistance to you in the future, don’t hesitate to contact me. Sincerely, Ken Ploen.”
With it was a hand-written, 329-word account (byline included) of his Cup-winning touchdown. He set the stage, modestly described the play and even included a post-game reaction in which he explained why it was his greatest moment: “…as I look back on this long afternoon, after being voted the game’s outstanding player and seeing movies of the game, I can fully understand…”
Imagine, it took movies of the game to convince him.
This was the Kenny…oops, Ken Ploen…that Winnipeggers loved. Old Winnipeggers cherish the memories to this day. One who never forgot was the biggest Bombers fan I ever met, my wife’s Uncle Dick. He often talked of those teams far into the night, and far into one night he was debating some play that involved Ploen. He was losing the argument and, his logic loosened by alcohol, said something like:
“Okay, let’s call him and find out.”
Ploen’s number was in the phone book, and my uncle-in-law called it, long after normal people were asleep. Ploen answered the phone and the question, much to Uncle Dick’s delight because he was right, and presumably went back to sleep.
That was Ken Ploen, polite to a fault.
It was a tragedy that, at least in part, led him to Winnipeg. He quarterbacked the University of Iowa to the 1957 Rose Bowl. A Hawkeyes teammate from 1956, Cal Jones, was flying back to Winnipeg after playing in the CFL all-star game in Vancouver. He had another flight booked for California, to watch his buddies in the Rose Bowl. Jones and Ploen, who were close, had talked extensively about how the rookie loved playing in Winnipeg.
Sadly, Jones died when the plane crashed on Mount Slesse in B.C. The next day, the Hawkeyes dedicated the Rose Bowl game to him. They won, and Ploen was the star. Later that year, the words of Cal Jones led him to Winnipeg.
The Bombers have been blessed with great quarterbacks, from Jack Jacobs to Don Jonas, Dieter Brock, Tom Clements, Matt Dunigan, Khari Jones and the current hero, Zach Collaros.
For all of them, the bar was set by Ken Ploen.