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Sunday, September 25, 2011

QUIET HERO: THE KEN PLOEN STORY -- A BOOK REVIEW

 
QUIET HERO: THE KEN PLOEN STORY – A BOOK REVIEW

James R. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D.
© September 25, 2011

My first memory of Kenny Ploen was in the fall of 1947, when he was twelve, and he came over to the grounds of the Clinton County Courthouse to play football with us, without pads.  He lived in the neighborhood but always played in the schoolyard across the street from his home on the grounds of Hawthorne Elementary.   In a perfect spiral, he threw that football a good fifty yards. 

I had the pleasure of playing with him on the Clinton High School basketball team when he moved up to the varsity as a sophomore and joined the River Kings playing with us in substate.  He was awesome there as well. 

In his senior year, Clinton High finished third in the 1953 Iowa High School Basketball State Tournament, which as impressive as that was, he immediately put on his track shoes without a beat, and won the Indoor Iowa High School 120 yard high hurdles (St. Mary’s High School of Clinton won the Iowa State Basketball Championship in 1953).

It so happened, I was president of Hillcrest Dormitory at the University of Iowa when he was a Nile Kinnick Scholar Athlete, Clinton’s first, as a freshman.  I got to know him even better then. 

Besides being an outstanding athlete, Kenny Ploen was an honor student in high school and at the university in civil engineering.  He would go on to win the Big Ten Football Championship at Iowa, and the Rose Bowl Game in 1957, along with Most Valuable Player for that prestigious game.  By the coincidence of circumstances, I was on the Flag Ship of the Sixth Fleet (USS Salem CA-139) during Kenny’s senior year, and followed his exploits in the ship’s newspaper. 

Always modest, he gave his brother and my best friend, Del, this book with the inscription “To Jim Fisher, Hope you enjoy the book, Ken Ploen, Old #11.”   

Two Canadian sports writers, Roy Rosmus and Scott Taylor have put a beautiful book together of Kenny Ploen’s life story, along with photographs and tributes of teammates and coaches, as well as competitive players and coaches, and others who have had the pleasure of knowing our most celebrated sports figure from Clinton, Iowa since Duke Slater. 

As successful as Kenny Ploen’s life was before he joined the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League, it went into another gear once he joined that team.  For the next ten years, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers dominated Canadian football, largely because of Ploen’s leadership and play.  The team went to six Grey Cups (equivalent of the NFL Super Bowl) and won four.  He was named the Most Outstanding CFL Player of the 1960s.

There are family pictures of his siblings and parents, and a picture of him with his high school River King teammates Dick St. Clair, Don Hart and Phil Leahy.  There is also a picture of Nile Kinnick, whom he strikingly resembles, the great Iowa quarterback for whom the Iowa academic/athletic scholarship he won is named.

The book takes you through his perfect skill base for Iowa’s coach Forest Evashevski’s “Wing-T” offense, where he used the option play with devastating brilliance, the high lights of the 1957 Rose Bowl game, his extremely shy and characteristic courtship and marriage to University of Iowa’s MECCA queen, Janet Newcomer, his spurning the NFL draft for a much more lucrative long-term contract with the Canadian CFL’s Blue Bombers, where coach Bud Grant, an equally modest and unassuming guy, but a dedicated hunter and fisherman like Kenny Ploen, wanted to install the Wing-T offense in his new job.  As they say, player and coach proved to be a match made in heaven. 

The book is resplendent with quotes:

“Kenny, you were the fiercest competitor I ever met in football.  I consider it an honor even to have played against you.” (Bernie Faloney, Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback)

“They called it the house that Jack Jacobs built, but Ken Ploen paid the mortgage.” (co-author Roy Rosmus)

“Ploen simply murdered you, methodically and slowly, with an ice pick.” (coach Neil Armstrong of Edmonton Eskimos)

The book is not a hagiography of a saintly character but of a humble and gifted man who employed his skill base with the precision that is endemic to his character.  The book is of a similar design. 

The most moving part traced the nature of Kenny’s greatness, of how similar he was to Nile Kinnick in so many ways, how it was always about the team and never about him, and how players responded to his leadership with gusto and timely execution.  

The book is a tribute and dwells little on his injuries that forced him to retire, or how some of his business adventures proved less than fulfilling.  A trained engineer, he maintained that status with Martin Paper Products in his early years while playing in the CFL, and subsequently, in broadcasting, and then investing in Minute Muffler, never finding in business the consistency of football, which from my perspective, is not surprising given my several books on the subject.

Kenny Ploen now enjoys retirement with his wife, along with his grown children and eight grandchildren, fishing and hunting with his brother, Del, and spending the winters in his Florida home. 

Clintonians can be proud of their native son still continuing his winning ways in the afternoon of his life.  He is a legend in his own time, and the most outstanding athlete-scholar Clinton, Iowa has ever produced, along with Duke Slater, the African American tackle in Clinton High School and the University of Iowa.  Like Kenny Ploen, Duke Slater attained all-American recognition, then went on to be a Federal Judge in Chicago, Illinois.







1 comment:

  1. Ken Ploen is a humble and classy gentleman who is also a living legend here in Winnipeg, a city he never left since coming here in 1957. A few friends and I had the honor of meeting him for a lengthy chat session on my 50th birthday three years ago and he was an absolute joy to spend 90 minutes with. We all wished he had more time but he had to go watch his grandson play hockey...typical of him we thought. He happily answered all of our questions, shared some memories and talked about former teammates like Alex Karras, Frank Rigney and Leo Lewis, and also coaches Forest Evashevski and Bud Grant (another Winnipeg legend). He also graciously signed everything that we brought along for the occasion. I had a 1966 Winnipeg Blue Bombers Photo Yearbook and he flipped through every page with great interest. He voiced his pleasure at one picture which showed the full stands at one of the home games. He signed a beautiful photo of him releasing a long pass with his now familiar "Old #11 Ken Ploen". May he enjoy many more happy and healthy years walking or driving to our new football stadium, opening in 2012, on the street which is to be named after him.

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