Ken Ploen wasn’t always bigger than life in this town. It’s surely an odd statement to make now about the Winnipeg Blue Bombers legend, especially after all these years have passed.
It feels like he’s been revered in these parts as an icon forever. And seemingly no one single adjective has ever been enough to describe him.
He was an exceptional athlete first, then a Grey Cup champion, and – after he retired and still chose to make Winnipeg his home – a man this town gleefully adopted as one of its own.
Still, when the product of Lost Nation, Iowa, first arrived to ply his trade with the Blue Bombers in 1957 – after leading the Iowa Hawkeyes to the ’57 Rose Bowl title, earning MVP honours along the way – his credentials were not unlike the quarterback who had preceded him here.
Eagle Day led the Bombers in passing in 1956, just after guiding Ole Miss to a win in the Cotton Bowl. He was the MVP of that game too.
But the Bombers had a new coach in 1957, Bud Grant, who at the age of 29 upon his hire, was the youngest coach in Canadian Football League history.
And Ploen, who was one of many Iowa graduates recruited by Grant (including Frank Rigney, Frank Gilliam, Sherwyn Thorson and Bill Whisler) was to be his quarterback.
What happened next is now simply referred to as Blue Bomber folklore. Ploen would play in six Grey Cups from 1957-65, helping the club win four – 1958, 1959, 1961 and 1962. He was the CFL’s All-Star QB in 1965 and was a three-time West Division All-Star (1957, 1959, 1965). He was such a versatile athlete, in fact, that his all-star nod in ’59 came as a defensive back after setting what was then a club record with 10 interceptions. Grant, FYI, had also played defensive back in college for Iowa, choosing to stay in his home state and passing on an offer to play basketball at the University of Kentucky.
Ploen’s place on the Bombers Ring of Honour, then (to be officially unveiled at this Thursday’s home game against the Edmonton Eskimos) was as much a sure thing around here as a January cold snap.
Not surprisingly, Ploen deferred to his teammates while speaking of the honour last week with bluebombers.com
“I’m very humbled about it. This is really a tribute to the team we had back then,” said Ploen, now 81. “And we had a great team because it was a team in the purest sense of the word. It was full of good Canadians and Americans and we got along great together and played well together.
“Bud was a big part of it no doubt. He was a great coach, no question about it. He was successful here, he was successful when he went down to Minnesota. He had a great staff with him, too, and it all worked out well.”
Ploen retired in 1967 as the CFL’s sixth all-time leading passer and fifth on the Bombers all-time rushing list. And then the post-career awards and honours really started to pile up for the man.
He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1975, the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame in 1984, the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in 1987, the Rose Bowl Hall of Game in 1997, and the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame in 2002. In 1980, he was named the Bombers offensive player for the first half century.
And yet, Ploen made just as many friends after the game, it seemed, raising a family here with his wife Janet. Yes, this gifted and humble athlete by way of Iowa liked it here so much he opted to call Manitoba home. He played here, worked here, served as an analyst on CJOB broadcasts for many years, and opted to stay here.
“It’s a great spot,” said Ploen. “Once we got settled in here, my children were all born here and I had job here with MacMillan-Bloedell Packaging. It just made sense to stay.
“We’ve got a place at the lake and we’ve just enjoyed it every way. It’s been special.”