Former Bears safety Doug Plank feels good even though he has titanium in both of his shoulders and knees. The 66-year-old said eight years of high-speed collisions will do that to a man.
Plank tries to work out daily. In fact, he has a date with the local YMCA in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the conclusion of our interview. He believes staying fit has helped him stay sharp physically and mentally.
It has been more than 35 years since Plank rose to notoriety for his ferocious tackles and aggressive nature during his eight seasons with the Bears. And looking back with the knowledge he now has about repetitive trauma to the head, Plank, who said he suffered at least 30 concussions, said he wouldn’t change a thing about what he did on the field.
“I feel like I gave 100 percent effort 100 percent of the time,” Plank told the Sun-Times.
Plank loved many things about football, from the camaraderie of the locker room to meeting new people off the field he might not have. But the reason Plank played full bore at every opportunity was because he didn’t believe he would play at the NFL level in the first place.
Plank hurt his knee within the first 30 minutes of his college football career at Ohio State. Over the next few seasons, he had a reputation of being “soft” because of that injury, and he struggled to claw his way to a starting position.
During his senior season, a Buckeyes starting safety rolled his ankle early in a game against Northwestern in Evanston. It was Plank’s time to shine.
Plank said he played most of the game, recording several tackles and an interception. That one game was enough to get the attention of the Bears.
After the 1975 Rose Bowl, in which the Buckeyes lost to USC, Plank was ready to hang up his cleats for good.
“I thought, ‘Wow, what a great experience this football was. I wish I could’ve done it further,’ ” Plank said.
Then his phone rang. It was the Bears, who let him know they drafted him in the 12th round.
In his rookie season, Plank started all 14 games. He went on to create a legacy with the Bears as half of “The Hit Men” with safety Gary Fencik. His relentlessness and competitiveness impressed defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who named his defense the “46 defense” in honor of Plank’s jersey number.
“I played with a lot of enthusiasm, and some people described it as something else — something dark and disasterly — that I was out there trying to run into as many people as I could,” Plank said. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily my interest, but I did want to play as hard as I could for the Chicago Bears, and I tried to exert as much effort as I could on every single play. So that’s the reason why once I broke the huddle and lined up in my position, I was on an incredible task of trying to make a tackle or try to remove a blocker or help our team win games.”
Plank knew he was reaching the end of his career when aches and pains lingered longer and his bruises didn’t heal as quickly as they used to.
Before what turned out to be his last season in the NFL, Plank went to a local Burger King to sign autographs. He met the franchise’s owner, and the two chatted about working in the fast-food business.
That ended up being a worthwhile connection for Plank.
In 1982, Plank played just one game before suffering a season-ending injury. He never played another game for the Bears, but he did play one season with the Chicago Blitz of the United States Football League before he officially called it quits.
“Everyone would like to believe mentally they can overcome it,” Plank said of the shock of being forced into retirement. “You can’t really mentally overcome it. Your body is physical, and a lot of times you’re not in a position where you can physically come back. You slowed down or lost some of your strength, and that’s what’s so demoralizing.”
Plank remembered his encounter at Burger King and decided he was going to become a franchise owner.
“I found when my career ended with the Bears, I really enjoyed that camaraderie and the team aspect,” Plank said. “So [I liked] being a part of a company, like a franchise, that you’re not doing this by yourself.”
At one point, Plank owned 20 Burger Kings in Columbus, Ohio, Phoenix and Kansas City, Kansas. He eventually sold them all in the early 2000s and got into broadcasting and coaching. From 2001 to ’13, Plank held various assistant positions in the NFL and was a coach for three Arena Football League teams. In six seasons, he was named AFL Coach of the Year twice.
Plank still works as an NFL and NCAA analyst on national radio broadcasts for Sports USA Media and Westwood One. He’s also a licensed realtor in Scottsdale, Arizona, and owns commercial and private properties, which he leases out.
Plank might not have any regrets on the field, but he looks back at the last six decades and wishes he could turn back time.
“As I go through my life, the -biggest pain that I have right now is the regrets in my life, the things I didn’t do and should’ve done or could’ve done,” he said. “Whether it be training, education or experiences, I didn’t do it. And people say, ‘You’ve done a lot in your life.’ And I have, but I could’ve done more.
“So with the remaining time I have on this planet, I’m going to try to take advantage of it.”
Plank wrote an autobiography last year titled “Walk the Plank.” In it, he shares the adversities he faced in football and life. He reflects on his mistakes, hoping that sharing his story will help others avoid making the same mistakes.
One thing Plank wishes he would’ve done years ago was continue his education, which is a lesson he wants to pass down to the next generation of professional athletes.
“There are so many talented people out there who are capable of so much more than physical things like throwing and they don’t do it,” he said. “They just let day after day go by, and then their career just comes to an end. And then it’s really too late to make a decision on what you want to do in life because you have a family and you’re looking to be productive and it’s hard to do what you want to do because it takes time.”