From NFL QB to mushroom farmer: Jake Plummer's life-altering journey into the queendom of fungi

FORT LUPTON, Colo. – Wildflowers dot the grass, and the Front Range juts up over the rise to the west of this long, gravel driveway, winding through a pasture toward a metal outbuilding.

The rectangular structure looks at home among a few wandering cattle, but when Shane Schoolman opens the door into the main room, it quickly becomes evident this is no storage shed.

Just inside and to the left is a large, red industrial mixer. There are racks of supplies, a card table with plastic bins and bags, doors to adjacent rooms that flank the central area and a slight, earthy scent.

Near the back is perhaps this place’s most unique feature: A former 10-year NFL quarterback, clad in a yellow T-shirt and shorts, his fingernails and toenails painted bright green, pink and silver, moving a bucket from one station to another.

Welcome to Jake Plummer’s mushroom wonderland. Dubbed Mycolove Farm, it is a fledgling startup – part apothecary, part chemistry lab and part sanctuary. It is a place where people talk about ideal growing conditions for Ganoderma polychromum one minute and burial sites of South American shamans and Buddhist monks the next.

“What we love is having one foot in science and one foot in mysticism, if you will,” says Schoolman, the farm’s CEO.

Shane Schoolman explains the process of growing mushrooms as he holds a Reishi mushroom at their grow house in Ft. Lupton, CO. Former Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer in back inspects the crop of mushrooms that grow inside biodegradable bags in the fruiting room.
Shane Schoolman explains the process of growing mushrooms as he holds a Reishi mushroom at their grow house in Ft. Lupton, CO. Former Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer in back inspects the crop of mushrooms that grow inside biodegradable bags in the fruiting room.

This is a place where the business objectives – to make and sell locally sourced, concentrated mushroom extract supplements to customers and also high-quality gourmet mushrooms for restaurants – and the social and spiritual paths of the four who work here freely intermingle.

"It’s not like we discovered this new mushroom," Plummer said. "These have been around forever, so we’re just figuring out ways to grow them efficiently, extract them so they’re very potent and then make them available for people that are interested in their health and wellness and preventative maintenance and that are sick and tired of being sick and tired."

This is the center of Jake the Snake’s life-altering foray into the queendom of fungi, and the journey is only just beginning.

Plummer is one of four employees all listed as co-founders. He is at the farm most days, open about the fact that he's still learning the technical side of mushroom farming, but willing to do anything and everything from sweeping the floors to mixing substrate to harvesting fully fruited mushrooms, while also recognizing his name draws interest.

"It was 16 years ago when I was that guy that would lead a team down the field, and I’ve changed tremendously since then and evolved and grown, but it’s still part of me," he said. "It doesn’t define me, but it’s part of me. It allows for me to reach more people than just a small audience where I live. ... I’m not doing this to make a bunch of money.

"I’m doing this because it’s helped me, and I figure I have a chance to spread that word."

Former Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer smiles as he holds up a reishi mushroom that was grown on his farm in Ft. Lupton, CO. Plummer and three other partners help run and maintain the farm in Ft. Lupton, CO.
Former Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer smiles as he holds up a reishi mushroom that was grown on his farm in Ft. Lupton, CO. Plummer and three other partners help run and maintain the farm in Ft. Lupton, CO.

Finding mushrooms

How did Plummer, the former Arizona State star who played six years with the Arizona Cardinals and four with the Denver Broncos, end up here, 16 years out of the game and 30 miles from the stadium where he once led the Broncos within a game of the Super Bowl?

That question has several layers, but in practical terms, it happened at least in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Plummer spent years working with Del Jolly and Charlotte’s Web, a CBD and hemp company. Jolly introduced him to mushroom extract supplements.

“I started taking them and I just felt I believed in it,” Plummer said. “This is good. I feel good. I’m sleeping better.”

The pair and former UFC champion Rashad Evans co-founded Umbo, a company that makes mushroom bars and supplements. But when the first year of the pandemic disrupted supply chains, Plummer started to consider taking matters into his own hands. As it happens, this building in Ft. Lupton came available for lease and Plummer met Leo Pollio along the way. Their first day at the farm was Oct. 8.

“That really started it, and then it all just kind of came down the pipeline,” Plummer said. “When you know your path is right, things just kind of show up in front of you, and this showed up, and I figured this is the right place to be.”

He got introduced to Schoolman and the fourth co-founder, Michael Heim, through friends, and the operation turned from side project into full-time work.

“This is past the experimental stage. We experimented for a few months and now we know we can do it,” Plummer said. “Now it’s just phasing into that whole big step up as a business and a start-up. We’ve got to have a good product, get people to take it, get it into all the local places we can get it to. Then comes the obvious start-up conundrums, scaling, finding investors, finding bigger space, more employees, possibly, as we go.

“How far this goes, we don’t know yet.”

No matter what happens from here, Plummer is a long way removed from his playing days.

He said he felt ready to retire after 2005, his ninth year in the NFL, concluded with a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game that spoiled a 13-3 regular season, but Plummer wanted to win a Super Bowl and returned for a 10th year. Instead of a storybook ending, he got benched late in the season for rookie Jay Cutler, retired and rebuffed chances to play elsewhere. He said he never really considered what his post-playing days might look like, because, “when I was playing, I was fully in and doing it.

“I took a lot of time to travel and enjoy my family and kind of be directionless for a while and not necessarily trying to be out and strive for greatness or anything,” Plummer said of his post-playing days. 

Eventually, though, he was drawn to advocating for alternative treatment for the kinds of injury and trauma that professional athletes experience. He and Jolly and worked on a campaign called “When the Bright Lights Fade,” pushing the NFL in 2016 to consider CBD and hemp as alternatives to more common painkillers. Plummer called that experience “like hitting my head against the wall.”

Now, he has found mushrooms and is a true believer in their potential power.

“Football players in general, when you come out of the league, your body is beat up. You have so much inflammation. You have head injuries. No matter what you did, you have head injuries,” Plummer, 47, said. "... Sports in general, there’s a lot of body trauma and a lot of head trauma, and I know that these, had I introduced these sooner into my diet, I would probably feel like I’m in my late 20s or early 30s rather than my late 30s like I feel right now.

“Even after all the abuse, my body feels great.”

In Plummer’s mind, though, this road is not only about his own healing and personal evolution. He is a skeptic, to put it lightly, of Western medicine and healthcare practices in the United States. He sees pharmaceutical companies as drivers of pain and division rather than as innovators. He sees mushrooms specifically and the principles of Eastern medicine more generally as not only the way forward, but as a unifier.

“Peace and love will win out," Plummer said. "And mushrooms.”

Former Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer checks out the growth of the Reishi mushrooms that grow inside biodegradable bags in the fruiting room. The farm is operated with three other partners in Ft. Lupton.
Former Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer checks out the growth of the Reishi mushrooms that grow inside biodegradable bags in the fruiting room. The farm is operated with three other partners in Ft. Lupton.

History and mysticism

A tour through Mycolove shows the entire mushroom growing process, from liquid substrate in a petri dish to huge, colorful fruit bursting through cooked, inoculated 10-pound bags. Schoolman talks fast, bouncing from chemical compounds to information about watersheds to theories about a future in which mushrooms can help rid soil of contamination or even be used in building projects.

“I consider them the grand chemists of nature, and the reference I use is they’re like a janitor with an infinite keyring that, given enough time and resources, they can unlock any door,” Schoolman says.

All the while, Plummer is transfixed on the mushrooms.

“There’s so much about them that fascinates me every day. I’ve learned a lot, but I know very little,” he said. He’s trying to pick up the science and the nomenclature, but today he is more the foot in mysticism compared to Schoolman’s science.

“These are bio-accumulators, but also for our feelings,” Plummer said. “If you’re coming in here and you have a bad day, they’ll take it and give it back to you in a good way – at least that’s what I’ve had experience with. If I’m having a tough day or something’s going on, I’ll come in here and start to work with them, and all of a sudden I feel better when I leave. It doesn’t come out in the body of the (mushroom). They just exchange it and give it back to us. They work with us. That may be a little out there for some to think, but I believe it.”

The farm grows mostly varietals that can be found in North America. Some can take up to six months to grow while others develop much more quickly. Their proprietary extraction process, which Schoolman says produces to concentrations of up to 25%, can take six weeks. In tinctures, Mycolove sells reishi, lion’s mane, turkey tail and cordyceps. The company sits currently around $8,000 a month in revenue.

“We’re making money by selling it for what we’re selling it for, but we’re not going to sell it for what we probably could because we want it to be readily available to everybody,” Plummer said.

Umbo and Mycolove can’t claim in marketing their products that they possess medical benefits – “we call them functional mushrooms because they help your body function better,” Plummer says – but even still there is a booming market for mushroom-based supplements. The same month Plummer and Pollio first came to the farm, Allied Market Research pegged the 2020 functional mushroom market at more than $7.9 billion worldwide and estimated it could grow to more than $19 billion in the coming decade.

“For me, my grandpa had Alzheimer’s and, also doing what I did for a living, I’m trying to do anything that can help me re-grow nerves and help get me back to square, which is what I’m feeling,” Plummer said. “Everybody wants to live a long life, I would think. I do. Longevity, vitality, not just a long life but living a good life, not just in a wheelchair until you’re 120.

“I plan to be 110 and still active. That’s my goal.”

Former Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer checks out the reishi mushroom that is  growing and taking shape from inside these biodegradable bags in the fruiting room.
Former Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer checks out the reishi mushroom that is growing and taking shape from inside these biodegradable bags in the fruiting room.

Stigma and psychedelics

Even as a longtime resident of open-minded Boulder, which in 2019 became the first U.S. city to decriminalize the mushroom-based hallucinogenic psilocybin, Plummer clearly understands that some will view this all as being a bit, well, weird.

He fields questions often about whether a person can eat an Umbo mushroom bar and head to work or the gym without going on a psychedelic trip.

“Of course you can. It’s all fully legal,” he said. “It’s the same battle we fought with hemp and cannabis, same thing with hemp: ‘I don’t want to get high, I don’t like being high.’ No, this is non-psychotropic. You’re not going to get high.”

But there is a tangential conversation about psilocybin, psychedelics and psychedelic therapy, of which Plummer is a proponent. It is potentially part of the farm’s future business model.

“I think psilocybin is going to be the differentiator, because that’s what people know,” he said. “Once that becomes decriminalized or the government decides to approve it for therapeutic use, that’s one way to help yourself find healing or treatment for some of the ailments and disease we have in our country. But what do you do pre and post? There’s always the integration process. You can go on a big trip with psilocybin and go in deep and maybe find out something you didn’t know about yourself and realize it might be what’s causing some of the unrest or whatever, but you come out of it and what do you do? You go back to your normal life. You go back to the house, you go back to your job, back to the boss that triggers you to react.

“Well, we hope to be a conduit to help you come into that and come out of it with functional tinctures.”

Whether that actually happens remains far from a certainty. There is research being done on psychedelic therapies at places like Johns Hopkins University and Imperial College London, and some of the work shows potential benefits in areas like depression, smoking cessation and alcohol addiction. Jennifer Tippett, a psychologist and faculty member at the University of Denver, said some people believe MDMA could be legalized for medicinal purposes within two years and psilocybin perhaps not long after, but that there are significant hurdles remaining.

“Learning what we’ve learned from cannabis, once it was legalized, research just stopped, really, to a disservice to everyone,” said Tippett who, among her practice areas, offers psychedelic integration therapy for people who are using drugs like psilocybin. “It really just proliferated. The idea is that psilocybin, but also other heavy-hitting psychedelics, they really need to be blocked out in a way that is monitored and responsible and not just like cannabis where, let’s start a dispensary and you can just buy mushrooms.

“I think a lot of people are really nervous about that.”

‘Only scratching the surface’

Plummer smiles as he explains the meaning of the farm’s name.

Mycology is, of course, the study of mushrooms. But the "CO" is also for Colorado, community, collective and connection.

There seems to be some of all of that here. Mushrooms, of course, but enough of the community and connection that it is easy to see why, in this petri dish of a building, it feels like the beginning of something that could have a much wider scope. Or, perhaps it’s just a supplement business in the end.

Each day here walks the balance between the two ends of the spectrum.

“There’s big ambitions, but there’s also just like, today, we’ve got to get to it and inoculate those bags,” Plummer said. “I go from doing agar transfers or inoculations, liquid cultures to cleaning Room 3 to organizing the racks to emptying substrate into the compost pile or cleaning the bins.

“I’m the jack of all trades out here, but I’m no master.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Parker Gabriel on Twitter @ParkerJGabriel.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jake Plummer's foray into fungi: From NFL QB to mushroom farmer