In his finest hour, Jim Otto moved mountains. Actually, he moved defensive linemen, but they were mountainous men, and Otto used leverage, strength and sheer will to clear them out of the way.
Otto, the Hall of Fame center for pro football’s ne’er-do-well Oakland Raiders from 1960-74, played football at knee level. His world on the gridiron was mostly lived 24 inches off the ground.
Otto touched the football on every play, but in the same way that a bell is involved in every boxing match. Nothing happened on the football field until Jim Otto said so. No one was to flinch until Otto made his snap to the quarterback.
He wore the unusual number of 00, to represent the first and last letters of his last name. Where others in the trenches had helmets adorned with criss-crossed cages in front of their faces, Otto eschewed all that protection in favor of the simple, two-bar face mask that was worn by wide receivers and running backs.
For 60, 70 snaps every Sunday afternoon, Otto gave his heart and soul to Da Raiders, hiking footballs to everyone from Tom Flores to Daryle Lamonica to Kenny Stabler to Father Time himself, George Blanda.
He won league championships, and he won over his teammates. Jim Otto was the stabilizing force on so many great Oakland Raiders offensive lines.
You couldn’t fit a beach towel on the area of turf that Otto worked on as he fended off a bull rush by Merlin Olsen or plowed enough daylight for a Raiders running back to squirt past him for a gain of four yards. Otto’s office was a patch of grass for an offense that loved to traverse acres of it at a time.
He gave the Raiders everything he had, then he retired and owned some Burger King restaurants for a time, making some actual money.
After Otto quit playing football, everyone moved on in Raider Nation. The fans cheered a new center, a guy named Dave Dalby—who was pretty damn good in his own right.
Otto was done with pro football, but pro football wasn’t done with Jim Otto.
Otto played the most brutal of games in the most ferocious of ways, and he paid dearly for it.
As today’s pro football forces battle it out in boardrooms instead of in stadiums, trying to hammer out an agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) so that there won’t be a labor stoppage, I can’t help but think of Otto and others like him who literally sacrificed their bodies’ well-being in the name of beating the other guy on Sunday.
Specifically, I recall a documentary I once saw years ago, with Otto as its tragic hero.
Maybe it was on “60 Minutes” or some such program. Regardless, the cameras and narrator told the story of Otto, now retired, and what the man had to put himself through—just to get out of bed in the morning.
His knees ravaged, his joints creaking, the pain relentless, Otto was shown how he wakes up every day.
It was a slow, rudimentary, agonizing process.
As the cameras rolled, we saw Otto do his level best to swing his unbent legs across the mattress, his feet’s eventual destination being the bedroom floor. We saw him wince, stop and grimace as what would take most people seconds encompassed several minutes of Otto’s existence.
This was just him getting out of bed. You could barely watch him put on a pair of pants. Having a life was a whole other deal.
In the feature, we saw Otto pay a visit to his doctor. We saw, up close, his gnarled kneecaps and crooked joints. We saw a man in enormous pain, on a daily basis.
In his finest hour, Jim Otto was a human wall for his quarterbacks and running backs. He was the offensive line’s rock, its most reliable man. He put in his rugged time and on most days, you didn’t notice him. You didn’t say his name.
That meant he played great—again.
But when I saw Otto in the TV special, it wasn’t his finest hour. He was a sack of old, used bones. The wall had crumbled.
Otto has undergone some 28 knee surgeries—nine as a player. He’s had multiple joint replacements. He also fought off three life-threatening bouts of infections due to his artificial joints.
In August 2007, they cut Otto’s right leg off because it was ravaged with infection.
I don’t have the numbers, but I’d be willing to put down a sawbuck or two that says that Jim Otto didn’t make, in his entire football career, half the dough that some of today’s centers make in one season—who are half his talent.
I bring up Otto so that when you hear of the NFL wanting to go to an 18-game regular season and you hear the players balk at such a notion, don’t be so quick to label them as petulant, rich crybabies.
In fact, don’t be so quick to narrow your eyes at the players in general and call them “millionaires” and ask that they keep their mouths shut.
Otto was considered a star, as validated by his bronze bust in Canton, Ohio. He played all those years. And he was by far, the exception to the rule.
The typical NFL player is employed for an average of 3.5 years. This means he’s done with his primary source of income by age 26 or 27—at best. Most of them are nameless, faceless guys filling out a jersey until they’re replaced by someone younger, healthier and who can stand upright for more than five minutes at a time.
Not every player makes the really big bucks. A salary of $400,000 might seem like a lot of dough to you. But do you really think that a man making 400 grand and whose career is done by age 27 is set for life?
NFL players are masochists. There’s no other way to describe it. What they put themselves through—the jolting collisions, the muscle strains, the concussions, joints that look like God put them together in the dark—so that we can enjoy the spectacle of the sport in between trips to the refrigerator, is mind-boggling.
I don’t know what side you’re on in this owners vs. players dispute. I understand that neither side is exactly a great source of sympathy. But if you look deeper, you should find that only one side is truly making as much cash as it can while it’s still physically capable of making it.
Jim Otto gave his leg—literally—to the game of professional football. He played 15 seasons, or about four times the average. Yet he made his real money by owning restaurants.
Think about that the next time you choose to lump the haves with the have-nots when it comes to pro football players.