From Raider to Gladiator: An Exclusive Interview with HOFer Jim Otto
From 1960 to 1969, Jim Otto was the only All-League center the American Football League ever had. He started in 210 consecutive games for the Raiders and ultimately played in 308 games including preseason, postseason, and all-star games. Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980, Otto remains a legend.
In this interview, Otto reflects on his friendship with Al Davis, whom he still calls Coach, the changes he’s seen in the game, and lessons he’s learned that keep him going in spite of his long-time injuries.
How was Al Davis as a coach at the beginning of his time with the Raiders?
One of the things I will always remember is my first three years in the AFL, which were devastating to me. We weren’t equipped with a good coaching staff or the right players.
All that changed when Al came on [as head coach in 1963] and I was very excited because I saw his coaching ability with Los Angeles and San Diego. I played in the All Star games those years where Al Davis was one of our coaches and I loved what I saw there.
He had information that no one else seemed to be giving our wide receivers, for example. He had so much more knowledge than everyone else. You saw it in the Pro Bowls when he was assistant coach to Gillman and when he was head coach in 1963.
My hopes went so high that our team would be one to reckon with. It was an answer to my prayers that we had a head coach that knew how to win.
What kind of knowledge did he have that you felt was unique?
Before the end of the week he would come up with the exact thing you had to do to beat the guy across from you. If he knew a defensive player had a certain technique he wouldn’t let you forget it and worked you that week to prepare for it. He was a hands-on head coach.
Mainly he would remind me of my footwork and of various fundamentals. “Don’t forget this, Jim. Don’t forget that, Jim.” I really respected him.
How did he earn that respect?
He was a winner. And everyone likes to work with a winner. Coach Davis was that type of person. He was fighting for the game right alongside you. He was in the fight to win. He instilled a pride and poise in the team and that certain “commitment to excellence,” as he called it.
The first thing we had to do was develop pride in our plays and the way we executed them. He was the one who taught us how to do that through hard work.
In my heart, he’s always been my coach. It’s been that way since I was a boy. You have a very high respect for your coach and once you have that ingrained in you a coach is a coach and to me he’s a very special person.
How would you characterize Davis as an owner or commissioner?
As a commissioner, he was still Coach Davis. As an owner, whenever we talk football, he’s still giving me knowledge and helping me understand certain aspects of the game. This is his life and my life, too. He was the ultimate coach.
What were some of the highlights during your time as a Raider?
In his first year as head coach of the Raiders we beat the San Diego Chargers in San Diego. It was a great game for us because the Chargers use to wail on us all the time. It was an opportunity to prove that you’re not gonna wail on us anymore.
It was an opportunity for him to show his mentor, Sid Gillman, that he was a force to be reckon with. We beat them in San Diego and Oakland that year. That was very memorable to me.
Then there was the [AFL] championship and the Super Bowl. There was a tremendous amount of joy and appreciation for everyone on the team. I remember the joy and excitement that was there including Mr. Davis—Coach Davis I should say—and the things he tried to do to make the greatness of the team. He was responsible for that.
What are some of the differences you see between players during your time and players today?
It’s hard to compare players today with players back then. There are still great football players today and everybody raps the players up today because they make too much money, saying they’re not dedicated and have no loyalty. I’m not in the heads of those kids or player personality.
I still evaluate players in my mind as I watch them throughout the year. In my years the Raiders were great. We had Al Davis and nobody else had him. Even his assistant coaches were very dedicated. We had the best coaching staff.
We had the best players in those years and that’s what made us so good. So many guys were dedicated. As you go through the years, different things evolve in football. Some people get into the mix that aren’t as dedicated as they should be. You’d like to see people that are always dedicated but that doesn’t always happen.
In any business you have to have dedicated people or you’ll end up with an economy like we have today. You have to have a game plan and execute that game plan.
What would you like to see the Raiders accomplish this season?
I would like to see them accomplish and get into the Super Bowl. That’s the epitome. But you want to see your team improve every year. You don’t want to see injuries. In most situations, if you get by without too many injuries you have a pretty good chance of getting into the playoffs and into the Big Game.
In the NFL they talk about parity. We’ve seen the Super Bowl bounce around from team to team the last couple years. A few teams have exceptional personnel and have gone without serious injuries.
What do you see as some of the team’s weaknesses?
I would like to think the Raiders don’t have any weaknesses.
How has the game itself changed?
Different rules have come out with regards to the use of your body in the game. Players are bigger so the use of your head is no longer a part of your attack. You can use your brain, that’s for sure. There are some changes naturally in the player. They got bigger.
Changes to free agency helped a lot of players to go where they would like to go and have necessary freedoms and the money is fantastic. When I retired if you took all the salary for the entire 16 years, I didn’t make near $1 million and now all these kids are getting crazy bonuses.
We didn’t play for the money either in those days. It was more of a pat on the back. We enjoyed making our coach happy and making him successful. Those things have changed a lot.
From what I understand the agents put a lot of pressure on management and the coaching staff. Football is still the greatest game in America, though, and the players and coaches and owners make it that way.
How does the sport take a toll on you?
Football is football. It’s like being a gladiator: you get in a ring and fight all the guys and then they turn a lion against you. I’ve often looked at being a football player as being a gladiator.
There’s something inside of you that says, “I want to go out there and prove my worth.” Most of the time you’re going to get injuries. That’s the life you choose. Some people need a challenge in life and they play hockey or rugby. Football was the way I could prove myself.
I lost my leg and what are you supposed to do? Become depressed and do nothing about it? Your life has to go on. As a gladiator, if the lion grabs your leg, you’re gonna get out and use something else to turn around that adverse situation. I’ll never forget when Mr. Davis saw me on the field.
I had a problem with my neck and that stinger would hold me up for a few seconds. I was down on one knee and Coach Davis told me to get off my ass, get up and play football. “As Jim Otto goes the Raiders go,” he said. I got up, as a gladiator would, and snapped my helmet on tight and played football.
I was in the hospital for a while trying to save my leg but that was it. Once again I was down on the turf but I got off my ass and here I am today. Everyday is an uphill battle. A battle where at the end of the day I can look back and see how I’ve progressed.
I feel good about that and I’m not through yet. I don’t know what I’m going to accomplish but when I get up that hill there’s going to be something great that I’ve done.
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