'Mr. Raider,' Jim Otto: 1938-2024

Hall of Famer Forever Published on : 5/20/2024
Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Otto, undisputedly the best center in the history of the AFL, died May 19, 2024, at the age of 86.The football world today is celebrating the life of JIM OTTO, undisputedly the best center in the history of the American Football League and considered by many as the finest on any professional team. 

A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 1980, his first year of eligibility, Otto died May 19, 2024, according to the Las Vegas Raiders. He was 86.

“Jim Otto personified the aura and mystique of the Raiders. He was 'The Original Raider,’ leading a new franchise from its inception into its first run of glory years from the late 1960s into the 1970s,” Pro Football Hall of Fame President Jim Porter said. “His legendary reliability — with 210 consecutive starts in the AFL and NFL — and the accolades he acquired serve as a testament to his dedication to the organization and the game.

“The Pro Football Hall of Fame will guard his legacy with the same diligence and tenacity that he guarded his teammates.”

Otto routinely described himself as a “gladiator,” and he refused to succumb to any injury — and there were plenty — he accumulated over 15 seasons in the AFL and NFL. He played in 210 consecutive regular-season games, answering every bell from the season opener as a rookie in 1960 until the last game of the 1974 season, a tough loss in the AFC Championship that denied him a much-coveted return to the Super Bowl.

Adding preseason, postseason and all-star games, all of which Otto played without fail, the number of consecutive games played surpassed 300.

“When I think of all the wear and tear on my body, 308 is the number I use,” Otto said in his appropriately titled autobiography, “The Pain of Glory.”

“His skills as a center were just perfect,” Hall of Fame Coach JOHN MADDEN said in a February 2021 interview with Tom LaMarre for SI.com’s Raiders Maven page. “He was one of those guys who never wanted to come out of practice. That’s the opposite of most starters, who will say, ‘Send in the second guy.’

“Jim was the Oakland Raiders’ center, and he wasn’t going to give up his spot.”

Playing in the days of one-platoon football, Otto doubled as a center and linebacker in high school in Wausau, Wisc., and at the University of Miami. He carried a rough-and-tumble attitude to the offensive line and relished the opportunity to make tackles on special teams for the Raiders.

“Hit or be hit,” he said of his approach to the game.

Accolades for Otto were many: AFL Hall of Fame All-1960s Team, 12 Pro Bowls, 10 first-team All-Pro designations, a spot on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players (No. 78) and one of the four centers named to the NFL 100 All-Time Team.

Hall of Famer MEL HEIN, another center on the NFL 100 All-Time Team, said of Otto long before either earned that recognition: “He has to rate with the best who ever played the position.”

Teammates and opponents concurred.

“He was one of the originals, the mold,” said Chuck Allen, a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers for nine seasons. “He was the one everyone tried to emulate.”

Without success.

“He had techniques others tried to emulate but couldn’t,” said Hall of Fame coach BILL WALSH, who spent the 1966 season as a Raiders offensive assistant. “I used to marvel at his skills. He played every down with intensity.”

Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica called Otto “a real warrior, the greatest center who ever played.”

“His durability, his ability to play with pain was something else,” Lamonica said. “My first game with the Raiders, he went down with a neck stinger. It looked like he was out for the year. He was back on the next play. ... You don’t see that kind of dedication today. Commitment to excellence was what Jim was about.”

Iconic images

“Stingers” were common for Otto from early in his playing days. An improvised sponge tied to his shoulder pads with a shoelace he used in college evolved into the fitted-foam neck roll that became standard equipment for him in Oakland. 

The neck roll, “00” jersey he adopted in his second pro season and U-shaped nose protector became ubiquitous parts of a uniform Otto never wanted to relinquish. A neck stinger also served as the injury that entrenched in Otto the determination never to leave the field. 

In his book, Otto recalled hearing that AL DAVIS — then in San Diego — had told the Chargers, “If Jim Otto was out of the game, the Raiders were beat.”

In 1963, Davis became Oakland’s coach. In a preseason game against the Chiefs, Otto sustained a neck injury and started off the field. Davis met him halfway.

“A Raider from now on never comes off,” Otto said Davis told him. “The next time you come off, you stay off.”

He stayed on 11 more uninterrupted years.

“What Al said to me became etched indelibly in my mind,” Otto told LaMarre in their interview. “I took a beating sometimes, but I stayed in the game. I didn’t want to disappoint him, the fans, my family or my teammates. I was captain for 12 of 13 years, and I guess I was the leader.

“It was hard sometimes because I had a chronic problem with my neck. I would get a stinger and it would just about knock me out. But there was no way I was going to come out of the game. What Al said that one time was enough.”

Relentless pain

Neck and back issues tormented Otto his entire adult life. Several of his vertebrae were fused, accounting for a half-dozen of the estimated 74 surgeries he underwent. Operations on at least one knee were a nearly annual occurrence — 28 in all with 10 joint replacements. With no alternative in 2007, doctors amputated Otto’s right leg.

Both of his shoulders were replaced. Three times Otto nearly died from post-operative infections.

He considered his 20-plus broken noses, hip pointers, broken fingers, broken ribs, a broken jaw, neck stingers, numerous concussions, kicked-in teeth and double pneumonia as “minor injuries, therefore minor distractions.”

“I was paid to play football, not hang out in the training room,” he said.

Despite the physical toll on his body, Otto repeatedly said he left the game with no regrets and even knowing the pain he endured for decades would sign up again to play in the NFL.

Otto took great pride in his durability. Only 20 other men played throughout the entire 10-year existence of the AFL, and only three of them played in every game. He was the first-team All-AFL center every season.

Coming out of Miami at 217 pounds, few predicted success or pro longevity for Otto. No NFL team drafted him; Minneapolis selected him in the 24th round of the AFL Draft, then vacated the team to pursue an expansion franchise in the NFL. His draft rights landed with Oakland.

Immediate accolades

Otto was the lone Raider to earn postseason honors following the 1960 and 1961 seasons. Following his standout rookie year, some NFL teams expressed interest in luring him away from the AFL, but he remained loyal to his original league and team.

The Raiders went 9-33 in Otto’s first three seasons — “We were the doormats of that league,” Otto said — and he briefly considered quitting, but “I knew there was light at the end of the tunnel.”

When Davis took over the team in 1963, winning followed. Even the new color scheme the Raiders adopted made a difference for Otto.

“The first time I put on the silver and black uniform, I wanted to wear it forever,” he said in his autobiography.

That love for the team, loyalty, longevity and determination earned Otto the nickname “Mr. Raider.”

From 1963 to 1974, the Raiders won seven division titles and the 1967 AFL Championship. They lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl II, and Otto never got back to the title game, one of the few disappointments that lingered with him. His teams lost five times in AFL or AFC title games, and in each case the opponent went on to win the Super Bowl.

As ferocious and tenacious as Otto played on the field, he was equally generous to opponents and teammates, even the one who eventually took his job. He tutored Dave Dalby, who would play 205 games for the Raiders over his 14 seasons.

Dinners at the Otto house and an annual Halloween party were other ways Otto demonstrated his persona off the field.

“Jim’s the best center I ever played against, bar none. He was a fighter, hard to keep down,” said BOBBY BELL, the Hall of Fame linebacker for the rival Chiefs. “The Chiefs-Raiders rivalry was a dogfight on the field, but the two teams were friends off the field. Jim’s just a class guy; he’s on top of my pyramid. He was a team player.”

After football, Otto worked as the Raiders’ business manager for a few years. He bought a walnut farm that he worked until his body dictated otherwise. He also owned several fast-food franchises and other businesses.

But football was his true passion.

“I loved football more than I can possibly explain in words that make sense to those who’ve never played the game,” he said. “I couldn’t even explain that motivation to teammates, who thought I was out of my mind to play with injuries that ordinarily sideline football players.”

In a 2012 interview with PBS, Otto called his injuries “the battle scars of the gladiator. The gladiator goes until he can’t go anymore.”

Otto was survived by his wife of 63 years, Sally; his son, Jim Jr.; daughter-in-law Leah; and 14 grandchildren.

Otto’s legacy, as one of the game’s best centers and all-time ironmen, will be preserved forever at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.