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Nov. 25, 2011
By Rob Daniels, Special to theACC.com
You don't have to be an avid football historian to know Jim Otto's name or his travails in playing a game that took his right leg as compensation. The lesser recognized part of a remarkable story is where it really got going.
What made a kid from Wausau, Wis., pick the University of Miami? Well, one thing is rather obvious.
"The day I came to Miami for my visit, it was 35 degrees below zero when I left Wausau," the Hurricanes' 2011 ACC Legend said recently. "I got off the plane and I thought, 'Wow. This is different.'"
As is Otto, whose long-term approach involved far more than tropical climes and helped him start a Hall of Fame career.
It wasn't so apparent back in 1956. If the Midwest didn't own college football at that point, it had a pretty heavy investment. Of the first 20 AP national champions, six went to Big Ten schools and four others were claimed by Notre Dame. The South's stronghold on the sport was a few years away.
Miami wasn't an iconic brand by any means. The Hurricanes had plenty of good teams, but when Otto was ready to make his college decision, the program wasn't what it is now. It was a football independent, a status that nearly every program has abandoned in the name of conference membership.
Otto looked at the B side.
"I would have the opportunity to play against teams from all conferences - from the Southwest Conference, the ACC, the SEC, the Big Ten," he said. "And there would be a lot of different types of football I'd play and see."
Sure enough, his first game in 1957 was at Houston. North Carolina, NC State and Maryland, residents of this newfangled thing called the ACC, came to town later that year. So did Kansas and Pittsburgh. The following season, LSU and Oregon paid visits to the Orange Bowl, then a state-of-the-art facility. The Canes played at Boston College and Florida State, among other places.
Television wasn't yet part of the cultural mainstream in American sport, but pro scouts were scattered around the country. And that was very appealing to Otto.
"I had that dream as a 6-year-old," he said. "I told my grandfather, `Someday, I'm gonna play for the Packers.' I never missed a day of practice at the high school. I used to go with the big boys and follow whatever they did. I'd have overalls on and would come home with holes in the knees."
Otto's was an era of playing on both sides of the ball. No breaks. No specialists. No questions asked. He was a linebacker. He was a center. And it was all fine with him. Andy Gustafson, who might have been one of the best known coaches in the game if television had arrived, used him all over the place.
In the spring of 1960, the new, pesky kid in pro football's subdivision, the American Football League, began operations. Minneapolis was due to have a team, and it liked the thought of a reasonably local (Wisconsin) guy on the roster. It drafted the Miami man.
But this being the AFL, things didn't go entirely according to plan. The Minnesota team folded and relocated to Houston, where new management kept the draftees it liked and let everybody else go. Otto fell into the latter category.
Otto wasn't without hope. Out in Oakland, they were assembling a team, too, and the coach, Eddie Erdelatz, had heard of a smart linebacker who made two interceptions against Navy in 1959. Erdelatz wasn't there that day, but he had recruited the quarterback who threw the passes and everybody else on the Navy team, having left the academy after the 1958 campaign.
Erdelatz contacted Otto. The rest - ultimately dozens and dozens of consecutive games played - can be seen at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Ohio: starts in 210 consecutive games and in 308 pro contests overall; All-AFL citations in all 10 years of the league; All-Pro designation after the merger with the NFL; and a lot of memories.
The phrase "body of work" has multiple connotations with Otto, for his human body has endured myriad operations. The trauma of 14 seasons' worth of constant pounding exacted a heavy price, but nothing surprised Otto.
And he knew he had made a good decision in going to Miami, where they'd take on everybody from Annapolis to Eugene.
"They gave me a tremendous opportunity," Otto said. "I learned so much without learning, if that makes any sense. I learned about our society, about psychology, about so many things I hadn't paid much attention to but which did enter my cranium anyway."
Upon retiring shortly before the start of the 1975 season, Otto wrote NFL team owners individual letters thanking them for funding the league that had given him a living. Not even the amputation of a leg deterred him. He's 73 now and resides in California.
"In college, I pleaded with them to let me play offense because I felt I could block, that I understood leverage and that I wouldn't get hurt as much, but here I sit with an artificial leg and other artificial parts in my body," he said, "and I'm still doing good."
Q: Are you still an avid hunter and fisherman even with the restrictions of an artificial limb?
A: "I'ved had problems with balance. My wife, who I love dearly, is after me to discontinue some of these things."
Q: Any adventures of note?
A: "In Alaska in September, I laid on the tundra for an hour and a half before someone noticed I was missing. They found me sitting on the ground and laughing. Above the Arctic Circle."
Q: So you're in the Hall of Fame. You have a summer home in Idaho. Still work for the Raiders. What do you think about being an ACC Legend?
A: "To me, it's a tremendous honor because if you look at the years the athletes from the other schools played, I'm the oldest guy on there."