Jim Otto, chair of the UC Davis Cancer Center's Capital and Endowment Initiative, is blocking for a new team
No sport requires more teamwork than football, and in a game in which sacrifice is fundamental, there is no better teammate than Jim Otto.
These days, the legendary Oakland Raiders center doesn't block so that star quarterbacks like Daryle Lamonica or Ken Stabler can complete passes in front of 60,000 cheering fans. He doesn't punch holes in the lines of 275-pound defenders so that running backs like Clem Daniels or Marv Hubbard can grind out a few more yards in the team's march downfield.
Now Otto is at the center of a drive of a different type. Following treatment for prostate cancer at UC Davis Cancer Center, the Auburn resident agreed to chair the center's $35 million Capital and Endowment Initiative.
"I would just love to see more people being saved and being cured from cancer," Otto said. "That's why I'm doing this. You don't want anyone else to have to go through the agony that comes along with a cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment. Especially kids. I've visited the children in the pediatric ward, and, well, that eats your heart out. Something has to be done."
A personal vendetta
Double-O has declared a "personal vendetta" against cancer. And the disease has a formidable new enemy.
In his playing days, Otto liked to hit. Hard. Back when he wore 00 for the Oakland Raiders, he built a reputation for toughness that took him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. During his 15 years with the Oakland franchise, he started in 210 consecutive regular-season games, a record that stands to this day.
A football team cannot function, let alone win, without the center — the man who snaps the ball and prevents the hulking defensive linemen from smothering the quarterback.
In a 1990 column, Jim Murray, the late Los Angeles Times sportswriter, wrote in praise of the center generally, and Otto in particular: "You can almost always tell a center. He's the one who's got this little cut on the bridge of his nose from getting his helmet slammed down on it by a charging nose tackle."
And he quoted Otto: "You have to be a special kind of person ... You have to kind of like pain."
Against the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl II in 1968, Otto persevered despite a case of double pneumonia, a dislocated knee, broken fingers and a broken jaw. He was named All-Pro after playing a full season with every ligament torn in one knee. He was the starting center, and the team needed him.
"We have a champion in charge of our initiative," said Ralph deVere White, director of the UC Davis Cancer Center and associate dean for cancer programs at UC Davis. "We're fortunate and enormously grateful that Jim is on our team."
Expecting to win
Otto came of age in an era when teams stuck together. He was the Raiders' only starting center from 1960 until 1974, the team's glory years, when, in the words of Sacramento Bee sportswriter Ailene Voisin, "the Black Hole was a perilous pit, when the impassioned, often unruly fans resembled a cult following, when the Raiders always expected to win."
Loyalty was a virtue. It is a testament to Otto that more than 30 years after his retirement, his teammates are still there for him.
When Otto and his wife of 43 years, Sally, host their annual "Take a Swing at Cancer" celebrity golf tournament to benefit UC Davis Cancer Center, some 30 of his fabled teammates show up. The event, held at the Auburn Valley Country Club, raises about $150,000 in a weekend. Otto says off handedly that he has to place maybe 32 phone calls to get 30 ex-Raiders to come. Ben Davidson, still sporting his handlebar mustache, has shown up. So have Lincoln Kennedy, Fred Biletnikoff, Willie Brown, Daryle Lamonica, Otis Sistrunk and many others.
Cancer is life-related
Otto himself no longer golfs. He has undergone 52 major surgeries. He's had 12 artificial knees and four artificial shoulders. His spine is supported by steel rods.
But none of those health threats shook the Hall of Famer like prostate cancer.
"His injuries and surgeries have all been football-related. Cancer is different. It's life-related," said Dave Newhouse, a veteran Oakland Tribune sportswriter who collaborated with Otto on his 2000 autobiography, "Jim Otto: Pain of Glory." "This is about life. Jim has joined this fight because he loves life."
Double-O is back in the game, this time blocking for the 9,000 people, young and old, who come to UC Davis Cancer Center each year for cancer treatment.
"With Jim picking up the gauntlet for UC Davis Cancer Center, the capital drive is assured victory," said Raymond Chester, a former Raider teammate and close Otto friend. "When Jim Otto commits himself to something, he gives 110 percent. He absolutely walks his talk. He won't stop until he wins."