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Jim Otto

In 14 seasons of play for the Oakland Raiders, Jim Otto played had a punishing history of injuries. He needed 74 surgeries for his football injuries, including the amputation of one of his legs. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE’s Tom Jennings on Dec. 22, 2012.

In 14 seasons of play for the Oakland Raiders, Jim Otto played had a punishing history of injuries. He needed 74 surgeries for his football injuries, including the amputation of one of his legs. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE’s Tom Jennings on Dec. 22, 2012.

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    So you were saying it was war out there. What do you mean by that?

    Well, football today is still very tough, but I think in the day that I played and several other players that are my vintage will concur that it was a battle out there; it was a war.

    I was at a gathering in August, I guess it was, and Jim Brown was there, and he was saying the same thing, that it was different back then.

    Well, the rules and regulations today have really changed football to a certain degree because of the contact rules. Oftentimes you'll see the contact where a tackler will tackle a runner or the quarterback, and right away they flag him, and it's going to cost them $20,000, $50,000, whatever it is for that hit. Well, when that tackler -- in so many cases, if you watch the television, you watch the film, you see that tackler coming in with his head and his shoulders, which he's been taught to use to tackle his whole life. He comes in like he's going to hit the man midsection, which there's no penalty for, and just as he hits coming in on the midsection, you'll see that ballplayer, the guy with the ball, drop his head. And when he drops his head, he drops his head right to the spot where the tackler is coming in with his head and shoulders. Now, the tackler is fined $20,000, $30,000, $50,000, whatever it is for a blow to the head. And I think it's very unfair. And it's a good hit. It's the way we were taught to hit. ...

  2. Ψ Share"I'm not out there crying" over concussions

    ... It's like the way that you used to do it. You're taught to lead with your head.

    Well, in being taught to lead with your head and shoulders to make a tackle, and basically place your head to where it's going to hit the ball, because you get some good fumbles that way when you tackle and place your head and shoulders to where you're going to hit the side where he's carrying the ball. And then being in that position to hit the ball, the runner drops his head, the quarterback drops his head or whatever it might be, and you have head-to-head contact. You're the tackler, and you get fined. Now, I don't think that's fair. I think some of these below-the-waist blocks as well, sure, you stand to hurt a knee or stand to hurt something. I don't have knees anymore. And sure, this hurts, but, you know -- and it can hurt somebody, but I don't think a guy should get fined for doing something he was taught to do all through high school, in college and now in the pros. "Uh-uh, can't do it," you know?

    I don't like concussions. I've had over 20 concussions myself, and I don't like them. I don't like to think about what these guys are talking about with regards to concussions and how it could affect our lives. I mean, it's affected my life; it surely has. But I'm not out there crying about it. I know that I went to war, and I came out of the battle with what I got, and that's the way it is. That's the way Mike Webster would say it, too. I'm sure he would. I mean, we battled in there, and this is the result of it right here, sitting here, looking at you.

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    Others on this topic:
    Life After Football

    What is the result exactly? Enumerate the results.

    Well, the results with myself, you know, has been very difficult. I've had 74 surgeries all told throughout my body, all over my body. I've had various different cognitive tests regarding my brain. I've had scans of my brain, and it's been explained to me what is really wrong with my brain. I can't really explain it to you here. If I had a graph I could show you it. But I'm still going at my age, and --

    You seem completely with it and pulling up words and memories and having no problems at all. But you're saying there are issues?

    I have issues, yes, I have issues. I don't know if it is directly connected to my brain, my issues, but I have problems with dizziness. I forget words. You say that I come up with words. Well, I'm very fortunate that I can do that, because there are times that I can't remember people's names. But I don't think it's that important, you know, to remember someone's name. I love everybody, and I love to know them; I love to remember their names, but sometimes if I can't remember a name, I'm not going to fret over it and get upset.

    I can't perform like I used to for a lot of different things physically, but I don't think it's directly connected to the brain. The doctors have led me to believe that yes indeed, due to using my head and the number of concussions I have had, taken me down this road to where I do have some problems with memory [and] that I will have more, but I'm not worried about it. ...

  4. Ψ Share"I would walk off the field and my eyes would be crossed"

    Let me ask you. When you talk about your knees, legs, those kind of things, those kinds of injuries, clearly related to football, I mean, you know when these injuries started probably and all that. What about these memory issues or anything like that involving your thinking? Do you feel like that's associated with football, too?

    I think that everything that has caused my body to be a problem has been from football, you know?

    ... There were so many times that I would walk off the field and my eyes would be crossed. Did you ever have that happen to you? Get hit in the head so hard your eyes were crossed? You sit there. It's strange; it's really strange. Or what about if you had amnesia for two days? When you looked at your wife and you didn't know who she was, like, who's this chick? And you couldn't remember. You got hit in the head, and you had amnesia.

    Which you've had?

    I've had amnesia like that. A lot of things. Like they'd say, "Hey, Jim, what's this? Where are you?," you know, and I didn't know where the hell I was. And yet I'd be playing, you know? I wanted to play.

    Nobody took me off the field, said, "Jim, you've got to do this." They do it now, which is good. I don't want anybody to be hurt from football. The young people that are coming out and playing football today, I want them to continue to play football; I want them to have fun playing football. If they enjoy hitting somebody, let them hit people; let them play football. If they don't enjoy it, then they should play soccer or they should play something else. And even in soccer, you have problems with your head hitting the ball, two heads coming together or whatever. But let them play. Let them play it the way it's supposed to be played, the way the rules are, and don't keep changing the rules. It isn't long [before] there won't be a kickoff because oh, my goodness, that guy gets the ball in the end zone and he comes running out of there so fast, he could hurt somebody, you know? No. The guy coming down the field to cover the kickoff, the guy with the ball with the kickoff, hey, this is football. I'm going to meet you someplace in there, and maybe one of us is going to lose a leg. We're going to get a broken leg, a broken shoulder or something, but I'm going to hit you like nobody else. That's the way football is, and if you don't want to play it that way, we can get you playing some girls' games.

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    ... And with your head traumas, with the head injuries, tell me about one in particular. Now, the amnesia one, that was before the NFL, is that right?


    Tell me about that. And then tell me about a good solid head hit that you remember from the NFL as well.

    Well, during my career, I had a lot of hits to the head. I mean, they used to tease me that instead of having the quarterback go "Hut one, hut two," they'd have a little bell, ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling, you know, and Otto, you go on the third ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling, like a punch-drunk fighter or something --

    But that actually happened didn't it?

    I would respond to the bell.

    You did though, that was during practices they would do that?

    Oh no. They didn't do that to me, but they would, they would always accuse me of that and they would razz me about it, you know? "If you want Otto to respond, just ring a bell.

    But no, amnesia, it's a serious thing. It has come upon people and hurt people for periods of time, you know? And my amnesia that I had happened in high school and college. There were two times. The first time in high school, I can't really remember anything other than coming out of amnesia and thinking, where have I been? What's going on? And it was about two days after the football game in high school my senior year. I guess I hit someone pretty hard, and we didn't have any masks, and I got hit in the face. My nose was broken pretty, pretty good. So it was probably a frontal type of concussion, I don't know.

    And then in college, once again there was a period of time I didn't have a face mask, and I got hit in the head. And the helmets weren't made very good. But still, you led with your head, and that was part of football; that was what we learned. And that happened to me in college, too, so it -- each time [I] had a very sickly feeling after it had happened, you know? ...

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    ... Now, when you're telling, I guess it was maybe in your book, that you talked about the hit that you took from Ray Nitschke, when you -- I guess it was your nose. You got your nose broken, right? Was that right? And then the next game you did that snap that you're --

    Yeah, I think it was in -- I'm not exactly sure what year; it was '72 or something. We went to Green Bay to play the Packers, and in the book I wrote that I had a big fan base from my hometown in [Wausau, Wis]. There was about 150 people come, and naturally I wanted to play well and everything. I wanted to play well every week, no matter what, but in this game, we started out with Jim Carter in the middle. He was middle linebacker for the Packers. And Nitschke, it was right toward the end of his career, and he was I guess letting Carter get some time in there. Well, I was having a pretty good game against Carter, and Nitschke was on the sideline -- you could see that -- and he was all upset. So all of a sudden here comes Raymond into the game. He's going to make some trash out of me. And so yes, he broke my helmet; he broke my face mask in here, which broke my nose and set it over here. Broke my cheekbone, and my zygomatic arch bone here, and detached the retina in my left eye, which I was blind for six months in my left eye. It was really bad. It all swelled up, and I couldn't see, but I kept playing. I never went out of the game.

    When you have a blow like that, it's a concussion; there's no doubt about it. If you get hit in the head and a little dizziness comes out of it, you've suffered a concussion. So there's different degrees of concussions; I want you to know that. But in this particular case, it was pretty good blows he was hitting me with to break my nose, break my cheekbone and my zygomatic arch bone up here.

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    This was just on the line?

    Yeah, just on the line, hitting each other. I was hitting him with such force, and he was coming at me with such force that this is what happened. To break a helmet, split it right here in front, to have it then break your nose and the face mask that you have there, so --

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    We hear about the concussions and talk about the big plays like cornerbacks hitting wide receivers after they've caught the ball up in the air. But you're talking about a different kind, the much more common, everyday, every play?

    Right. I mean, in the line it's war. There's a battle, and that battle is going on. Mike Webster is doing this every play. A Jim Otto is doing this every play. It's just a physical battle in there, that you have to do. ...

  9. Ψ Share"Hitting harder than anyone else was very important to us."

    Now, you were talking about Webster and how he would approach the game. And from what I understand and read -- never met him -- it does sound like he played that game exactly like you described. Is there something about Wisconsin, or is it something about how you just approached that position itself, the center? Does that take a certain temperament?

    I think if you were to look at me and evaluate me, it was a matter of pride. And I think if you were to evaluate Mike Webster, it was a matter of pride. It was a matter of pride in the way we did things. Maybe part of it was Wisconsin and kids from a small town: Mike Webster from Rhinelander [High School], Wis., wanting to prove that he was a great, Jim Otto from Wausau who wanted to prove that he was the greatest. And that's the way we played. I mean, if you played marbles against Mike Webster, he still would beat you. I mean, he'd figure out a way to beat you, and so would Jim Otto. And anything that we would do, it was part of our lineage, part of our genes, part of what our family had given us, the will to be the best. And playing with concussions, playing with other problems that we did play with, never coming off the field --

    Hitting hard?

    Hitting harder than anyone else was very important to us. And that's why we played. And there's a lot of guys like us. We're not the only guys. ...

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    Others on this topic:
    Life After FootballMike Webster's Legacy
    Mike Webster's decline

    ... What about ... when you heard about Mike Webster's decline afterward, you know? He became homeless, those stories. What were your first thoughts when you started hearing those stories after his retirement?

    My first thoughts were, I got sick. I got upset. I said why isn't there somebody taking care of him? Why isn't there somebody that can help him? There wasn't anybody. We had the same thing, similar, happen to a center who took my place after I retired, Dave Dalby. ...

    Do you associate Dalby and Webster's post-career declines and troubles with the hard-hitting nature of the game?

    I look at Dave Dalby, because he used to tell me he wanted to follow me in my footsteps. And he told me that so many times: "Pops, I'm going to be just like you. I'm going to be just like you, Pops." And he hung with me. We'd go hunting together; we did a lot of different things together, Dave and I. He would come and help me put up hay for my horses and stuff like that. And we were together a lot. And that's why Sally and I came to the forefront ... Did anybody do anything for Mike Webster with Pittsburgh? Was there anybody that helped Mike Webster go through rehab at that time? When you have nobody helping you in a situation like that, I would imagine it's a pretty empty feeling to be going through life with that problem and nobody is coming to help you. And I wanted to be a help to David. I wanted to help Dave Dalby and Sally did to because we loved him and I didn't see that happening in Pittsburgh with Mike Webster. And that is the bad thing.

    We need people in the National Football League now, and I think we have various different projects going within the NFL -- the NFL Players Association, the NFL Alumni -- to help these guys now, because I did go to the Alumni, I did go to the Players Association and get monies from them for other rehabs for other players.

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    Do you feel like those injuries that they suffered, those hits that they took on the line, like you took, contributed to their illnesses?

    I think so. I think it did definitely contribute to their illnesses, because if they had a bad headache, they had a bad day or whatever, they'd go to alcohol; they'd go to pills; they'd go to maybe muscle relaxers, maybe pain medication, along with alcohol ... I don't know what they were taking. But those things would either stimulate them or it would put them under to the point where the pain was no longer there.

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    ... OK. Here's the last question. It actually has to do with Junior Seau this past year and other recent events. Do you feel like there's an increased notoriety of players when something very bad happens like a suicide? But has suicide and those kind of mental traumas, ... extreme points like a suicide, has that always been a feature that you've known about that's been kind of the chatter of the backroom [among] players?

    I would say that suicide has been in the past one of the least spoken about things among players, among owners, among the NFL of anything. And then a year ago there were four suicides among not necessarily the best noted players but some players, and the Players Association claimed that it's been because of concussions and stuff like that. And then you have a guy like Junior Seau come along this last year. He's probably one of the best known retired NFL players to do that. And I'm sure there's a lot of studies going on with regard to what was going on with him prior to this. And they'll come up with some answers.

    But I don't think you can blame it -- I don't know. There's so many things psychologically that can affect each and every person in this world, not just football players. And a lot of times these guys fall into that category or one of those categories, and it happens that they commit suicide. Immediately everybody rushes to blame football or blame some other thing happened in their life either socially, emotionally or psychologically. It has to really be studied. I don't know anything that much about Junior. I know he was a great football player. I know that in my mind, in Jim Otto's mind -- and I'll be honest with you right now -- that thoughts of suicide have gone through my head at different times. Why? I have sat there and thought about it. I think, why am I thinking this? ...

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    Others on this topic:
    Life After Football
    Depression, pain and life after football

    ... OK, ... you started by saying that suicide is not something that people talk about in the NFL, or have [not] until fairly recently anyhow. But has it always been one of those things that's been in there that players have known about other players?

    I don't know that much about other players regarding suicide. I don't know, but I only know basically what's in my mind and in my heart, and what I told you about what I was thinking. And everything is actually true to my heart, to my mind. I don't know what other players are thinking. I haven't necessarily told them what I'm thinking. I know that all of us guys I know in some way, shape or form have down times, when there's a certain amount of depression in our minds and our thoughts, in our heart, and it's not a very comfortable situation.

    Is that related to the game, you think?

    It came from the game. It came from the relations with the game, yes.

    What do you mean? I don't understand.

    Well, in some cases guys are heroes, and all of a sudden they're not heroes. It's like cutting their leg off, let's say. They're no longer heroes. Losing my leg didn't bother me one bit other than I wanted to make sure that my wife still loved the guy with one leg. That was the most important thing to me. And she says, "I didn't marry you for that leg anyway." So when you retire from football and you've been involved in football, some kids -- it never happened to me. When I retired I was down. I was depressed because I wasn't running out on the field anymore, when they announced "At center, Jim Otto." No. It was Dave Dalby. And I went, "Yay." I was happy for him. But that didn't bother me that much. It just -- you know, maybe I choked a little bit and thought, oh, boy, I used to do that. But a lot of guys no longer get the "Hey, Joe, how you doing. " ...

    ... Maybe probably more so in my life is the pain that I'm going through. I've been going to pain clinic now for about a month, two months, where they're working on various different things on my body to release the pain from my neck, from my back, from certain parts of my body that's really bothering me. ...

    ... I'm hurting like a son of a gun. I am really sore, and I'm trying to figure out the best way to take care of that. Now, nobody in America knows that, like they know about the guy who had a concussion, like the guy who is in class-action suits, suing the National Football League because they had a concussion. I'm over here, I had a couple dozen concussions or more, and I hurt. I'm not complaining about it. I'm telling you about it right now: I hurt. And that is something that I'm dealing with. Nobody is helping me. Nobody is giving me any special help. And over here these guys are wanting the world. They're suing everybody for a lot of money, which I don't like because that's going to hurt football in high school, Little League and in pros. I think what they're doing, they're going to cost so much money that the owners and high schools won't be able to afford the insurance for the game and stuff like that. I'm against all that. Let's play football.

  14. Ψ ShareWill he donate his brain to science?

    Do you feel like the suicide thoughts are related to the pain or related to retirement?

    I think a lot of it is related to the pain and the lack of ability that I have for doing certain things. And it's not being selfish, not on my behalf being selfish because I can't do it, and I would want it. No. In most cases I would like to be able to be out there doing something for somebody else, helping somebody else, and I can't. And it bothers me. ...

    And so these thoughts that have come through your head are fairly recent then?

    Yeah. It's more retirement I think than anything else.

    It is, because there's some people who ... think there's a connection between all those hits that you take and suicide, like there's a physiological connection there, you know? I mean, like that disease CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] --

    Well, I'm trying in my mind not to relate that to my situation, you know.

    Why is that?

    Because I don't want to believe that that's what's happened. I just -- I know and I've told that those are the battle scars of a gladiator. The gladiator goes until he can't go anymore. And that's what I'm doing. I think I'm going and continuing to do the best I can with what I had, and I'm going to do that till I can't. And --

    But when you say you don't want to make that connection, it's because you just don't want to believe that there is that connection?

    I don't make want to make excuses. That's number one. I don't want to make an excuse. ...

    ... Are you saying that even if you had the information you would have played? Is that what you're saying?

    Yeah. I knew about concussions.

    Yeah, but you didn't know about -- I mean, the concussions. I used to watch you play when I was a kid --


    -- but we never associated that and concussions or hits with long-term brain trauma.

    Well, no, we didn't.

    So there's a new level of information.

    Right. There is a new level of information, and they've done some good studies on it, which are very important. They've asked for my brain. They want my brain at I think it's Michigan or --


    Or Boston, one of those, or North Carolina. And I've refused at this point yet to give them that. My wife is starting to try to convince me to do it. ...

    Why wouldn't you?

    I don't want to even think about it. ...

    ... What is it about the idea for you -- I mean, do you feel like this stuff about brain research and NFL players is kind of hogwash, or do you think there's something to it?

    I don't think it's hogwash. In other words, using NFL players as an example and their brains to help research with regards to the injuries that happen on the field, I don't think it's hogwash. I think I'm just kind of touchy about thinking that my body is going to be separated from something and probably not in the same grave, maybe that's what I'm thinking of. But in my heart, I'm leaning to very possibly doing it, donating my brain, because if there is something there that can help others, that's what I should be doing. I realize that. That is my complete and honest feeling. ...

Topics in this interview

?> Life After FootballMike Webster's Legacy
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