Jim Otto, the original Mr. Raider, dies at 86

Jim Otto looking out of this world
Jim Otto looking out of this world

The original Mr. Raider has passed.

Jim Otto, the first Raider to touch a football, died Sunday at his Auburn (CA) home, with his family at his side. He spent most of his 86 years sneering at the inevitable, enduring last rites three previous times.

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

Even the NFL’s 24/7 hype machine took time out to recognize the solemn occasion. The Pro Football Hall of Fame flag is at half-staff in Canton, Ohio. At Allegiance Stadium in Las Vegas, now home to the Raiders, owner Mark Davis lit the eternal flame Sunday night in honor of “the original Raider.”

After playing college ball at the University of Miami, Otto was snubbed by the NFL in 1959. Nonetheless, he welcomed his draft selection by the new American Football League’s Minnesota team. But when that franchise bolted from the AFL to the NFL (becoming the Vikings), the AFL franchise was transferred to Oakland, which retained draft rights to Otto even before being named the Raiders.

Jim Otto is at the front of the pantheon of Raider greats — before Al Davis and John Madden and even before The Autumn Wind became a Raider.

July 31, 1960, was a chilly, mid-summer afternoon at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium. In a preseason contest against the Dallas Texans (to become the Kansas City Chiefs), Otto bent over and made the first in-game snap in Raiders history to quarterback Tom Flores.

That was 63 years, eight months, and 24 days before his death Sunday. They were harsh years, months, and days. He paid dearly to become a Hall of Fame center, playing every game — 210 consecutive — in his 15 years of pro football.

The invisible statistics for this invincible man include at least 74 surgeries, two hip replacements, multiple knee replacements (six right, four left), two artificial shoulders, a right leg amputation, and countless infections and middle-of-the-night trips to the ER or OR. All that was compounded when he battled prostate cancer. And there were those three last rites that weren’t last after all.

While others sought compensation from the NFL for injuries, Otto said it was the price he paid, and — even if he knew what would happen — he would do it all over again. Eagerly.

His Otto-biography Jim Otto: The Pain of Glory paints a graphic picture of his challenges, and he makes his position very clear:

“I’ve been so close to death, I could smell its hideous breath, feel its bony fingers reach for me. Somehow, I’ve eluded its grasp, mainly because I’m not ready to die. With all that I’ve endured, I still thirst for life.

“However, my weakened, bionic body remains an open invitation to death … Any little germ that creeps into my bloodstream could put me instantly at death’s door.

“I understand the risks involved. I’ve understood them all along, and I’ve accepted them. It’s all about priorities. I’d rather be a disabled Hall of Famer than a healthy, retired scrub. I’d also rather be an amputee than a fatality. It must be understood that surgery is keeping me alive.”

Lived in a chicken coop

Born Jan. 5, 1938, in Wausau, Wisconsin, Otto was given the name James Edwin Emile Otto.

“The doctor handed me to my mother and said, ‘Here’s your football player,’ because I was about eight pounds with wide shoulders and big features,” Otto recalled one day. “Both my parents were working, but we struggled.

“At the time, to me, it seemed like there was poor, there was dirt poor, and we were aspiring to be one of those. We wore second-hand clothes and, one year, lived in a chicken coop. Hey, we cleaned it up nice.”

Yet Jim has fond memories of his childhood, especially when, at 12 years old, he went hunting with his father and shot his first deer.

“We were staying in a room at a tavern and a guy asked ‘who shot the deer?’ My dad said, proudly, ‘my son here.’ They decided I should celebrate with my first beer, a Wisconsin tradition that defies age. I’ve liked hunting and beer ever since.”

Otto had a more difficult start in football.

“My freshman year in junior high, I was so skinny the coach wouldn’t let me off the bench,” Otto said. “But I worked out hard between seasons, and as a high school sophomore, I was a backup center to my cousin. I made the varsity, a big deal. My dad was concerned I might get hurt playing football. Imagine that?”

After making all-state as a center and as a goalie in hockey, Jim saw sports as his path out of poverty.

He received offers from numerous colleges. He chose the University of Miami, where he starred as a center and linebacker.

The Godfather of Raider Nation

Before there were famous Raider slogans, he lived them, as Al Davis noted in Otto’s Hall of Fame commencement speech in 1980.

"Commitment to excellence, pride, and poise, the greatness of our football team were not only exemplified by Jim Otto, but for more than a decade, he was the standard of excellence by which centers were judged in professional football," said Davis.

In response to Otto’s passing, a blitz of heartfelt responses overwhelmed social media.

Former linebacker, teammate and unofficial spokesman for all things Raider, Phil Villapiano, took to X Sunday:

Rest In Peace to the first ever draft pick of the Oakland Raiders, #JimOtto. Jim became the face of the Oakland Raiders. HIS attitude became the attitude of the Raiders. He was our leader. The result was the team that we all know and love. RIP Pops.”

A few years back, Villapiano was talking about “Pops” to anyone who would listen.

“I watched him bleed,” Villapiano said. “I mean, every f—ing game. Whatever helmet he had on certainly didn’t work, because it would come down and smash on top of his nose. He’d be bleeding every single game. And players on the other team would be like, ‘What the f— is with this guy?!’”

“This guy” played like that for 15 years and, as he pointed out, “308 games counting preseason.”

Otto was proud to be one of only 19 players to play in all 10 American Football League seasons before the merger of the AFL and NFL.

He was selected All-Pro 10 times, made the Pro Bowl 12 times, played against the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl II — before it was called the Super Bowl — and snapped the ball on every offensive play, including kicks and punts, in six AFL or AFC championship games.

In his one and only Super Bowl game, against the Packers, he persevered despite a case of double pneumonia, a dislocated knee, broken fingers and a broken jaw.