Big Red Legends: Jim Otis

(Editor’s Note: This story was written by Kay Burnett and originally published in a 1978 Edition of Pro! Magazine.)

It’s three-fourths of the way through the 1978 season—time to check on yourself just to make sure you haven’t blown all your tubes watching 11 successive Sundays of Cardinal and NFL football.

Like all good psychological tests, this one begins with a variation of the word association challenge. If you’re a Cardinal fan, your tester says “Big” and you say “Red.” He says “long bomb,” you say “Hart to Gray.”

He tosses out the time-worn football phrase, “three yards and a cloud of dust,” and your immediate response is the name of just one standout Cardinal running back.

If you miss this one, you will be declared legally a victim of amnesia for the past six years, the time 6-foot, 225-pound Jim Otis has played for the St. Louis.

Jim Otis is third on the Cardinals all-time rushing list.

If your mind hasn’t been boggled as yet by the Cardinals 3-8 record so far this season, you will recall a lot of those three and four yard lunges by Otis this year. They’ve added up to new records for the man who already owned four Cardinal rushing records before the season began.

Otis won one of the most coveted Cardinal rushing records two Sundays ago in St. Louis. He plowed through the New York Giant defense for six yards to surpass Johnny Roland’s career record of 3,608 yards to become the all-time Cardinal rushing leader.

The game was halted and the referee handed Otis the game ball as a sold-out stadium rose to its feet in recognition and appreciation.

Three plays later, Otis went through that defense again to score the first of his two touchdowns that day. He helped the Big Red to a 20-10 victory, their second of the season.

Last Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, Otis put together another string of three and four yard carries to claim his sixth Cardinal record. He needed just 18 carries to again pass a Johnny Roland mark of 962 career rushing attempts and become the Big Red record holder. His 23 carries for 69 yards at Candlestick Park gave him 534 yards on 154 tries so far this season and 3,733 total yards on 968 carries in his career.

Otis also holds the records for most attempts in a season (269 in 1975), most 100-yard games in a career (9), most 100-yard games in a season (5 in 1976), and most yards gained in a season with 1,076 in 1975.

Otis’ most frequently voiced comment to reporters after breaking the career rushing record was simply, “I’m glad it’s over and that there’s no more pressure.”

What he also said was that “anybody who has played football as long as I have, or who has worked at a job for a long period of time, when looking back, they’d like to think they’ve accomplished more than the people who have gone before them. It will be a nice achievement knowing the players who have played in the organization before you.”

“The Cardinals have had a lot of great running backs,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate that I’ve always been healthy; I’ve been surrounded by great football players and I’ve had the confidence of my coaches to carry the ball.”

He set rushing records in high school at his home town of Celina, Ohio and went on to that great fullback factory, Ohio State. Under Woody Hayes, who glorified the grind-it-out style of football, he set more rushing records; was a consensus All American; a two-time Big Ten choice and a conference MVP.

With pro teams questioning his speed, he was picked in the ninth round of the 1970 draft by the New Orleans Saints, then traded to Kansas City a year later.

Two seasons later, however, Otis found himself on the waiver list—released by the Chiefs and headed for St. Louis which had plucked him for the paltry sum of $100.

“I drove all night and got here at 2:30 in the morning,” he said. “The next morning I got a partial shoulder separation in a blocking drill. I got off on the wrong foot. I had just gotten married about two months earlier and I knew one person in St. Louis when I got here.”

Things didn’t get better for quite a while for Otis. He played a reserve role for a season-and-a-half before winning a spot in the starting lineup in mid-1974. By the end of the season, though, he had accumulated 664 yards, which nearly matched the total of his first four years in pro football. For his efforts he was named the team’s Most Improved Player by the Quarterback Club.

Otis gained over one thousand yards rushing the following season. He led the Cardinals in rushing in both 1975, when he gained 1,076 yards and finished first among NFC rushers, and 1976 with 891 yards.

Jim Otis celebrates with his offensive line after he eclipsed the 1000 yard mark against the Bears in 1975.

Teaming with Terry Metcalf to produce the classic example of a fullback-halfback tandem gave Otis a senses of personal satisfaction and enjoyment. The pair joked that Otis was “Mr. Inside” and Metcalf was “Mr. Outside.”

“That’s a pretty good description of the way we complemented each other,” Otis said. “I’m called on to do the power running. I’m never going to break the long ones like he does. He’s got the tremendous speed. I’m a Sherman tank and he’s a Corvette. He’s got five gears, I’ve got maybe three.”

But just when he thought he had finally reached security, Otis again found himself back on the bench in 1977, while Cardinal coaches tried different pairings in search of an electric combination.

He took the benching in silence, just waiting for his chance to prove them wrong. “Obviously, they thought they had the personnel to outdo what I had done,” he said. “I just had to get out and work as hard as I could so that if the opportunity came up, I’d be ready.”

“It was a character building year,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to be on top and have everything that comes with it.”

“A lot of people don’t really understand competition,” Otis said. “It’s a thrill to play. And especially if you’ve ever been in a situation like mine, where you’ve had so many people try to tell you that you can’t play, that you’re not good enough.”

“In my situation, every opportunity that you get you want to capitalize on. That’s why even sometimes when I’m hurting real bad—I don’t want to come out of the game. The next opportunity to carry the ball may be the greatest opportunity of my life.”

“I would be the first to say that my natural athletic ability compared to my peers in the league, would not be considered great. But there are so many other factors involved. There are so many intangibles that affect a player’s performance.”

‘I take pride in making that critical fourth-down play,” he said. “I don’t make many mistakes and I try to play as consistently as possible.”

“I think people know that whatever comes to me does not come easily. Maybe people like that. They can identify with a plugger, a guy who keeps coming back.”

So now Otis is back. He’s bumped and bruised all over on Mondays again and he’s again the Cardinals leading rusher so far this season. He’s the man Bud Wilkinson goes to on the short-yardage play, again the Big Red’s heavy duty ball carrier.

Wilkinson was one of the reasons Otis wanted to stay in St. Louis this year, despite a contract offer from the Washington Redskins which was matched by the Cardinals.

“Wilkinson thinks in terms of basic football,” said the man who once made 237 consecutive trips without a fumble—“No mistakes and first downs.”

“I hope to keep building on those records for the next couple of years,” Otis said.

Now back to that test, he says “Third and One,” you say ___________(OTIS!).

(Editor’s Note: Jim Otis retired in 1978 and is currently third on the Cardinals all-time rushing list with 3,863 yards)

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