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X Marks the Man in the Middle

The Superior Court of Alameda County, Department 14, was in session this summer in a third-floor room of the county administration building in downtown Oakland, listening to testimony in the case of Mendenhall vs. the Oakland Raiders et al.

"Your honor, the defense please calls Mr. James Otto."

Jim Otto, ol' Double Zero, wearing a tan leisure suit, a flowered shirt and a pair of brown cowboy boots, walks toward the bailiff, nodding to the members of the jury en route.

"Please place your right hand on the Bible," says the bailiff. "Now raise your left hand. In the testimony you are about to give, do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"

"I do."

"You may take the stand."

"Please state your name and occupation," says the defense attorney.

"James E. Otto, O-t-t-o. Otto. I play center for the Oakland Raiders."

"How many years have you played for the Oakland Raiders, Mr. Otto?"

"This is my 16th."

"How many years have the Raiders been in existence here in Oakland, Mr. Otto?"

"This is their 16th." (Jury titters.)

"Have you played in all their games, Mr. Otto?"

"All but one exhibition game against the San Francisco 49ers."

"How many consecutive league games would that be, Mr. Otto?"

"Two hundred and ten."

"Is that a record, Mr. Otto?"

"Yes, sir." (Jury nods.)

"Have you ever been chosen All-Pro, Mr. Otto?"

"Yes, sir."

"How many times have you been chosen All-Pro, Mr. Otto?"

"Thirteen." (Jury nods.)

"Do the players on the Raiders have any favorite names for you, Mr. Otto?" (Jury leans forward.)

"Yes, sir."

"What are they, Mr. Otto?" (Jury on edge of seats.)

"They call me Pops, because of my age, and Buckethead, because I wear probably the largest helmet in football." (Jury roars, laughing. Judge grins. Even Terry Mendenhall, a former Oakland Raider linebacker who was suing the Raiders for breach of contract, cracks a smile.)

"What's a center, Mr. Otto?"

"Remember that diagram they had on the board here yesterday, the chart with all the circles and the big X? Well, the center's the X right there in the middle of the line."

Before he finally hung up his aches and pains this month and announced his retirement from pro football, Otto was one of the biggest Mr. Xs in the business. "Everyone knew who Jim Otto was because he wore 00 and they always called him Ol' Double Zero or Ol' Ironman on television," says Pittsburgh's Ray Mansfield. "But what about the rest of us? We're not the beautiful people, like quarterbacks. We don't have hair dryers or get permanents. Take me. With a nice Anglo-Saxon name like Ray Mansfield, I don't have a chance to get any recognition. Now if my name was Brass Billski or Moose Mazurki, then the whole world would recognize me and I'd probably get voted All-Pro."

Centers deserve a better press, if for no other reason than that they handle the football more than any other player in the game. "If we don't snap the ball right," says Miami's All-Pro Center Jim Langer, "then the play is busted." The backward, underhand, between-the-legs handoff from the center to the quarterback is elementary, Langer admits, but those long-distance spirals to the placement holders and the punters are what he understandably calls "ugly." "Trouble is," says New York Jets Coach Charley Winner, "most pro centers never learned how to snap the ball long because they played tackle or guard in college." Otto, for instance, was a linebacker as well as a center at the University of Miami, but when he came to the Raiders, he played exclusively at center. Mansfield, 34, originally played defensive tackle in the NFL, while Langer, 27, a free agent from South Dakota State, signed with Cleveland as a guard after being ignored in the 1970 college draft. Cincinnati's Bob Johnson, however, has been a full-time center ever since his junior year at Bradley Country High School in Tennessee. (Underscoring Winner's point, NFL teams selected only five college centers in the first 10 rounds of the 1975 draft.)

Otto, 37, firmly insists that he played with the Raiders for eight years before he mis-snapped a ball to the punter. "I used to do it without looking, too," he says. So, figuring a minimum of 60 punts—and 60 snaps—per season, Otto completed about 480 blind, underhand, between-the-legs 15-yard passes to the punter in a row.

"Centers live in fear of the bad snap to the kicker or the holder," Langer confesses. "My day still hasn't come, thank God. I've had a few ricochet jobs, but our punter, Larry Seiple, is like Brooks Robinson: he catches everything." Wayne Mulligan, now with the Jets, made a memorable rookie debut with St. Louis by shooting his first snap over the punter's head and bouncing it off the goalpost, resulting in a safety. Johnson clearly remembers a high school game in Chattanooga when one of his long snaps flew out of the end zone and clanged against a tuba in the school band. "I just missed putting it in the tuba," he says.

Centers get recognition only "when we mess up," Mansfield argues. "Remember the famous frostbite game up in Green Bay between the Packers and the Cowboys when Bart Starr scored on a quarterback sneak in the closing seconds to win the NFL championship? Jerry Kramer, the Green Bay right guard, got all the publicity for blocking out Jethro Pugh and making way for Starr. What people don't know is that Kenny Bowman, the center, slid over and double-teamed Pugh on the play. Heck, Bowman rammed into Pugh's belt and drove him back. But that one play put Kramer into the horizon—and nobody ever heard about what Bowman did."

Centers for the most part avoid serious injury, although Cincinnati's Bob Johnson suffered a broken ankle last year. "Centers get hit a lot, like boxers," he says, "and fighters don't usually break bones. I broke my ankle when I was clipped on a punt."

"We really do have a low injury rate, all things considered," Langer says. "After all, we rarely do any high-speed tackling or hitting; everything is just a strength match down there in the pits. Sure, a head slap stings, and it may leave you wondering where you are, but it doesn't hurt. Of course, we all have the center's normal injuries."

Jim Otto suffers from arthritis in his shoulders, hands, knees and feet. "In every bone," he says. Otto also has had five knee operations, three on the left and two on the right; two elbow operations, one on each side; and more broken noses than he can remember. The upper knuckles of both hands are a mass of scar tissue. He cannot straighten his left hand, and the little finger on that hand looks like a corkscrew. "Now that I'm retired," he jokes, "I'm going to get a job squeezing oranges." Otto also has a strained cartilage near his sternum that pains him noticeably when he tries to take a deep breath. His toes are all bent under. He has lost a number of teeth, and he stopped counting when the number of stitches sewn onto his frame passed 100. "I guess I've got at least 60 in my face," he says. And his neck is one enormous callus. The day before Otto reported to his 16th—and last—Oakland training camp he was swimming in the pool in his backyard in suburban Fremont and accidentally cut his right hand. Sally Otto shook her head. "Couldn't you wait until you get to practice before you start to bleed?" she said.

Most centers have hyperextended elbows. "They've ruined my golf game," says Ray Mansfield. "Between all the centering and snapping we do and all the punishment we take while blocking, our elbows get ruined." Or, as Otto says, "Elbows weren't built to take the pounding we give or the pounding we get. I can't even straighten out my left elbow." Langer, a center for only four seasons, has not reached the hyperextended stage yet, but he suspects it is near. "My elbows get sorer every week," he says. Although centers wouldn't get so banged up if they wore more pads and tape, they unanimously eschew extra protection.

"A lot of guards tape their arms so they become like ramrods," Langer says, "but we can't do that because we need that loose feeling over the ball. Take me. We play most of our games on Poly-Turf or AstroTurf or whatever they want to call it, so I end up with a lot of abrasions and burns on my hands. I also like to block by jamming my fists under the other guy's shoulder pads; however, a lot of times my hands slide off and hit his helmet or his face mask. So my hands are always hurting. I'd like to pad them, but then I wouldn't be able to center the ball right."

Otto never wore hip pads, saying "they were too uncomfortable." He did wear a collar around his 19½-inch neck. "I should wear one, too," Mansfield says, "because I broke my neck when I was in college. But I just can't move my neck back when I put one of those clumsy things on." Otto also wore no pads on his forearms. "I liked to use my arms as battering rams against the other guys," he says. One time a rival stepped on Otto's right forearm and a cleat pierced the skin and left him with a gash that needed 12 stitches. "It looked like a raw piece of meat," he says. Did Otto remove himself from the game?

"Probably not," says Oakland Coach John Madden. "When Otto got injured in a game, he'd spit on it, rub some dirt on it and go on playing."

Injuries aside, the center's job is more complicated than a Cosell explanation. Let's start in the Oakland huddle. "Far right 69 boom man on three," Quarterback Ken Stabler barks to the Raiders. By "far right" Stabler means that he wants the flanker and the tight end to line up out on the right side. By "69" he means he wants the "6" back (fullback) to run through the "9" hole (outside left tackle); in other words, it is a running play to the weak side. By "boom" Stabler means he wants his other running back to handle the linebacker with a boom block, moving him toward the sideline. By "man" he means he wants man-for-man blocking in the offensive line. And by "3" he means he wants his center to snap the ball on the third "hut," thus initiating the play.

"The center basically controls the type of blocking done by the offensive line," Otto says. "If I got to the line and saw that the defense had set up in such a way that 'man' blocking would not work, I was supposed to change the blocking assignment. The blocking pattern was predicated on what I saw in the defensive front. I stood pretty straight-legged," he adds. "The quarterback didn't have to bend over too far to get under me. My body weight was equally distributed between my feet, too, so I was always ready to move in any direction without difficulty."

Before bending over, Otto, like all centers, checked the football, which the referee sets so that the ends point to the end zones. Bending down, Otto rotated the ball so he could place his right thumb over the laces, let the rest of his right hand fall naturally into place, then put his left hand under the ball. "The right thumb is the most important part of the grip because it actually controls the movement of the football," Mansfield says. Otto then waited for Stabler to call signals.

Like all teams, the Raiders employ a nonrhythmic count: there is no pattern to the intervals between the quarterback's calls of "hut." "On this play," Otto says, "all I knew was that I was supposed to center the ball on the third 'hut.' I didn't know when the third 'hut' would come, and I couldn't anticipate it either because the quarterback might check off and call a new play at the line. When the time came, I centered the ball on the 'h'—not the 't'—of the third count."

While Langer agrees that a non-rhythmic count may confuse the opposition, he suggests that it also confuses the center. "It happened to me—or at least I think I was the one who was confused—in an exhibition game. I centered the ball on what I thought was the right count, but the quarterback, a rookie named Craig Curry, didn't take it. The defensive line had moved, of course, and there I was holding the ball between my legs. So I went straight ahead and gained three or four yards. It was an illegal play, but the officials thought I had picked up a fumble or something, so I got away with it."

Otto centered the ball with his right hand. "As my right hand went back with the ball in it," he says, "my left forearm moved forward. The ball moved slightly—less than three feet all told—and while moving it back I turned it one quarter so that it arrived at the quarterback with the laces up." Also, with the ball turned sideways, its ends pointed toward the sidelines. Mansfield works the ball much the same way, but Langer grips the ball with only his right hand.

"I'm left-handed to begin with," he says, "and you can't center the ball to a right-handed quarterback like Bob Griese with your left hand because the laces will come up the wrong way, so I just rest my left hand idly over my knee." Otto would seem to have been faced with a similar problem because he centered the ball with his right hand to the left-handed Stabler. Stabler, however, made all the necessary corrections himself once he snatched the ball from Otto. Joe Namath is not very picky either; Mulligan says that Namath simply wants him to turn the football so that the valve will not be under his grip.

Having disposed of the football, and with his left forearm already in a battering-ram position, Otto moved to execute his blocking assignment. Fun time, the centers call their blocking moments. "Trouble is, our job keeps changing with all these three-man defensive fronts that teams are using," Mansfield says. "Now there's more for us to do. I used to love the old standard four-man lines because most of the time there was no one for us to hit. Oh, we used to pick up a guy here and there, but our job was pretty easy. Now it's ridiculous. The defensive linemen are looping all around and we never know where the hell they are, while the linebackers keep plugging and jumping and creating all kinds of confusion. Most of these three-man lines like to put someone dead-on against the center, too. Sugar Bear Hamilton of New England lined up so close to me in one game last year that he bumped my helmet. I could even smell his breath. I was sure glad he didn't eat garlic before the game."

Langer sympathizes with Mansfield. "Guys like Hamilton try to avoid you and beat you at the same time," he says. "I like the big punishing kind of defensive linemen because the longer they beat on me, which they like to do, the longer it takes them to get to the quarterback or the ballcarrier." Otto classifies defensive linemen and linebackers by their tactics. "First of all, there are the grabbers and jerkers," he says. "They grab you by the jersey, jerk you, then try to go around you. Then there are the guys who like to club you or slap you with an open hand or a forearm to the head, then try to roll around you. And there are the head butters who simply run straight at you with their head down and try to bowl you over."

Langer remembers a pro bowl game in which Minnesota's Alan Page and Los Angeles' Merlin Olsen double-teamed him on one play and left him feeling "like a train wreck." "One of them slapped me off balance, the other jerked me away—and then they flooded through," he recalls. "It's all part of the game, but my head didn't stop ringing for weeks." Johnson encountered 6'9", 275-pound Ernie Ladd early in his pro career and smartly concluded that some defensive linemen are not to be fooled with. "Ladd was going around me," Johnson says, "so I gave him a leg whip and brought him down. I didn't think much about it, but then on the next play Ernie hit me under the chin with the back of his hand and cut me for 10 stitches. I had the dizzies the rest of the day. I told myself that if he can do that anytime he wants, and I had no doubts that he could, then I was in a world of trouble."

Mansfield once had to have his face mask extricated from Alex Karras' jersey, but he believes his best encounters were against Dick Butkus of the Bears. "It started back in college, when I was playing at Washington and Butkus was at Illinois," Mansfield says. "We had never liked one another from the beginning. Well, we go into Chicago for the opening game in 1971, and on Sunday morning I went down and bought the local newspapers for the first time in my career. There was this big spread on Butkus. 'MEAN DICK BUTKUS,' the headline read. There were 10 pages on Butkus. Ten pages. The story and the pictures showed how he prepared for a game and how he went to Mass, and all that. Then Butkus said, 'The first thing I see when I think about Pittsburgh is Ray Mansfield, and he's the holdingest SOB in the world. When I see Mansfield, all I see are two grimy hands. Mansfield taught me everything I know about big-time football, when I kicked his rear in a college game out in Seattle.'

"Butkus and I went at it all that afternoon, and we had good fun. Then I recovered a fumble and—crash!—there was this elbow buried in my neck. And here was this voice crying, 'That'll teach you, you dirty SOB.' It was Butkus, of course. I had the blind staggers and couldn't even find our huddle, but I told him, 'Dick, it didn't even hurt.' Hell it didn't."

Otto recovered a fumble a while ago, too, and after the game his wife Sally told him he should have picked up the ball and scooted for a touchdown instead of merely falling on it and holding on for dear life. "No way," he says. "I got my touchdown thrill when Marv Hubbard scored against the Lions last season. I grabbed the ball and set a record for the highest spike. I don't think the ball has come down yet."

Back in superior court Jim Otto's testimony ended hilariously during the cross-examination when the plaintiff's attorney tried to limit Otto's discourse in response to a direct question. As Otto rambled on, the attorney tried to confine his response to a narrow point. Otto moved forward in his seat, bringing the jurors forward with him. "Hey, wait a minute," he snapped, "you wanted the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God, and I'm going to give you the whole truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

"Your honor," said the defense attorney, "I have no further questions."



Dawn Where the Play Begins

Not to be confused with the beautiful people in the backfield who do the hair dryer and cologne commercials, centers like the Redskins' Len Hauss (opposite) live nose to nose in the bottom of the pit, where reputations—such as they are—depend on guile, muscle, a high threshold of pain and the ability to remember the snap count. Centers suffer arthritis, hyperextended elbow, broken noses, slashed faces, battered hands, stiff backs and heads that ring from the slaps of defensive linemen. There's not much beauty in the middle of the offensive line.

Nearly all the plays start with the hunched-over center giving the football a quarter turn, slapping it into the quarterback's hands, then rearing up to block.

Snap completed, Wayne Mulligan of the Jets (above) buys protection time for Quarterback Joe Namath. Miami's Jim Langer (below) reminds Guard Bob Kuechenberg that he will snap the ball on count two.

Rich Saul of the Rams (left) peers back between his legs and spirals the ball to his punter, Mike Burke, while snap specialist Bill Curry (55, below) fends off two Redskins on a field-goal try.

Gamboling quarterbacks such as New England's Jim Plunkett (right) make more work for centers. Here Bill Lenkaitis (67) clears the way for Plunkett by rubbing out two would-be tacklers.

Ironman Jim (00) Otto, creaking with arthritis, retired this year after starting 210 consecutive games for the Raiders.