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.
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
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
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
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
"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."
wore hip pads, saying "they were too uncomfortable." He did wear a
collar around his 19�-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