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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 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?