A native of Celina, Ohio, Otis' father and Hayes were college roommates at Denison University. It was no accident that Otis became an Ohio State football fan about the age of 5.
"I would tell all my friends that I would someday play fullback at Ohio State," Otis said in the book What It Means To Be A Buckeye. "When I got to be a high school senior, my coach told everybody that I was going to Ohio State. I guess that limited the number of schools recruiting me, not that they had a chance anyway."
Otis was a multi-sport star at Celina High School, earning nine varsity letters in three different sports. But football was his first love, and he was captain of his team as a senior and also earned all-state honors that year.
When he got to Ohio State, he spent the 1966 season on the freshman squad, then slowly worked his way up the depth chart in the spring of '67 before earning the starting spot in the fall.
As a sophomore, he had modest numbers of 530 yards and two touchdowns. But that was only the precursor of what would come after.
In 1968, Otis was a battering ram fullback for the Buckeyes. He led the team with 972 yards and 17 TDs, losing only seven yards on 213 carries that season. Both the yardage and touchdown figures established new single-season school records, and he scored at least one TD in nine of the 10 games that season.
Four of the scores came in the regular-season finale, a 50-14 whipping of Michigan. Two of the most famous stories regarding the long history of OSU-Michigan game began that day and centered on Otis.
The first involved an old chinstrap that was given to him at the pep rally the night before the game. The strap had belonged to former Ohio State fullback Bob Ferguson, who wore it while he scored four touchdowns against the Wolverines in a 50-20 victory in 1961. Because the leather strap did not fit his helmet, Otis taped it to the inside of his shoulder pads and carried the strap four more times over the goal line against Michigan.
The second story involves the final touchdown scored against the Wolverines that day. With the Buckeyes already holding a 44-14 lead late in the game, they had the ball inside the Michigan 5-yard line but had failed to score on three plays. Otis walked up to Hayes, tapped him on the shoulder and asked, "Coach, do you want that touchdown?" The old coach simply nodded – but forgot to tell Otis which play to call.
The junior fullback got to the huddle, told left tackle Dave Chaney he was coming his way, and got the final touchdown easily.
"Woody took a lot of heat for that later," Otis said, "but I take the blame for it. He had nothing to do with it, but he always shouldered the blame for one of his players."
Otis rolled up 145 yards to go along with the four touchdowns that day, tying a school record that has since been broken twice – by Pete Johnson in 1975 and by Keith Byars in 1984, each of whom scored five touchdowns in a single game.
After the win over Michigan, Otis followed with 101 yards and a touchdown in the Buckeyes' 27-16 victory over Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl, cementing their undefeated national championship season.
The following year, OSU won its first eight games – running its then school-record winning streak to 22 – with Otis leading the way. In fact, the Buckeyes were favorites to repeat as national champions until Michigan upset them 24-12 in Ann Arbor.
Nevertheless, Otis had an outstanding senior campaign, breaking his own single-season rushing record by becoming the first Ohio State running back ever to break the 1,000-yard mark. He finished the nine-game 1969 season with 1,027 yards and 15 TDs.
He finished his college career with 2,542 yards and 34 touchdowns. At that time, the yardage was the best in OSU history and his TD total was second only to that of 1955 Heisman Trophy winner Howard "Hopalong" Cassady, who totaled 37 touchdowns in his career.
Otis was voted the team's most valuable player in 1969 and earned All-America honors that season. He was a ninth-round selection in the 1970 NFL draft by New Orleans, but spent only one season with the Saints before being dealt to Kansas City.
In 1973, the Chiefs shipped him to the St. Louis Cardinals where he enjoyed success for six seasons. In 1975, he was named the NFC player of the year after leading the conference with 1,076 yards rushing.
He finished his pro career with 4,350 yards and 19 touchdowns rushing to go along with 90 pass receptions for 549 yards and three TDs.
After his retirement, Otis stayed in St. Louis where he has been a successful businessman. His son, Jim Jr., was a walk-on quarterback for the Buckeyes for several years before finishing his career in 2003.
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