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Originally published Wednesday, December 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Otis Sistrunk happy in life after Mars

Big, bald and bad — at least, on the football field — Otis Sistrunk was once the quintessential Oakland Raider. Thirty years later, he's part of the military team at Fort Lewis.

Seattle Times staff

It's a long way from Mars to Fort Lewis, but Otis Sistrunk thinks he landed in the right place. ¶ Sistrunk, 62, spent seven years (1972-78) as a defensive tackle with the Oakland Raiders and looks to be in playing shape even today. He has worked 30 years for the military, including the past 16 at Fort Lewis, where he manages the base's sports stadium.

"When I played with the Raiders, it was like being part of a family and it's like that working for the military," he said.

Behind Sistrunk's desk are numerous photos from his playing days in the NFL, not that the soldiers need to see those to know who he is.

After all, Sistrunk, was among the NFL's best known players in the 1970s. And much of that fame can be traced back to the first "Monday Night Football" game in 1974.

The cameras caught steam emanating from Sistrunk's bald head. Analyst Alex Karras, seeing the image and knowing that Sistrunk was the only active NFL player who had not played in college, quipped that Sistrunk was from the University of Mars.

"When Alex said that, he put a tag on my back that has stayed with me ever since that game," Sistrunk said. "It didn't bother me. I told Alex I thought it was a joke. When they put a good tag on you, it just follows you.

"But it wasn't a bad tag. It wasn't a tag where I was caught doing cocaine or marijuana — because I don't do drugs — or the tag of being a guy who spears quarterbacks. It was a good tag."

Sistrunk, who parlayed the "Martian" image into roles in Miller Lite commercials after retiring, has kept the bald look.

When he entered the NFL, being bald was unique, but he wasn't hairless for the recognition.

"I started in high school when some guys started talking about shaving their heads for the homecoming game," he said. "So, when I went into the NFL, I just kept it bald. I really never thought about it. I just loved to cut my hair and shave my head."

Sistrunk's intimidating looks as a player belied his manner off the field. He spent many mornings going to schools and talking to students.

"I used to tell them if I could get into the NFL having not gone to college, that anything is possible," he said.

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He wondered how many kids were getting his message. Early into his career working for the military at Fort Benning, Ga., he discovered there was at least one.

"It's my favorite story," he said. "A woman walked in who had gone to ROTC, and she had become a lieutenant. She told me that she had listened to one of my talks when she was in junior high school and that I had helped turn around her life. She walked out before I could even get her name, but it was of the nicest things that has ever happened to me."

Sistrunk was also doing the right things on the field, making it to the Pro Bowl in 1974 and being part of a Super Bowl winner in 1977 under coach John Madden.

"The thing is, if John Madden says run through the wall, you ran through it," Sistrunk said. "The saying was, 'Don't worry about the mule being blind, just keep low in the wagon.' So John was a great coach."

The Super Bowl victory was special, but it wasn't Sistrunk's NFL highlight.

"The highlight of my life was when I first made the team," he said. "I can still remember the day. I was a grown man hollering, 'Yes!' and the defensive line coach then said, 'You'll be starting.' It's hard to go from high school to the NFL with players from the biggest colleges. I would say the good Lord was on my side."

Sistrunk said the Raiders players weren't as wild and crazy as portrayed by the media, even if he admitted they weren't exactly role models, "with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and no dress codes."

An injured knee brought Sistrunk's career to an end, and he ended up back home in Georgia, where he wasn't doing much of anything and "letting myself go." Then he got a call from two of his Raiders friends, Art Shell and Gene Upshaw, asking him to attend a charity function that Madden was running.

The two Hall of Famers had a heartfelt talk with Sistrunk.

"They helped turn my life around," he said.

Sistrunk proceeded to give professional wrestling a try, and won the National Wrestling Alliance tag team title in 1981, pairing with Michael Hayes to defeat Jimmy Snuka and Terry Gordy.

But Sistrunk didn't like the travel, and found his calling when he was asked to work as a defensive line coach for the Fort Benning football team. Fourteen years later, Sistrunk asked for a transfer to Fort Lewis, where he serves as stadium manager, a training adviser and local celebrity.

"I get to see a lot of soldiers that I knew as privates back at Fort Benning who are now sergeant majors, and a lieutenant that just made general," he said. "So, it's been a great thing to work in the military. We have soldiers leaving for Iraq, and they ask me if I'll still be here when they get back, and I've been telling them yes. I enjoy what I do."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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