EVERETT — Snohomish County may be solidly in Seattle Seahawks territory, but on Saturday the parking lot at IAM 751’s Everett Union Hall next to Paine Field was awash in individuals sporting black football jerseys with silver numbers, as well as black hats emblazoned with the image of a helmeted man sporting an eyepatch.
That’s what happens when an Oakland Raiders fan favorite comes to town.
Otis Sistrunk, a key cog on the Raiders’ teams of the 1970s, made a public appearance at the Bill Baker Memorial Steel & Wheel Supershow on Saturday, signing autographs at the car show as he helped raise funds for Guide Dogs of America.
It was the second straight year Sistrunk appeared at the show, and the 74-year-old who now resides in Columbus, Georgia, was happy to be back.
“This is great,” Sistrunk said. “I know this is Seahawks country, I lived up here, but that doesn’t bother me. It’s great to see a lot of folks come out to an event like this.”
Sistrunk was a punishing defensive lineman for Oakland from 1972-78, and was named to the Pro Bowl in 1974 and helped the Raiders win Super Bowl XI over the Minnesota Vikings at the end of the 1976 season — he was wearing his Super Bowl ring Saturday.
Sistrunk is also the rare NFLer who never played in college, as he went into the United States Marine Corps out of high school. After he left the Marines he played three years of semipro football in Virginia before getting a tryout with the Los Angeles Rams, where he was noticed by Oakland.
After Sistrunk retired from the NFL, he eventually settled in Olympia and spent 25 years managing Cowan Stadium, the athletic field at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma. He retired from that job in 2014 and returned to his native Georgia.
“It’s always a pleasure to have Otis come to town,” said Cindi DeWitt, the vice president of the Northwest Raiders Booster Club, who was decked out in Raiders gear from head to toe, including sunglasses with the Raiders logo burned into the lenses. “We have a lot of fun with him, I’ve known him for years, and having him come to town and be involved with the fans on this level so many years later is just incredible.”
The idea of Sistrunk appearing at the car show originated with Paul Richards, the show’s co-chair. Richards, who was a Raiders fan while growing up in Cleveland, knew Sistrunk had lived in the Pacific Northwest and had been heavily involved with Special Olympics while working at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Therefore, he effectively cold-called Sistrunk, sending him a letter asking if he’d come to the show. Much to Richards’ surprise, he received a return call.
“I was shocked,” Richards said. “Oh my gosh, a guy I used to admire as a kid is calling me, I didn’t know what to do. He was the Man from Mars, he had the Kojak hairstyle, and he was just a beast out there.”
“I like to do charity, and (Richards) gave me good ideas of what they were doing and what it was for, so I decided I’d come,” Sistrunk said. “And they invited me back.”
While at the car show, Sistrunk took the opportunity to reminisce about his days with the Raiders.
“We felt like when we walked into a stadium, they already lost,” Sistrunk said. “We were just that good.”
Those Raiders teams were known for having characters, and when asked who the biggest character was Sistrunk immediately named quarterback Ken Stabler.
“He was a good guy, he loved to win,” Sistrunk recalled. “He was from Alabama and I was from Georgia. I hit him when I first got there and (coach) John Madden said, ‘Oh no, don’t touch him, he’s going to carry us to the Super Bowl.’ And he did.
“John Madden was a great coach,” Sistrunk added. “I thought he was one of the best coaches in the NFL, and he looked out for his players. We had players like Jim Otto, Willie Brown, Gene Upshaw, Art Shell, Ted Hendricks, Phil Villapiano, so many. We had players who really wanted to win. You don’t just go through he motions, you go out to play to win, and John Madden loved to win, he didn’t like to lose.”
The NFL has changed a lot in the 40 years since Sistrunk played, particularly in the way it protects the quarterbacks.
“The rules have changed so much that I feel if we had the rules today back then, I never would have got a check because if you hit the quarterback wrong you get a fine,” Sistrunk said.
“Some of the new rules I like, some I don’t,” Sistrunk added. “I don’t want to see anybody get hurt, that’s their livelihood, to go out and play football and make it in the NFL.”