A Chance Encounter Leads to Great Discovery

This is part 1 of 2 in a series on David Otey.

In this journey of life one never knows when a fellow traveler or a situation will create or affect one’s opportunities, knowledge, emotions, or outlook! Recently, at one of the Rim of the World High School football games I photographed, I met David Otey, who was standing on the sidelines. A big guy with an impressive stature, Otey revealed that he had played for the San Francisco 49ers and now lives in Lake Arrowhead.

In our brief conversation, wondering why he was there on the sidelines, I asked Otey if he had a son on the team. When he replied “no,” I asked if he was one of the coaches and, again, he said “no.” As the game got underway, I turned my attention to photographing the game and Otey went his own way.  

My curiosity got the better of me and I followed up with this former pro athlete living in the mountain community. After researching Otey, I asked for an interview and it was granted.

A California boy, Otey grew up in El Cajon and attended El Cajon High School where, as a member of the football team, he played linebacker, fullback and defensive tackle as well as the long and short snapper. He was also on the wrestling team and a thrower on the track team.

Otey said some of the people who inspired him included his high school’s freshman coach, Coach Halte, Halte’s family, and his high school’s varsity head coach, Coach Mann.

“[Halte] expected me to be a leader and a man from the very first day,” Otey said. “He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. His family made me part of their family, (and) that was taboo back in those days!”

After his freshman year, Otey said Halte was promoted to varsity linebacker coach and Mann challenged Halte to only bring Otey “up to varsity linebacker as a Sophomore... if he is going to start.”

“If it wasn’t for Coach Mann’s foresight and challenge, I wouldn’t have progressed as I did,” Otey said. “Oh, and by the way, I started all three years as linebacker #44 for the El Cajon Braves.”  

Otey said his idols growing up included Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears and Ray Nitschke of the Green bay Packers, but Coach Halte was his “biggest inspiration.”

When I asked him how he earned a spot on an NFL team, Dave replied with a nostalgic gleam in his eye.

“I was in New York going through the Giants combine in 1982 when I received a call from Coach McPherson, [a past UCLA Coach] and now Coach for the [San Francisco] 49ers… he said, ‘you got no business being a California guy in New York… get your butt on a plane and the Super Bowl Champions will sign you to a Free Agent Contract and make a go as center for the 49ers!’” Otey said.

“Now who could say no to that?” he laughed.

The former NFL player continued to reminisce about his pro days, recounting the time he stepped out on the field for his first professional game as a San Francisco 49er. The team was playing the infamous Oakland Raiders at Candlestick Park. He said he vividly remembered his inaugural game, where he snapped the ball to football legends Joe Montana and Ray Woreshing, started the second half of play as a center to Montana, and lined up against “bad boy” Raiders Lyle Alzado and John Matuszak! 

When I asked Otey what it had been like playing under the famous Coach Bill Walsh, he humbly responded that it had been “worth every bit, every moment and every memory I have the opportunity to tell!”

On a more somber note, Dave acknowledged that professional football was not all star-struck victories and fame. When asked if he ever had been seriously injured while playing, he counted off the litany of “wounds” he had patched up, which included a left ankle reconstruction, right knee medial collateral reattachment, and compressed spinal discs. As serious as these injuries were, Dave still considered himself one of the lucky ones.

“I can still run, hike, swim and blame some of my [forgetfulness] on playing in the days of leading with your head when tackling your opponent!” 

After his professional career, Dave and his fiancée, Jill, were living down the mountain and working for Kaiser Steel in Fontana. Jill came up with the idea of moving to the Lake Arrowhead area to escape the rat race of the valley. She had visited the mountain communities as a young woman and had played against Rim of the World High as a volleyball athlete in high school. When she persuaded Dave to come up to our little bit of heaven one day, as he described it, “…the Good Lord had his hand on our future and we bought the house that we are living in today!” 

Next week, make sure to read part 2 of this series: People of Courage, Men of Courage.