By John Goralski
Scott Otis felt a twinge of satisfaction as he stood in the shadow of Fontana Field while track officials scrambled to measure his javelin throw at a cold spring meet in 1991. For three years of varsity football, he maintained that his arm could beat most teams.
This throw certainly proved it.
Former Blue Knight track coach Pete Sepko remembers that day because the record-setting throw should have been even farther. Officials had to reach up the hill at the edge of the soccer field because Otis had stuck the javelin into the hill like a dart in a bullseye.
“I was going to throw the whole area back about 20 feet or so because I felt that Scott was going to start launching big ones pretty soon,” said Sepko. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to do that. The throw was 221 feet, 10 inches, but it landed part way up the bank for that upper soccer field. It would have probably gone about 230 feet if I had moved the mark.”
Don’t feel too badly for Otis. After more than 20 years, his throw still ranks as the best by a Knight. Southington boasts just a handful of 200-foot throwers, but Otis beat them all by more than 10 feet.
“He had a lot of natural talent. He has a great arm, great size, and good leaping abilities,” said Sepko. “He never played baseball, so he didn’t have any poor delivery problems that we had to correct when he was a sophomore, and then he got bigger and stronger as years went by.”
With an arm like that, how come he didn’t set state records under Jude Kelly’s coaching? Why didn’t Otis shatter passing records in Kelly’s air raid attack? How does a guy that can throw a javelin with precision over 200 feet manage just 12 touchdowns in three varsity seasons?
One word: Timing. The air raid attack didn’t hatch until after Otis went on to college. In his early years, Kelly was focused on running the ball.
“As we progressed to a spread style attack, he certainly would have been one of the top quarterbacks,” said Kelly, “but I had Scott in my first years at Southington, and we were running the wishbone, which is a system that I used before. We knew he had a strong arm, but we probably only threw 3-5 passes per game and ran the rest of the time. He was a big, strong quarterback, and he did okay, but we didn’t end up throwing the ball until after he left.”
That was a theme that ran through Otis’ entire career. He was the go-to guy when teams were in transition. It hurt him in high school and as an underclassman in college, but it prepared him for two breakout seasons that shattered records, swung the spotlight toward a small, West Virginia school, and landed the Southington native smack dab in the NFL.
It’s one of the most unlikely paths to the professional leagues that anyone has ever taken.
“I don’t really talk about it that much. It takes some urging or egging on just to get me talking about some of these things,” Otis said as he shifted in his seat at a local coffee shop. “I sort of keep it close. I know in the back of my mind how much work I put into it. Sure, the ultimate goal is to get to the NFL, but with every little baby step I felt like I was getting close.”
Otis wasn’t bred to be a professional quarterback. He wasn’t shipped around the country for high priced camps or high profile contests. Otis was just a local kid with a toughness that was fostered in the midget football leagues. He never considered himself a superstar until a growth spurt hit him in junior high school and he tried out for the Kennedy team.
“All of a sudden, I was this 6’2” or 6’3” skinny kid with a decent arm,” he said. “I always had some athletic ability when it came to sports, but I always thought that it would be basketball that I would play. As I began to progress with football, we found that I was able to throw the ball, and it came pretty natural to me.”
Otis rose quickly through the ranks, but he still wasn’t the obvious choice for quarterback when he arrived at the high school, but the Blue Knights were in transition. Long-time coach Dom D’Angelo retired, and Kelly arrived with his wishbone attack. Otis earned his quarterback position when the top thrower shifted to running back.
“I was athletic, but we had a kid named Dave Green that was a much better fit for the position,” said Otis. “I was tall and the center was only like 5’9”, so it was almost like my butt was touching the ground when I took the snap. But because of the wishbone, we ended up utilizing Dave more as running back. That was good for me.”
Otis never had a chance to showcase his abilities in a varsity game. It wasn’t until Kelly brought some players to a UConn football camp that Otis began to turn heads. The next year, he was invited to Duke University where he began to show some promise for his throws. Otis considered transferring to a school like Xavier so that he could showcase his skills, but he wanted to compete with his friends.
“I should have probably gone someplace else, but I didn’t want to,” he said. “I played my whole life in Southington. Growing up, I played with them or against them in the midget leagues. I was looking forward to playing at the high school.”
So Otis settled into the running program and resigned himself to his role. Southington struggled to a 4-6 record in his sophomore season. The following year they dropped to just three wins. As a senior Otis’ team rallied to an 8-2 record, but coaches didn’t come calling to see Otis’ arm. Kelly decided to try a less conventional way to showcase his young thrower.
“Schools recruit athletes, and they can see things from the tapes. Very few colleges ever look at statistics. They want to see the strength of the arm, how they react under pressure, and things like that,” said Kelly. “We knew he had a strong arm, and we knew he had some college talent, so we videotaped our pre-game with him taking the snaps, the steps, and throwing all the different pass patterns that we had in our system. The wishbone showed that he had some toughness and some size to him, but they also had a chance to see the strength of his arm.”
The gamble paid off. The University of West Virginia signed the Southington hopeful, but once again Otis found himself with a program in transition. The Mountaineers were coming off an undefeated season and a championship game in the Fiesta Bowl, but a new coaching staff wasn’t as committed to Otis as the ones that recruited him.
“At the time, they hadn’t really recruited that truly athletic quarterback, so I thought that I had a chance to go there and compete,” he said. “Later, I found out that they signed five quarterbacks that year. They had a couple of incumbents, but after my red shirt year I actually ended up being the third string quarterback for my first couple of seasons.”
Other quarterbacks from his freshman year switched to different positions or different schools, but Otis was determined to stay at quarterback. He had a good spring camp as a sophomore and was a top prospect in the program, but coaches approached him before summer to tell him that they were going with their younger recruits. Otis to make a decision to play another postition, transfer, or ride the bench. Otis wanted to be a quarterback.
“At that time, it wasn’t about having any aspirations to play NFL football. I had just put in the time and the work. I just wanted to play on Saturdays,” he said. “I just wanted to see the fruits of my labor from my time commitment. I wanted to see if my abilities truly were what I thought they were.”
He considered returning home to play at UConn as they made the transition to NCAA Division I-A, but he settled into a small West Virginia school that was making the transition from a NAIA program to an NCAA division II team. Glennville State College had a young coach that shared Otis’ excitement about the passing game. Rich Rodriguez is now coaching at the University of Arizona, but he got his start molding Otis into a professional prospect.
Once again, Otis took a chance with a team in transition. This time, it paid off.
“It was the best decision that I could have made,” he said. “It gave me a chance to learn a wide-open spread offense. Rich had an unbelievable mind for the game and all the little nuances that were all brand new to me. I was sort of learning it all on the fly and picking it up as fast as I could. Each week was a learning experience.”
In his first season, he completed a pass to Chris George that broke Jerry Rice’s all-time collegiate reception record. Otis went on to shatter school records and draw the attention of NFL scouts. Twice, Otis completed six touchdown passes in a game. He threw for 5,986 yards in two seasons with the Pioneers and still ranks in the top three at the school in career offense and touchdown passes (34) even though he only played for two seasons.
He ranks fourth on the all-time list with a 575 yard passing performance in one game and ranks fifth in school history with a 569 yard game. He still ranks as the most efficient passer in WVIAC conference history with a 147.8 quarterback rating.
“Even if the NFL never came knocking, I would still be sitting her talking about Glennville with a grin on my face,” said Otis. “That was the best way that I could have finished my college career—bar none.”
But the NFL did come knocking, and Otis found himself showcasing his skills to NFL scouts at the University of West Virginia complex in front of the same coaches that felt he wasn’t good enough to play.
Otis wasn’t drafted, but he worked his way onto the lineup for the Baltimore Ravens behind Vinny Testaverde and Eric Zeier. He never played except for some preseason games. He only lasted one year, but he made it.
It’s no surprise that the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee nominated Otis in their fourth class, but it still surprises the former Blue Knight.
“When I look at some of the names that have already been inducted, they all had great high school careers that stand out on their own,” he said. “I realize that my body of work came a little later, and it’s nice to see that they look at the whole picture. I’m truly honored and thankful to the committee and the community.”
On Thursday, Nov. 14, Otis will be honored in an induction ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville. To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.