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Otis Sistrunk happy at JBLM

A great job for a former All-Pro defensive lineman

Otis Sistrunk to retire from JBLM December 2014. Photo credit: Gail Wood

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Even though he's a long ways from the spotlight today, a long ways from beating Ray Mansfield across from him and running down Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw, Otis Sistrunk couldn't be happier with his life.

He's no millionaire, like so many NFL players are today. He drives a Buick. Not a Mercedes. But a car doesn't make a man. He knows now you can't buy happiness.

There's no TV cameras rolling when Sistrunk sweeps the floors today at Cowan Stadium. No commentator giving a play-by-play when he moves the soccer goals onto the field or when he schedules soccer and flag football games between the soldiers. There is no crowd of 70,000 standing, roaring their approval when he brings a bag of footballs out to the field.    

As a former All-Pro defensive lineman with the Oakland Raiders, Sistrunk knows something about football, about fame in the NFL. And now, after 23 years as the manager of Cowan Stadium, he knows something about working behind the scenes, making sure soldiers have their fun playing a game. He's become a friend to many soldiers who come and play football.

"One of the reasons why I've stayed so long is because of the friendships," said Sistrunk, an Oakland Raider from 1972-80. "Before they go to  Iraq or Afghanistan, they'll say can you stay here until next year when I get back. You hate to retire."

But that day is coming. Sistrunk, who is 69, said he'll retire in December 2014.

"I've built a lot of friendships," Sistrunk said. "This has been a good job."

Sistrunk hasn't played football for more than 30 years. But he makes sure soldiers get that chance. This fall there are 40 flag football teams with 18 players on a team. Four nights a week, from Monday through Thursday, four games are played at Cowan Stadium. On Saturdays, another seven games are played there.

"You'll find some good athletes out there," Sistrunk said. "We had one kid playing who had a tryout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers."

David Sadlemyer, a staff sergeant with 13 years in the Army, was the starting quarterback on his high school team in his hometown of Osakis, Minn. He appreciates what Sistrunk does and knows what it means to the soldiers to have a chance to play on a football team.

"The spree decor is amazing," Sadlemyer said. "It's exactly what you need. It's one of those things that keeps people together. If they had a bad day at work, they can come here and have a good time on the field and it cheers them up."

Sistrunk is happy. Content with his job. Content with himself. He's not making the money he once did in the NFL. But he enjoys what he's doing. It's a honest day's pay for an honest day's work. He's married to Carol. A couple of times a year he plays in a charity golf tournament with a couple of ex-Raiders, goes to an occasional card-signing show, and talks at Super Bowl parties about games of yesterday. He also talks at schools, telling kids the importance of getting an education.

"Otis is a man to look up to, not just because he played in the NFL," Sadlemyer said. "He's worked hard his whole life. He never quit. He never gives up and he's just got a great attitude."

Nobody told Sistrunk he was done with the NFL. His knee told him. After getting released from the Raiders, he had a tryout with the New York Giants. When he felt a stinging pain in his knee while jumping in the personal tryout, Sistrunk's NFL days were over.

"I knew I had officially retired," he said.

That meant no more card games with teammates Gene Upshaw and Art Shell before Sunday's kickoff. No more packed stadiums. No more cheers. And just like that, Sistrunk was a has-been. Unemployed with a car payment due. And he didn't know what he was going to do. There was no college degree to fall back on. No training. No trade.     

To replace the silence, he did what any other self-respecting, retired All-Pro defensive lineman would do. He learned what a headlock was and turned to pro wrestling. It wasn't like he was the first ex-NFLer to go into the ring and grapple. Alex Karras did it. So had Buck Buchanan. Even though he made $170,000 his final season with the Raiders, he still needed a paycheck. So, he wrestled.

Anyway, wrestling wasn't an embarrassment to him. He made between $45 and $75 a match, depending on the crowd. If he did all right in the small market, he'd get called up to do some matches in Atlanta. That meant TV. Commercials. Big money. It seemed like a fair deal.

He wore black and silver tights with no shirt. He'd come into the ring wearing a black Raiders jacket. Usually, he was matched against Big Stud, who at 6-foot-9 and 350 pounds certainly defined the first part of his nickname. It was a tough way to make a buck.

There were usually a couple hundred fans screaming in the stands, yelling "Kill him." He was always hoping they were pulling for him. There were times he wasn't so sure. In one of his first matches, he went down hard. Too hard. He felt dizzy. Suddenly, there were three Big Studs coming at him.

His on-the-job training continued. But he wasn't getting rich. Just bruised.

Just one month into his pro wrestling career, he quit. Which left him asking, "What was I going to do now?"

After selling beer for Coors for awhile, Sistrunk ended up at Fort Benning, Georgia, working with recreation. Part of the job included coordinating an exercise class for the wives of some of the officers.

After 12 years there, he came to Fort Lewis.

"I've got no complaints," Sistrunk said.

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