Philadelphia Eagles News

Didinger: The Eagles' Medicine Man

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On Tuesday evening, the annual Otho Davis Scholarship Foundation Dinner was held at the Sheraton Society Hill. The event, co-chaired by Jim Solano and Eagles Hall of Fame receiver Harold Carmichael, raises money for young people interested in careers in sports medicine. It is a worthy cause and one Otho would have heartily endorsed.

It is always a fun night largely because folks sit around and tell stories about Otho. He was the Eagles' head trainer from 1973 until 1995. He was a character, a one-of-a-kind personality who was equal parts healer, prankster and father figure. Just ask any player who passed through the Eagles' locker room in those years. To a man, they loved the guy.

Otho was an imposing figure, tall and broad shouldered with a thick shock of black hair. If you saw him on the practice field, you would have thought he was coach, always watching, arms folded across his chest. From a distance, he looked rather stern. It wasn't until you got closer that you saw the twinkle in his eyes.

He was a native Texan and his workshop, the training room at Veterans Stadium, reflected that. He decorated it with various items from his parents' farm - horseshoes, saws, a butter churn, even a toilet seat. There was always country music playing on the radio. Anyone in the whirlpool or on the rubbing table got an earful of Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson whether he liked it or not.

A framed photo of John Wayne hung above his desk and it was a fit because there was something of the Duke in the way Otho walked and talked. There was always a pot of chili steaming in the corner next to the plastic potted palm, the sweet smell of the simmering beef mixing with the pungent scent of analgesic balm. Posted on the door was a warning sign: "Protected Area, The Otho Davis Wildlife Sanctuary."

The facilities at the Vet weren't anything special. The locker room was drab and the weight room was a joke, but Otho's training room had a character and warmth that was a reflection of the man who lived there. And "lived" is the right word because during the season Otho was in the training room more than he was at home. He was there around the clock if necessary either treating that day's injuries or preparing for the next morning's onslaught.

At the dinner, Dick Vermeil told a story about the 1979 season when the Eagles were preparing to play the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. The Eagles had lost their All-Pro linebacker Bill Bergey to a knee injury two weeks earlier. Carl Hairston, their best defensive lineman, was limping on a sore ankle. Without Hairston, Vermeil knew the Eagles had virtually no chance to slow the Pittsburgh offense.

"On Wednesday, Otho told me, 'He'll be ready,'" Vermeil said.

That night Vermeil went to the training room and found Hairston stretched out on the rubbing table with Otho massaging his ankle. Vermeil returned to his office to study more film. He came back the next morning and Hairston was still on the table and Otho was still massaging. Hairston played, the Eagles won and one of the film clips they showed at the dinner was Hairston sacking Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw and celebrating with a fist-pumping leap. Hairston earned a game ball that day and Vermeil made sure Otho got one as well.

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Otho was a five-time recipient of the National Athletic Trainers Association's Professional Trainer of the Year award. For two decades, he was executive director of the NATA and the office building in Dallas is now named in his honor. He was inducted into the Eagles' Hall of Fame in 1999, five years after his retirement.

Anyone who was around the team in those years has a thousand Otho memories. I certainly have mine, but my favorite is the time I was walking through the locker room and saw someone that looked remarkably like John Travolta come out of the training room. I looked closer and realized, "Hey, that IS John Travolta."

Travolta was shooting the movie "Blow Out" in Philadelphia and hurt his ankle while filming a scene. They took Travolta to a doctor who told the movie producers that the actor should wear a boot and stay off his feet for two weeks. That was not an option, the producers said, because they had to stay on a schedule. Wasn't there anyone who could get their star back on the set immediately?

"Well," the doctor said, "there is a guy named Otho Davis ..."

So a call was placed to the Eagles' training room.

"Sure," Otho said, "bring him in."

An hour later, John Travolta limped into Veterans Stadium.

Vermeil was so wrapped up in coaching at the time that he had no idea who John Travolta was. He walked in the training room and saw this long-haired stranger in the whirlpool.

"Get him out of here," Vermeil said.

Told it was a Hollywood star, Vermeil said he didn't care. Back then, the Eagles' coach thought Saturday Night Fever was something you got on the eve of a Dallas game.

"I don't care who he is," Vermeil said. "The training room is for the players."

Otho assured the coach that everything was fine, that Travolta was a nice guy and the players enjoyed having him around. Vermeil still wasn't happy but as he usually did, he trusted Otho's judgment. Otho treated Travolta's ankle then taped it up as snugly as he would for Wilbert Montgomery and sent him on his way. The actor returned to work the next morning and the film was completed on time.

Otho estimated that he logged 8,500 treatments in a typical NFL season. They ranged from minor tweaks to traumatic injuries that ended careers, but Otho treated them with equal care and compassion. "I feel like every player is a part of me," he once said.

Wilbert Montgomery tells a story about going down with a knee injury, feeling the immediate pain and fear and then having someone grasp his hand. It was Otho.

"I'll always remember him saying, 'Everything will be OK,'" Montgomery said. "At times like that, he was like your father. We all felt that way."

Otho was a skillful practical joker. Usually he played the jokes on the players, especially unsuspecting rookies, but he also did it to the coaches. At the dinner, Vermeil talked about how it drove him crazy when he found the photos in his office hanging unevenly. He couldn't figure out how they got that way. He figured it was the folks who came in to dust late at night.

Vermeil visited Otho in his final days. He asked Vermeil to lean in because he had something to tell him.

"I was the one who tilted your pictures," Otho said.

"We both laughed," Vermeil said. "That was Otho."

An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for Comcast SportsNet. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the season for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here. He is also the author of The New Eagles Encyclopedia, which is already among the hot sellers on Amazon.

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