'40s star Brandau recalls when football didn't pay enough for player to live on

Bill Tanton

January 26, 1993|By Bill Tanton

Otts Brandau, who will enter the State of Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame at Martin's West Feb. 15, is a good example of the inequity of sports salaries.

If pro athletes today make too much money, as many believe, then the athlete of Brandau's time -- the '40s -- didn't make enough.

At least it wasn't enough to keep City College grad (Class of '41) Brandau playing, even though he is remembered by those who played with him as one of the greatest football players ever produced here.

"In the '40s," says Dick Working, who has known Brandau since they were in first grade at School No. 51 and who played with him at City, "Otts was a man playing against boys.

"We never lost a game at City. We had two ties with Fork Union. Otts was our center and linebacker, and his great talent was defense.

"He had enormous strength -- he was also a great wrestler -- and his arms seemed to reach from tackle to tackle. Otts didn't like it when [coach] Harry Lawrence switched us from the 6-2-2-1 defense to a 5-3. He didn't want any other linebackers out there. His attitude was, 'I'll take care of this.' "

When Brandau was a student at City, he went to the 1939 New York World's Fair, where a fortune teller told him he would play football for a college in the South and marry a southern girl. Both happened.

Coach Frank Thomas wanted Otts to play at Alabama, but when it came time for Brandau's campus visit, he was told to buy a bus ticket to Tuscaloosa. He would be reimbursed later, he was told.

Then along came Bob Neyland, the legendary Tennessee coach and a classy man indeed. He sent Brandau a train ticket, prepaid, to Knoxville. That settled that. Brandau went to Tennessee.

Otts played two years there and along the way married a pretty blonde he met at a dance at the YWCA. He and his Dottie Lee are approaching their 50th anniversary.

In the 1943 Sugar Bowl, Tennessee beat Tulsa, and Brandau, going both ways, played 56 minutes. In the 93-degree heat, he lost 14 pounds.

World War II was in full swing by then, and Otts went in the Army Air Corps, where he continued to play football. He was on service teams with Charley Trippi and Glenn Dobbs, two of the greatest stars of the day.

Brandau was stationed on Tinian Island in the Pacific and witnessed U.S. bombers taking off at 4 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945. He didn't know where they were headed. He soon found out.

They were on their way to Hiroshima, Japan, where they made the first wartime use of an atomic bomb.

Because his Tennessee class was graduated in '45, Brandau was eligible for the NFL draft. He was taken by the Steelers and got to Pittsburgh in time for the last two games against the Redskins and the Bears.

"That was a letdown," he says. "In the service, I was playing the whole game against great football players. The guys in the NFL in '45 were mediocre, and I only played a few minutes. I wasn't even going to accept my salary, but Bill Dudley talked me into taking it."

The next year, Brandau was the second highest-paid lineman on the Steelers. He played both ways for coach Jock Sutherland and was paid $300 a game.

Even a top salary like that wasn't enough to keep him in the league. Otts and his brother Jack had borrowed money to open a men's store at 32nd Street and Greenmount Avenue in Waverly. He knew his future was there, not in football.

"When I went away to play football," Otts recalls, "I had to hire a salesman to work in the store.

"Baltimore got a team in the All-America Conference in '47, and I thought that would work out well. I could work in the store when I wasn't at practice. Cecil Isbell was the coach, and he said he'd pay me half what I made in Pittsburgh."

"Why only half?" Brandau asked.

"Because you're from here," the penurious Isbell told him. "You don't have to go out and rent an apartment like these other players."

So Brandau quit football. He retired from his store on York Road, opposite Towson State, 13 months ago. Today, 70 years old and with two knee replacements, he bowls with Dottie Lee three times a week.

He watches pro football on TV. He's pulling for Buffalo in the Super Bowl because he doesn't like Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson.

Does he ever wish for a chance to play at today's salaries? Of course, he does.

"I'd go out there on crutches," he says. The excited look in his eyes makes you think he's serious.

Entering the Hall of Fame with Brandau at the organization's annual enshrinement luncheon will be tennis star Pam Shriver, football player Jean Fugett and jousting's Mary Lou Bartram.

Tickets are available from Hall of Fame executive director D. Chester O'Sullivan at 333-6315.

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