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Kentucky Football: Shades of the Past – Doug Kotar

Kentucky has always had unsung heroes. Doug Kotar was one of them.

Melina Vastola-US PRESSWIRE

If you go to page 152 of the 2013 UK Media Guide you will find Doug Kotar (pronounced Coat-er) ranks # 27 in the list of career rushing leaders. While his numbers are not particularly noteworthy, Kotar played for the New York Giants in the NFL and he was an instrumental behind the scenes player in the NFL’s fight with the NFL Players Association over concussions.

Doug Kotar (June 11, 1951 - December 16, 1983) came to Kentucky in 1970 as a freshman from Canon McMillan High School in Canonsburg, PA.  This small community is 18 miles southwest of Pittburgh in coal country. Singers Perry Como and Bobby Vinton are from Canonsburg.  There is an interesting history of the town that you can read at Wikipedia.

I read somewhere that when Doug came to Kentucky, the only clothes he had to his name was a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt. I believe I read that in a story in the old Cat's Pause when Oscar Combs owned the monthly newspaper.  I was living in Atlanta at the time and The Cats Pause was something to look forward to reading as the only source of information for many who did not live in Lexington.

In 1971, Kentucky's first game of the season was a road trip to Clemson's Death Valley. My next door neighbor, Fred, was a Clemson grad who worked at Texas Western, a subsidiary of AT&T, in Sandy Springs, right outside of Atlanta. He was from Clemson and my wife and I rode up with Fred and his wife  to the game. Fred was adamant that Clemson would win. I didn't argue with him because John Ray was our head coach and Kentucky had a 2-8 and 2-9 record the previous two years under the "luckless" John Ray. As a Kentucky fan, even back then, you just knew better than to argue about who would win an upcoming game.

Driving into to Clemson was unique.  At the city limits, all roads had orange or purple tiger paws leading to Death Valley. I've always thought it would be cool for UK to do that and it would also help out-of-towners get to the stadium.

Since the game was an afternoon game, we tailgated with Fred's parents and it was very enjoyable. As we got to our seats, it dawned on me that we were sitting in the middle of people who gave heavily as boosters to Clemson. My wife and I took the ribbing from those who surrounded with as much aplomb as we could gather. Back then, the discourse was not as mean-spirited as it is today.

As the teams lined up for the opening kickoff, I told my wife to watch Doug Kotar who was the lone receiver for the kick. Kotar caught the ball at the two yard line and weaved his way up the field. As he broke a couple of tackles he suddenly had an open field ahead and ran for a touchdown. Clemson would go on to win the game 13-10. Kotar's kickoff return ranks 9th in UK history and is my fondest memory of him. Kotar led the team that year in kickoff returns  and average 24.5 yards per return. Kotar was UK's top rusher in 1971 and 1972 going for 1004 in 1971 and 604 in 1972. The reason I loved Doug Kotar was due to his toughness and determination.

Kotar wasn't drafted in the 1974 NFL Draft, but was eventually signed by the Steelers.  After  17 rounds, 70 running backs had been drafted, and the 5-11 205 pound Kotar was simply considered too small. Plus he had a rather obscure college career at Kentucky. The Steelers traded Kotar to the Giants. By 1976, Doug was the Giants featured back.  You can read about Doug Kotar's NFL career with the Giants at the team's Scout website.  He retired in 1982. Here's a quote from the article:

Kotar realized his NFL career was over when he came to training camp in 1982 and couldn't raise his arms enough to catch a pass, and concluded that his knee surgery left him a step slower.

That wasn't the way he wanted Giants fans to remember him, so he retired before the first week of camp.

Kotar, the undrafted free agent, walked away from the NFL as the Giants 4th all-time leading rusher with 3,380 yards, 1,022 yards receiving, and another 939 yards in punt and kickoff returns.

Doug Kotar died of a malignant brain tumor. The article, written by Tom Mackie, describes how the Giants family responded with the news of his disease and the legacy of his children and grandchildren.

So how was Kotar instrumental in the recent NFL -Players Association settlement? One of my least favorite ESPN personalities tells the rest of the story. Listen to Keith Olbermann tell the story here. It is a sad tale and a tribute to one of the University of Kentucky's own unsung heroes.