Many talented running backs who played in the NFL wore jersey No. 44. Among them were Leroy Kelly, Floyd Little, John Riggins and Doug Kotar of Muse.
In 90 NFL games (1974-81) with the New York Giants, Kotar rushed for 3,380 yards and scored 21 touchdowns. Twice he was the Giants’ leading rusher for a season, including 1976, when he gained 731 yards – 162 more than Hall of Famer Larry Csonka that year.
“When it came to athletic ability, Doug was the very best at what he did,” said Ray Campanelli, Kotar’s head coach at Canon-McMillan High School. “His speed, his ability to cut, change directions and to catch the football were simply world class. He was poetry in motion and a game-winner.”
In his sophomore season at Canon-McMillan, in 1967, Kotar gave his teammates and coaching staff a preview of big things to come.
“In Doug’s second game against Upper St. Clair, we ran him on a quick trap up the middle,” explained Campanelli. “The St. Clair tackle rushed so hard he got past our guard, who was supposed to trap him, and was bearing down on Doug. But Doug made a violent cut and got past him for a 22-yard touchdown. The St. Clair tackle had to be carried off the field as he injured his knee trying to get Doug.
“Doug’s big test came against powerful Uniontown. He performed beautifully: 13 carries, 70 yards and several times picked up key third downs. He proved he could play with the big guys.”
One of Kotar’s best games was against powerful Chambersburg during his senior season. The game was billed in Pennsylvania as the best team from the east facing the best of the west. Kotar scored on the first play from scrimmage, a 70-yard run with quarterback Mike Smutney pitching on an option play. Kotar went the distance untouched.
Chambersburg took the lead with a little more than seven minutes to play, but the host team made the mistake of kicking off to Kotar. He took the return up the middle for about 30 yards, then cut and raced down the left sideline, in front of the Big Macs’ bench, going all the way for a 92-yard touchdown. The play gave Canon-McMillan a 26-22 victory.
Bob Johnson, the former head coach at Trinity, was the Big Macs’ defensive coordinator during Kotar’s high school career.
“It was an honor just to watch him play,” Johnson said. “He was a quiet leader, not a verbal guy. He led by example. He was a player’s player. Kotar was a natural.”
He also was a multi-sport standout at Canon-McMillan.
Johnson shared this story about Kotar’s quest to participate in track and field:
“Doug was a good baseball player. But one day, he came over to watch our track and field guys practice,” Johnson recalled. “Here’s Doug, in his baseball spikes. He picks up the javelin and says to me, ‘Coach, how do you throw it?’ I showed him how to hold it, pointed out to him to run to that line and throw it as far as possible. He threw it about 185 feet. Doug competed in the WPIAL finals in the shot put and javelin.
“Oh, did I mention Doug was the state champ in the 440-yard dash?” Kotar was drafted as an outfielder in 16th round by the Cincinnati Reds in 1970, but he chose to attend college and play football for the University of Kentucky. The first time Kotar touched the football in a varsity game for the Wildcats, he returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown in a 13-10 win over Clemson.
Following his college days, Kotar was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974 but was traded to the New York Giants during training camp.
Harry Carson, who became a great linebacker for the Giants, took an immediate liking to Kotar, who played bigger than his 5-11, 205-pound frame.
“The one player I looked up to was Doug Kotar, largely because of the grit that he exhibited in practice and in games,” Carson said. “He wasn’t a star. He never sought to be one, but he did look to be the best player he could be despite his size. We knew that every time he stepped on the field he brought it.”
Smutney echoed Carson’s feelings toward Kotar.
“Tremendous teammate,” he said. “He excelled at everything. I’ve never seen anyone like him. Doug was one of the main reasons we enjoyed success as a team.”
Several times during his playing career in the NFL, Kotar faced the Steelers.
His career was cut short in 1982 by a shoulder injury. He suffered headaches that summer and doctors detected a brain tumor that eventually claimed his life in December of 1983.
Following his death, a fundraiser was held at the Route 19 bowling alley in Washington. There were about a dozen Steelers players who helped organize the function. Running backs Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris were co-chairmen. It was a successful event for a Big Mac who became a “Giant” to all those who saw him play.
It was in a softball game that Kotar particularly impressed me. In the mid-70s, some of the best softball players in the world played in Washington. We’re talking about guys such as Gary Smith and Denny Brown, among others. Kotar was an outstanding softball player, and in one game he two home runs in consecutive at-bats … one right-handed, one left-handed.
The pride of Canon-McMillan could do it all.
Kotar was selected for the inaugural class of the Washington-Greene County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1986. He was inducted into the state hall of fame in 2008.
Bill DiFabio is president of Sportscall. This is the first of a biweekly column he will write for the Observer-Reporter on local sports history.