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Purdue ICONS #23: Otis Armstrong

Otis Armstrong in action
Otis Armstrong in action

When the final ballots came in Otis Armstrong was tied with Kyle Orton for the #23 spot. Each player received 125 votes, but I decided to break that tie and put Armstrong just ahead of Orton, mostly because I think Armstrong legacy is a bit stronger. They are both a pair of our all-time greats on the football field, but Armstrong was a player that was overshadowed during the 10- Year War that most Big Ten fans refer to as the "Big Two, Little 8" era.

Ironically, both Armstrong and Orton have made their mark professionally with the Denver Broncos. They also are both represented in my family by our times at Purdue. Orton's first start occurred during my senior year on campus. Armstrong excelled during my dad's time in West Lafayette. Both of these ICONS are definitely worthy of the title.

Armstrong's Background

Armstrong's journey to Purdue didn't have him traveling far from his roots. It was just a short drive down I-65 from his Chicago home when he was recruited. He was recruited as Purdue was coming off of one of its most successful eras in school history. It may seem odd now, but from 1966-68 Purdue was a legitimate threat to win a National Championship. The Boilermakers only lost two games in each season from 1965-69, and was the #1 team in all the land for part of 1968.

This only resulted in one bowl game, and the 1966 team that went to Pasadena probably wasn't even the best team of that era. Armstrong was recruited as a dangerous halfback with track star's speed. Since freshmen were ineligible in those days, he sat out the 1969 season as Purdue went 8-2, losing only to Michigan (31-20) and Ohio State (42-14). Had he been eligible to play it is possible that Purdue beats Michigan and finishes in a three-way tie for the Big Ten crown.

Time at Purdue

Unfortunately, Jack Mollenkopf stepped down as Purdue's head coach following the 1969 season. He was replaced by Bob DeMoss, who according to my dad, had one play: "Otis up the middle". I guess there is a reason that Demoss lasted three seasons, finished 13-18 overall and 11-12 in the Big Ten, and earned the nickname "DeMoe must go!" DeMoss was Armstrong's coach for all three seasons in West Lafayette, and Armstrong put up huge numbers under him.

In 1970 Armstrong became only the second back in Purdue history to run for 1,000 yards, following Leroy Keyes in 1968. He ran for 1,009 yards, but only two touchdowns as Purdue finished 4-6. He caught 13 passes for 148 yards and an additional score too. It is clear the potential was there, however, as Purdue defeated Pac-8 champion Stanford 26-14 in Palo Alto. The Cardinal went on to upset undefeated Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Purdue nearly wrecked OSU's unbeaten season too, losing 10-7 the week before the Buckeyes defeated an unbeaten Michigan squad.

Armstrong's sophomore season saw his numbers dip slightly to only 945 yards on 214 attempts, but he scored six touchdowns on the ground. He also caught 17 passes for 186 yards and four more scores. Purdue finished just 3-7, however, winning all three games in a row over Iowa, Minnesota, and Northwestern. Several games were close, such as losses to Notre Dame (8-7), Washington (38-35), Wisconsin (14-10), Michigan (20-17) and Indiana (38-31). That sounds an awful lot like Orton's 2002 season if you ask me.

By the time he was a senior Armstrong was one of the favorites to win the Heisman. In fact, he probably would have in 1972 if Purdue had done better than 6-5 (the only winning season under DeMoss). His numbers were better than Nebraska's Johnny Rogers (the eventual winner), but he only finished 8th in the voting. Armstrong ran for a school record 1,361 yards and nine touchdowns. His yardage total would stand until Mike Alstott's senior season, while he and Alstott shared the record for attempts with 243 until Joey Harris carried the ball 250 times (in a 13 game season) in 2002. He also returned 15 kickoffs for 452 yards and two scores, while catching six passes for 55 yards. He was a consensus 1st team All-American for his efforts.

Some of his individual games were legendary as well. Against Northwestern he ran for 233 yards, breaking the school's single-game record. That wasn't enough though, as he torched Indiana for 276 yards in his final game at Purdue. That 276 yard mark still stands as the highest single-game rushing total in Purdue history. Purdue took the Bucket back by force with a 42-7 beatdown in West Lafayette.

His name is still all over the Purdue record books, with all-time bests in career rushing attempts (670), and the single-game rushing record. Of the top five single game efforts in Purdue history, he owns two of them. He also owns two of just eight 1,000 yard rushing seasons in school history, joining Mike Alstott (twice), Korey Sheets, Joey Harris, Leroy Keyes, and Scott Dierking as the only backs to do so. He is still third on Purdue's all-time rushing list, topped only by Alstott and Sheets, and the trio are the only backs with more than 3,000 career yards. He deserves an asterisk too, as he did it in three seasons, while Sheets and Alstott played for four. He also owns two of just 12 200-yard rushing games in school history, with Keyes and Alstott joining him as the only backs to do it twice.

Consider this on his numbers, however. Armstrong played in just 31 career games. Sheets, who passed him for #2 on our all-time rushing list in 2008, played in 50 games. Two of Armstrong's seasons were just 10 games, whereas Sheets had a 12-game season in all three of his four years, plus two bowl games and a 13th game at Hawaii in 2006. With the new Big 10 championship game it is possible (though unlikely) for a player to finish his career with 56 games played.

After Purdue:

Otis was highly regarded in the 1973 NFL Draft, where Denver selected him 9th overall. He went on to play eight seasons for the Broncos, making the Pro bowl twice, racking up 4,453 rushing yards, 123 receptions for 1,302 receiving yards, and 879 yards from kickoff returns. He also scored 32 touchdowns. His second season was his best, as he led the NFL with 1,402 rushing yards and earned his first Pro Bowl trip. He appeared in Super Bowl XII with Denver, a 27-10 loss to the Cowboys.

Unfortunately, he is a representative of the dark side of football, as evidenced in this article from 2007:

His driver's license says he's 56, but Otis Armstrong knows better. When you've lived NFL running back years, you age faster than other people.

Fame, once his constant companion, has given way to pain. The pills - Percodan at first, followed by stronger stuff - help for a while, but in the end, there was no escape.

For Armstrong, every new day is a constant reminder of the old days - the sprains, the strains, the impinged spinal cord that forced him to retire after eight seasons with the Broncos.

So how does he start his typical day?

"I listen to my bones pop," Armstrong said.

He has dabbled in various ventures, including multilevel marketing, but isn't working at the moment.

Armtstrong still lives in Denver and is one of the most beloved former Broncos of all-time. He has also been named as a member of Purdue-all-time football team. It's unfortunate that much of his Purdue career was overshadowed by losses on the football field.