While younger fans may not be familiar with the former Giants running back, Kotar (pronounced Coat-er) was the epitome of a throwback player. He was a tough inside, outside runner, a superb receiver, and a fearless punt and kickoff returner. Those talents would have garnered admiration from another old-school coach, Bill Parcells, who could have used Kotar during his first season as head coach in 1983. But, it wasn’t meant to be. While the Giants were on their way to a dismal 3-12-1 season, Kotar was fighting for his very life – hospitalized with an inoperable brain tumor in a hospital near his home in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, 2o miles from Pittsburgh.
The fight never left Kotar, whether it was the 4th quarter of a tight game or the 18 grueling months he spent in and out of hospitals, especially after his third surgery when he became paralyzed on the left side of his body. On December 16, 1983, after a long, heroic battle, just a day before the Giants final game, a 31-22 loss to the Redskins, Douglas Allan Kotar passed away at 32.
It’s been 25 years since that chilling season for the Giants family. A season that also saw the sudden death of backfield coach Rob Ledbetter from a brain hemorrhage in October, and the passing of both Parcells parents. However, it was Kotar’s toughness and love for the game that teammates still remember with awe-inspiring respect.
“Doug always gave it his all,” recalls Giants great George Martin, a former teammate. “He was a gutsy player who reminded me of ‘The little engine that could.’ He wasn’t the biggest guy or the most talented player, but you knew he was going to give every ounce of effort on every play.”
At a smallish 5-11, 205 pounds, Kotar played both fullback and halfback, but each pound was packed with 100 percent guts, heart, and determination.
During the 1974 NFL Draft, more than 70 running backs were selected over 17 endless rounds. Somehow, Kotar was not one of them.
A multi-star athlete at Canon-McMillan High School, Kotar was offered a baseball scholarship by the Cincinnati Reds after graduation. But, he loved football more and instead accepted a football scholarship at the University of Kentucky. Kotar was a beloved player at Kentucky. Fans adored his grit and hustle from the very beginning. In his first game, Kotar returned a kickoff 85 yards for a TD. But, that and other jaw-dropping performances the next few years weren’t enough for NFL teams to call his name on draft day. Finally, Kotar’s hometown team, the Pittsburgh Steelers signed him as a free agent. He went to a camp with a dream of making the Steelers, a team that would win its first of four Super Bowls that season.
The Steelers, however, were loaded with running backs: Franco Harris, Frenchy Fuqua, Preston Pearson, and Rocky Bleier. So the Steelers traded Kotar to the Giants three days later.
Now suddenly playing at Yankee Stadium in New York, the Giants former home, Kotar wasted no time showing he belonged in the NFL’s biggest city. In a preseason game against the Jets, Kotar showed defenders surprising speed and nimble moves. He scored 2 TDs and was awarded the game ball. Before he knew it, he was the starting fullback for the Giants on opening day. Showing his preseason performance was no fluke, Kotar scored the team’s only TD in a 13-10 loss to the Redskins.
He went on to rush for 396 yards and 4 touchdowns as a rookie, including a 119-yard rushing effort against the Falcons. By his third season, Kotar became the featured back leading the Giants in rushing in 1976 and ’78. In ’76, he led the team in rushing despite splitting carries with Hall of Famer Larry Csonka. Kotar eclipsed two more 100-yard rushing games that season, and even put up 100-yards receiving against the Cardinals, catching 11 passes for 132 yards. For the year, he rushed for 761 yards, caught passes for another 319 yards to give him 1,080 yards from scrimmage.
“Playing with Larry Csonka was a big thrill for Doug,” says his wife Donna, who grew up one street over from Doug, and was childhood sweethearts. “He was Doug’s idol and to be able to play in the same backfield with him, well, he just loved it.”
Csonka played at Syracuse with another small #44, Floyd Little, and although Kotar didn’t have the Little’s sprinter speed or eye-popping zigzag style, they were similar in stature and toughness. Csonka and Kotar even roomed together during the season and Donna says she pictured the two of them swapping stories and laughing it up each night like a couple of bachelors.
With Kotar’s admiration for Csonka, it’s fitting that the two will be forever linked to the most infamous play in Giants history. It was Kotar and Csonka in the backfield along with quarterback Joe Pisarcik during the incredible Miracle in the Meadowlands nightmare, in which the Eagles were out of timeouts, and Pisarcik was trying to run out the clock on a 17-12 lead with less than a minute left. As the ball snapped, Kotar sprinted left to lead the blocking, but the play never materialized. Giants fans know what happened next: Pisarcik turned and muffed a handoff to Csonka who never got the ball. Current Chiefs coach Herman Edwards, then a defensive back for the Eagles, scooped up the loose ball and raced in for the winning touchdown with just 20 seconds left.
“Every so often, they show that play on TV and I have to smile,” says Donna. “There’s Doug and Larry running after Herm Edwards again!”
Like all beloved teammates, Kotar had his share of nicknames.
“We called him Kokomoe,” says Martin, which stood for small-town Moe, a childhood name that just stuck. “We called him that because he was just a down-to-earth guy with a tremendous heart and desire. I just loved his energy.”
When Kotar wasn’t going up against the behemoths in the NFL, he would fly home to Canonsburg on his off day to be with Donna, and their two children, Doug, Jr. and Christie.
“More than anything else, Doug was a family man,” says Donna. “He loved his kids and enjoyed playing softball, hunting, fishing and his snuff.”
His favorite snuff or chaw was Copenhagen and Kotar enjoyed it so much he sometimes played with a wad of it in his mouth.
“He loved that stuff,” says Martin. “One time he got hit so hard that he swallowed it. You should have seen his face. He was turning green and cussing. But we were laughing so hard. The madder he got, the more we were rolling.”
The good natured laughter came from teammates who knew and respected Doug, and were glad he was a true teammate.
“Doug loved football,” says Hall of Famer Harry Carson, another teammate of Kotar. “Doug would do anything you asked him. He loved playing special teams, but he would have played defense if you asked him, or quarterback.”
Kotar continued to shine at running back. During the ’78 season, he rushed for a team-high 625 yards and a 4.2 average with another 225 receiving. Against the Cardinals, Kotar once again had a big day with 118 yards and a 4.4 average to go with his #44 jersey.
The next season, 1979, Kotar slugged out another 616 yards rushing and 230 receiving. He was primed for the 1980 season, but suffered torn knee ligaments in a preseason game and missed the entire season. In 1981, he separated his shoulder and played in just seven games. 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.
He eagerly embraced the opportunity to spend more time with his young family. Shortly after retiring, however, headaches began. It started after he was kicked in the head in a pool during the summer. He told the Giants about it and they offered to fly him back for tests. The first test showed nothing, then a CAT scan was done, and doctors found a tumor the size of a golf ball on the right side of his head.
An eight-hour operation determined that the tumor was malignant, and Kotar began radiation therapy right away. He was determined to beat cancer, and he gave it the fight of his life.
“Shock and sadness, that’s what I felt when I heard about Doug,” says Martin. “This isn’t supposed to happen to young people, especially tough football players. To see an athlete like him ravished by cancer. It was tough and somber.”
“Doug really wanted to be there for his kids,” says Donna. “Doug, Jr. was 9 and Christie was 6 when he was first diagnosed. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.”
Many Giants players came to the rescue. Cards and well-wishes flooded his hospital room. Three Giants who had the most impact were Carson, Wellington Mara, and Kotar’s coach, Ray Perkins.
“Doug was a teammate of mine, and that is a special bond,” says Carson. “I would do anything for my teammates.”
The Giants had an exhibition game with the Steelers, and Carson coordinated a bus trip to the hospital before the game so the whole team could see Kotar.
“Harry Carson was so good to us,” says Donna, “and so was Wellington Mara. If there was anything we needed, special shoes for therapy, or whatever, Mr. Mara made sure we got them.”
Coach Perkins convinced the Steelers film crew to videotape Doug, Jr.’s youth football games, so Doug could watch them. Of course, he wore #44. It meant the world to Kotar to see his son play.
When Kotar passed away a college fund for his children was established by the Giants.
“Wellington Mara used to say, no Giants retired. They were either active or inactive. And that was Doug,” says Carson, who still exchanges Christmas cards with Kotar’s family. “To the Giants he was never retired, just inactive. It makes me proud to be part of an organization like this.”
“When they say, ‘Only the good die young,’ that was Doug,” says Martin. “They never made a movie about Doug like they did with Brian Piccolo in Brian’s Song. But, I think they had the same kind of heart and desire. I always think of Doug whenever Brian’s Song comes on.”
There are many ways to remember people. Donna says that her family continues to keep her husband’s memory alive.
“There are 7 football cards out there with Doug on it,” says Donna, who never remarried. “Doug, Jr. is now 35 and Christie is 32, and we have four grandchildren who are all athletic. They always want to wear Doug’s number 44 or 22, the number he wore in high school and college.
“People ask me what I miss about Doug and I have to say every thing. But, people still remember him and that makes me happy.”
Kotar’s memory lives on in his children and grandchildren, especially in Doug III, who is 10, and recently went with his dad to a Steelers game wearing his grandfather’s #44 Giants jersey.
According to Donna, a Steelers fan asked him why he would dare wear such a jersey in Steelers country. “Little Dougie told him, ‘It was my Grand pap’s number with the Giants.’ He came home all excited saying, ‘This man remembered Grand Pap!’”
And it’s not just family and acquaintances that remember Kotar. Just a few weeks ago, Kotar was forever immortalized with induction into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. The Kotar clan was there, along with dozens of people from the Canonsburg community, to continue to keep Kokomoe’s inspiring memory alive.