Jake Otto’s sports journey is so inspiring that I tuned out the NFL on Sunday and immediately began to write after a 20-minute phone conversation with the senior quarterback from Wilmington Banning. Never in more than 40 years of covering high school sports has there been a story easier to tell.
Otto, 17, has a 4.0 grade-point average, is captain of the school’s firefighter magnet, has hiked trails at Camp Pendleton wearing camouflage and comes from a family in which his mother, father, brother, sister, aunts and uncles all went to Banning.
“We’re diehard Pilots,” he said.
Otto has led Banning (6-4) to its first City Section Open Division semifinal playoff game since 2000, when the 12-time champion Pilots won their last City title. They play host to Crenshaw on Friday.
To understand Otto’s journey, you must go back to the spring of 2017, his freshman year, when 16 Banning football players abandoned the program and left for Carson. They didn’t want to give the new head coach, Raymond Grajeda, a chance.
“We had to go through campus handpicking kids,” Grajeda said.
Otto had no intention of leaving.
“I just wanted to stay loyal to my school,” he said. “It was a tough time. When all those players left, it was hard filling spots. It affected me. I was brought up my sophomore year to varsity because we didn’t have enough players.”
Fast forward to this season. On Oct. 18, Banning gave up a late score and trailed Carson 35-28 with 46 seconds left. Otto tells the rest of the story:
“After Carson scored, I gathered my offense. ‘Right now it’s time to be relaxed. Don’t put your head down, we have 46 seconds to score.’ We got the kickoff return to the 35. I told my receivers to get the ball out of bounds. We have only one timeout left. I threw two incompletions. I didn’t want that to get me down.
“I ran the ball and got a first down. I completed a 10-yard pass. With six seconds left, I ran it out of bounds. There was 1.1 seconds left on the 44. That’s when everything happened. Being confident and relaxed really helped. [The coaches] gathered us and told us what to do. We went with an empty formation. My job was to buy as much time to get the receivers downfield and throw it up so our tallest receiver could get it.
“As soon as I threw it, I got hit. I was lying down on my face and could hear the crowd scream and hear my dad screaming. That’s the first thing I heard. I knew we scored. I ran down the field and looked at the scoreboard. We were down by one. The first thing I thought about was going for two. The coaches asked me what play I liked. I said, ‘Jump pass.’ My coaches laughed at me and said I was crazy. We ran power right and my linemen opened the hole and it was me versus the safety and I won. All I remember is getting up and jumping around and the crowd going crazy. Everything else is a blur.”
Banning’s 36-35 win on a Hail Mary and two-point conversion with no time remaining left the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Otto understanding how important it was for him to play football since his days as a youth player.
“Anything is possible,” he said of the lessons learned. “Any time something seems out of reach or the deadline is too soon, I’ll think about that play. I can pull something off even if they say I can’t.”
The magic of football, for all its faults, dangers, highs and lows, is that it prepares teenagers for real-life situations.
Otto is headed to All-City status during a season in which he has passed for 1,067 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for 899 yards and eight touchdowns. He could end up attending a military academy because he has family members with military backgrounds and shows the kind of character and resolution in demand.
After that Carson win, all his family members who are Banning alums treated him like a hero.
“They loved me,” he said. “I got a reward. They were giving me gifts.”
If Banning is able to win a City title, imagine what the family members might do.
“Hopefully a new truck,” Otto said laughing.
Otto doesn’t regret anything about his four years of high school.
“I love Banning,” he said. “I love being a Pilot.”