Chris Odom ends strong season as USFL Defensive Player of the Year

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Houston Gamblers edge rusher Chris Odom didn’t have to look far for motivation as he entered the USFL this season.

Odom has a young daughter named Cassie that was diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta. Also known as brittle bone disease, OI is a genetic disorder characterized by fragile bones that can break easily, even when doing simple tasks like changing a diaper or sneezing.

According to Odom, who wore yellow cleats during the season to raise awareness of OI, the doctors gave Cassie a 50-50 chance of surviving her first year.

Cassie recently celebrated her second birthday.

“She’s my biggest ‘why’ on why I play now,” Odom told NBC Sports before he and the Gamblers closed their season last weekend against New Orleans.

But Odom also found motivation in himself.

A veteran of 11 NFL games (seven with Green Bay in 2017, four with Washington in 2019), Odom has kept his pro career going with stints in the Canadian Football League and the defunct Alliance of American Football.

But as he’ll tell you, you never know when the next chance will come. When the USFL did come, Odom knew he had to crush it.

“It’s one thing to talk about it, but you’ve still got to go out there and do it,” he said. “But the opportunity of being back on the field, just to showcase myself – I’ve been wanting nothing more than just an opportunity.

“Just let me be on the field and I’ll handle the rest.”

He lived up to that promise. Odom was a force on the defensive line, racking up a league-leading 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles this season.

Not only that, he chipped in four blocked field goals, including one last week against New Orleans that led to a 77-yard return for a touchdown by Jeremiah Johnson.

The Gamblers went on to win, 20-3. Before that contest, Odom was named to this year’s All-USFL Team, one of three Gamblers to earn the distinction (linebacker Donald Payne, cornerback Will Likely).

“It feels good just to be recognized by your peers for your accomplishments and what not,” he said. “It feels good, just to go along with what I’ve done on the field, but I couldn’t have done it without my teammates and what not, so without them it wouldn’t be possible.”

On Wednesday, another big honor came to Odom. He was named USFL Defensive Player of the Year, receiving one of the league’s top individual accolades.

RELATED: USFL selects 25 players to be part of inaugural 2022 All-USFL Team

The award completes a nice close to the season for Odom and the Gamblers, who were eliminated from playoff contention in Week 7. The Gamblers closed with back-to-back wins, including a 17-15 victory in Week 9 over the previously undefeated Birmingham Stallions.

That victory was a notable one, because the Gamblers were more often on the wrong side of those close contests.

Seven of their 10 games this season were decided by one possession. The Gamblers went 2-5 in those games. Going deeper, the Gamblers blew a halftime lead in six consecutive contests (Weeks 2-7), a streak that culminated in a 35-24 defeat to Philadelphia that finished their ebbing playoff hopes.

When asked about the Gamblers’ troubles, Odom said it came down to a handful of plays in their losses that simply didn’t work out for them.

“We can go back in the middle of the game and say this play is why we lost or this play made the difference at the very end,” Odom reflected. “I think it just came down to those plays, just making mistakes at the wrong time, because the determining factor of the outcome were in the final two minutes or so of the game that changed the game from us leading to us losing or for us to potentially come back and win.

“It was just staying locked in and minimizing mistakes all the way to the very end of the game.”

The Gamblers had another chance to do that in Week 9 and this time, they made it count.

Down 17-15, the Stallions got the ball back with 1:44 left and two timeouts to work with. But a deep pass was intercepted by Micah Abernathy, which ultimately proved the difference.

“Number one, we just wanted to win more,” Odom said about what that win meant to the group. “With this whole league being here in Birmingham… We just got tired of Birmingham winning and hearing about them in the hotel and all over the media.

“But we were also frustrated at how much we’ve lost, how many games we’ve lost and how we’ve lost them – like, all within our control. So, yeah, we’re out of the running for the playoffs but at least we can prove it to ourselves that we can change the outcome of the game.”

RELATED: How to watch the 2022 USFL Playoffs – Dates, location, matchups, TV/streaming info

Odom’s exploits may have also earned him another look from the NFL as training camps loom.

As the regular season wound down, his name began to pop up in various media outlets as a potential free agent that could help a struggling NFL team. For example, a June 14 piece on Bleacher Report matched him with the Atlanta Falcons, whose 18 sacks last season were fewest in the NFL (said report also listed two other USFL standouts, the aforementioned Turpin and Philadelphia cornerback Channing Stribling, the league leader in interceptions).

When asked if he felt his performance this season in the USFL was good enough to get noticed by the NFL, Odom demurred. He said he would focus on closing the USFL season out and “whatever opportunity presents itself afterwards, then so be it.”

Regardless of what happens next, Odom said it was “very important” that the USFL was there for him and his teammates to prove they can still play the game at a high level.

“I have teammates that haven’t played football in a year, two years, three years, some even four years – whether it wasn’t the right opportunity, injury, COVID,” he said.

“We all just were happy to be able to play football again. So we all just wanted to show everybody what we were capable of.”

First and 10 with Chris Odom

10 quick questions to get to know the new talent of the USFL

Pre-game ritual?

“I pray every time we run out the tunnel. I always go to the bench and I say a prayer. I give thanks to everyone that supported me, and I ask Him to protect the ones I love (and) my team. That’s my consistent ritual I do every game.”

Post-game ritual?

“It’s hard to say post-game, other than just body maintenance. Take care of the body, recovery the next day. Just a little workout, try to get the soreness out, so I can get back to a somewhat normal state and get ready for the next week.”

Favorite food?

“I like smoked brisket. I’m from Texas – we love our barbeque.”

Favorite football player?

“My dad.”

(Writer: He was in the league for many years and you learned a lot of lessons, but what are the most important ones you’ve kind of leaned on as you’ve carved out your pro career?)

Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts - 1980's File Photos
Cliff Odom, father of Chris Odom, was an NFL linebacker for 13 seasons (1980, 1982-93). Cliff spent the majority of his NFL career with the Colts (1982-89). Photo: Don Larson/Getty Images

“I’m a defensive end and outside linebacker – or edge rusher, because that’s both – and he was a middle linebacker. So I’m used to going to guys like him for calls, and he has to be the smartest one on defense because he has to know what’s in front of him and behind him. So I’ll go and talk to him and he’s looking at (things) in terms of adjustments and what not.

“But the biggest thing he’s taught me is just the mentality every time you step on the field, that you just have to be undeniable and ruthless. Because he grew up in the old school NFL. That wasn’t played like current NFL. But that doesn’t mean that the tools they used and the mentality they had to take can’t be applied to today’s football. So he’s just been constantly reminding me of the mindset I have to have when I step onto the field.

“Once I realized that, then we really started breaking down defenses and just picking up certain things because some things are just repetitive. It’s a copy cat league and when you see stuff so many times, you learn how to be in a better position to make a play. Just with that and him teaching me the fundamentals of the game. He just made me an overall better football player, from that standpoint.”

Favorite movie?

“I watch a lot of movies… I grew up just watching a whole bunch of movies at once. But if I had to put just one on there, that’s tough… Any Given Sunday and John Wick.

Favorite vacation spot?

“I like Florida. Anywhere specific? I like Fort Lauderdale.”

Most famous person you’ve met outside of football?

“Lil’ Wayne and Chris Tucker.”

How would your family and friends describe you as a person?

“They’d probably say I’m different, just from the way I think. Example: You have a bad day at work – if a boss chewed you out, you’re going down the list of your tasks, you did a certain amount but there was one you didn’t. I would have the mindset of ‘Everyone’s going to have a bad day, you just try not to have too many of them, and it wasn’t all bad.’ Compared to some that might take it as they had a bad day because their boss chewed them out, it ruined their whole day. So, from that mindset, that’s how I think. I just try to look on the brighter side of things than dwell on the negatives.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be and why?

“I really wouldn’t change anything. I like who I am. I do like myself – I wouldn’t say I’m full of myself. I like who I am.”

Name one thing about yourself that not everybody knows about you.

I’m into photography and videography.”

(Writer: When did that become a hobby for you?)

“I’ve always liked taking photos and with social media blowing up, I’ve gotten to try to get more into video. I picked up my camera – a real camera – in 2017, and (have) upgraded ever since. During the pandemic, I was working for a creative marketing firm back in Dallas when I wasn’t playing football or waiting for a call to play football. It’s just something off the field that I just like doing.”

(Writer: Is there anything specific you like to shoot as a photographer?)

“Portraits. Portraits and stills, I like the expression in a photo, and to tell a story with one still image.”

2022 USFL Playoffs

Saturday, June 25

  • North Division Final: Philadelphia Stars vs. New Jersey Generals – 3 p.m. ET, FOX
  • South Division Final: New Orleans Breakers vs. Birmingham Stallions – 8 p.m. ET, NBC

Sunday, July 3

  • Championship: North Division champion vs. South Division champion – 7:30 p.m. ET, FOX

Control what you can control: How journey through the fire led Generals RB Darius Victor to the USFL

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“Life feels good when you’re winning,” says one of the men responsible for the Generals’ success last season, running back Darius Victor. “I’m playing the game I love, my team is winning games, and that’s all a man can ask for.”

Victor was named the USFL’s Offensive Player of the Year after leading the league with nine rushing touchdowns, ranking third in rushing yards (577), and fourth in yards per game (57.7). At 5’8″ and 209 pounds, with 30-inch quads (yes, you read that right…30 inches), the Generals RB is a wrecking ball on the field.

“Thick thighs save lives,” Victor recalls as he laughs about the Week 5 game-winning play. “I had to put them to use and push him [Perez] over to the endzone.”

With his light-hearted demeanor and self-described goofball personality, it would be hard to fathom the hell Darius Victor has walked through to get to where he is today.

“I’m not even supposed to be here”

Victor, who is one of seven children (4 brothers, and 2 sisters), was born in 1994 in a refugee camp in Africa’s Ivory Coast after his parents, Gary and Patricia, fled the first Liberian Civil War.

“Have you ever seen the movie Blood Diamond?” Victor asks, “That’s the type of environment I was born into.”

Victor and his family literally ran for their lives, hiding and sleeping in bushes for safety when their country was being torn apart by violence and bloodshed. Nearly 250,000 people — men, women, and children — lost their lives in Liberia’s civil war.

“I was too young to remember what happened at the time,” Victor told NBC Sports. “But from the stories my parents have told me about what we were running away from, I’m not even supposed to be here.”

The Victor family moved to the U.S. in 1999 and lived in Manassas, Virginia before moving to Hyattsville, Maryland, in 2002. After leaving everything behind, Gary and Patrica worked tirelessly to provide for their family and while their parents were out just trying to make ends meet, all seven of the Victor siblings Velma, Earl, Kevin, Darius, Leon, Shaka, and Nicole — looked out for one another. Helping with homework, making sure everyone was fed, and involved in activities. For Kevin and Darius in particular, that activity was football.

Sibling Rivalry

“My older brother Kevin was my role model growing up,” Victor recalls. “I used to go with him to football practice and he was pretty good. He was a Boys and Girls Club legend. I had to compete with him in everything and I wanted to be better than him in everything that I did. So I started playing football and tried really hard to be better than him. Having that role model to follow is what really gave me a love for the game.”

The duo, four years apart in age, went on to play football at Northwestern High School, sharpening each other with their competitive nature both on and off the field. But everything changed in December 2011, when Kevin was tragically shot and killed walking home from the local community center after playing basketball with friends — just one block away from his family’s apartment.

“Losing a child and a sibling is crazy,” Victor said. “It was tough but it made us even closer as a family. It made me go even harder because Kevin was always the tough one on me. When we were kids I would always cry on the football field if something didn’t go my way and Kevin would straighten me out.”

“His passing has given me a mindset of toughness and resiliency. I’m always thinking about him and trying to live up to the level of confidence that he had in me.”

In October, just 10 months after Kevin’s passing, Darius was in the midst of a breakout senior season when the Victor family’s apartment burned down.

“The toughest part wasn’t even losing our stuff but it was seeing my Mom and Dad cry again. That was so tough on me.” Darius recalls. “At that point in my life, I had to decide to never question God, believe that everything happens for a reason, and control what I could control.”

Towson Tough

With family at the forefront of his mind, Victor decided to play football at Towson University, where he earned a scholarship, roughly 45 minutes away from his hometown. He earned First-Team All-CAA honors in 2014, rushing for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns on 250 carries, but says he also a learned new level of toughness from his coaches and teammates that he still keeps in contact with today.

“Coach Reno Ferri really believed in me and that gave me so much confidence,” Victor said. “But there are so many guys there that really spoke into my life including my teammates FB Dreon Johnson, RB Terrance West, and coaches Rob and Jared Ambrose.”

Stay Ready

Victor, who only played in 4 games during his senior year of college due to a toe injury, went undrafted after graduating from Towson in 2017 but had several opportunities with NFL teams. Victor received an invite to the New York Jets rookie minicamp, the New Orleans Saints training camp, and even landed a spot on the Arizona Cardinals practice squad but unfortunately, those opportunities didn’t end the way he wanted them to.

However, the Hyattsville native didn’t let that discourage him.

“I’ve been through so much in life that I’ve grasped the concept of controlling what you control,” the 28-year-old said. “One of my mottos is to stay ready so you don’t have to get ready so doing that and just trusting God made me available mentally and physically for the next opportunity.”

For Victor, that meant showing up to train long hours after working a 9-5 job every day as a Sales Operations Manager at Penske and staying consistent no matter what — even when the CFL signed and cut him a day before he was supposed to leave for Canada (2019) and when the XFL season came to a sudden halt in the midst of a global pandemic (2020).

But when the USFL finally called, selecting him in the 6th round of the Supplemental Draft, he was ready. Victor says his love for his family and his faith in God is what fueled him during the hard times in life.

“Knowing all that my family has been through and the fact that we’re not even supposed to be here, every day I get is a blessing and I just want to make them proud. They are my why, ” says Victor, who is often spotted wearing merchandise with the phrase “Keep God 1st” on his clothing.

“I don’t care if you are a millionaire or dirt poor…life is going to life, but if you put God first everything will work itself out and that’s how I live my life.”

First and 10 with Darius Victor

To what do you attribute the New Jersey Generals’ early success?

“We have great coaching and great leadership. The team is very close and we hold each other accountable because we all have the same goal. We’ve all been through similar experiences. I’m pretty sure I’ve talked to 30 or 38 players who’ve been cut multiple times too and that creates a bond.”

“Also, we have a little chip on our shoulder because in preseason we were projected to finish last in the league due to our ‘talent level’, so shout out to whoever released those preseason polls because it made us hungry.”

If someone were to be a fly on the wall in the locker room, what’s one thing that they’d be surprised to find out about the New Jersey Generals?

“After a win, we do a ‘hip, hip hooray’ chant. Coach Riley goes ‘hip hip’ and the rest of the team goes ‘hooray’. It’s the greatest thing ever.”

What’s your role on the team?

“I’m one of the older guys on the team so I consider myself to be one of the leaders and the ‘special teams captain’. Coach always jokes around and says I’m the heart and soul of the team. I just want to do everything I can to make this team successful.”

How would you describe your style as a running back?

“I think I’m pretty balanced but the thing that separates me the most is my physicality. I don’t think a lot of human beings can run the football like me. If you just watch the tape or just watch the football games, that’s how I stand out.”

Pre-game hype song?

“I have to listen to the song “I’m a dog” by Gucci Mane that puts me in my zone.

Gameday superstitions?

“I have a superman Jesus cut-off shirt that I wear under my pads every game. I wouldn’t really call it a superstition but I wouldn’t feel right without it.”

What’s one thing about yourself that not everyone knows?

“I’m addicted to Candy Crush. I’m on level 4,650.”

Favorite Football player?

John Johnson, he’s the starting safety for the Cleveland Browns and also my best friend”.

Favorite Movie?

“Oh, Forest Gump. Easy.”

Favorite pair of kicks?

“Jordan 1s, I can’t pick one specific pair.”

Just Keep Going: Stallions RB CJ Marable makes a policy of perseverance

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RB CJ Marable was instrumental in helping the Birmingham Stallions become the inaugural USFL champions in 2022. Marable who was named the USFL Week 5 Offensive Player of the Week, was Birmingham’s leading rusher finishing the season with 401 rushing yards and 5 rushing touchdowns.

While his highlight reel was, quite literally, on display this past season, his journey to playing professional football has been far from easy.

A Dream is Born

Torrance Marable Jr., who goes by the nickname CJ, laced up his first set of football pads at the age of 5. Some of his earliest memories include tossing the ball outside with his father, Torrance Marable Sr., who doubled as his all-time quarterback in outdoor pickup games. It was in his hometown backyard in Decatur, Georgia that the elder Marable told his son he was capable of taking it to the next level, instilling in him a new passion for the game.

“He just looked at me one day and said, man, you’ve got it,” CJ recalls. “Just stay focused, stay consistent, and the sky is the limit. And that confirmed everything for me. I fell in love with the game and believed I could be whatever I wanted to be because my Dad said it.”

Marable, a two-star recruit coming out of Towers High School, initially signed with Arkansas State as a grayshirt, but in the weeks leading up to his expected start date, he says the communication with the school just stopped, unexpectedly. Arkansas State wasn’t returning his calls and when they finally called him back, they no longer had a place for him on the team.

Pivoting along the Path

Wanting to keep his football dreams alive, Marable pivoted his focus to playing at the junior college level. But a last-minute offer to play at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina — with a full scholarship — was one he couldn’t refuse. Marable’s 2017 freshman season was explosive: the Georgia native started all 11 games and led the Big South with 1,038 rushing yards only to find out that the school was pulling back on its football team and would become a non-scholarship program by 2020.

With his dreams once again the line, it was a familiar time for Marable – time to pivot. He transferred to Coastal Carolina, a place he says shaped him into a better person on and off the field.

“We had this acronym B.A.M., which stood for Be a Man,” Marable told NBC Sports. “Coach Jamey Chadwell taught us to be accountable for whatever we do and to stand on our own two feet. He told us that if you quit on football and can’t go through the hard times here, then there’s no way that you’ll be able to deal with the hard times in life.”

Deferred but not Denied

Marable finished his collegiate career with a streak of 32 straight games with at least one reception. In his three years at Coastal Carolina (2018-2020), he rushed for 2,691 yards with 41 total touchdowns, assembling impressive enough stats and film to sign as an undrafted free agent contract with the Chicago Bears in 2021. But once again, things didn’t go as planned and Marable was released before the start of the regular season.

“I wasn’t comfortable where I was because I felt like I should have been drafted,” he said. “I felt like I had a point to prove. I did what I was supposed to do but it just wasn’t in my favor at the time. I never wanted to question God so I just had to stay consistent, stay focused, and continue to grind to get to where I wanted to be.”

It was in this period, dialed in on training and staying pro-ready with tunnel vision focus, that he heard about the USFL, not just once but on three separate occasions. First, the idea came from his manager, who he calls “Hood”, who thought it would be a good opportunity for the running back. His trainer for the NFL combine agreed. But Marable brushed the idea off both times, wanting to stay focused on that potential NFL opportunity. It wasn’t until his girlfriend’s father brought it up again that Marable took it as a sign to do his own research and take the USFL seriously as a path forward in professional football.

Just Keep Going

Looking back, Marable credits his strong support system, specifically his Mother, Sabrina Sims, for helping him stay positive in periods of disappointment and uncertainty.  “She reminded me that every storm I’ve been in, I’ve got out of.”

“Life is going to hit you,” the 25-year-old said. “Nothing is going to go as planned but never give up. If I could go back in time and give my younger self advice it would be these two simple words: keep going. God’s got you, never give up.”

Leading by Example

Marable, who welcomed a baby boy in March with girlfriend Bayley Randall, says he wants to instill that lesson in his son Trae (Torrance Christopher Marable III).

“When he grows up I want to be that example and show him that Dad never gave up. Even though I failed at times the difference between me and anybody else is that I just never gave up.”

The Stallions running back is currently working towards a Master’s degree in Sports Psychology. He wants to help other athletes develop when his football career is over — which, at the rate he’s playing, doesn’t look like it’ll be anytime soon.

First and 10 with CJ Marable

Pregame ritual?

“I love to listen to music, my favorite artist is Future so that’s all I play. But my go-to hype-up album is “Thug Motivation” by Young Jeezy.

What is your role on the team?

To get the offense rolling. My strengths include blocking the ball out the backfield, my vision, and my speed.

To what do you attribute the Birmingham Stallions’ early success?

“I’m really impressed with how well we get along with each other. We laugh with each other. We joke with each other. We are a family. We spend our off days and downtime together. The offensive linemen and the running backs go out to eat every Thursday or Friday depending on the week.”

“Honestly, it feels great when everything you work for is paying off. But in the back of our minds, we know that we have to stay consistent. We have a bullseye on our chest. Everybody wants to beat the Birmingham Stallions.”

What is it like being the only USFL team to play in front of a home crowd?

“I feel like the fans are really coming out there and doing their job and it’s helped us a lot, especially on third downs you can just hear them yelling ‘defense, defense’. We’re the first professional football team for Alabama so it feels great to be able to just go out there and put on for the city of Birmingham.”

Favorite Running Back?

Reggie Bush. When I was at Carolina, we played against BYU on “College GameDay”, and I had a great game. Later during the week, I got interviewed by Reggie Bush so that was a cool experience.”

Favorite Food?

“Wings. All flats.”

Favorite Movie?

“Friday”

Favorite Vacation Spot?

Hawaii

How would your family and friends describe you as a person?

“I’m a driven person and I won’t let anything stop me from getting to where I want to be in life. I’m also funny and outgoing.

Name one thing about yourself that not everybody knows about you.

“I enjoy fishing.”

RELATED: Control what you can control – How journey through the fire led Generals RB Darius Victor to the USFL