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.

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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