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Riley Odoms, Broncos previous No. 5 pick, speaks up for Keenum

If general manager John Elway with his No. 5 pick Thursday can match the caliber of player the franchise got the first time, the Broncos will be on their way to better times.
Credit: Mark J. Rebilas
Jan 14, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum (7) celebrates after a touchdown by running back Latavius Murray against the New Orleans Saints in the second quarter of the NFC Divisional Playoff football game

KUSA – One previous time, the Broncos had the No. 5 overall selection since the beginning of the NFL common draft.

If general manager John Elway with his No. 5 pick Thursday can match the caliber of player the franchise got the first time, the Broncos will be on their way to better times.

“That was a long time ago,’’ Riley Odoms said Sunday from a noisy basketball gym in Texas where he was watching his older brother Sam coach a team in an AAU tournament.

It was 46 years ago – can you believe it? – that the Broncos took a tight end out of the University of Houston. The Broncos have enough young tight ends in Jeff Heuerman and Jake Butt but they need to hit at another position like the team did with their first pick in the 1972 draft.

“I know they’re thinking of taking a quarterback but I’m a Case Keenum advocate,’’ Odoms said. “I watched him play at the U of H. If they go quarterback I like Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield. They can sit behind Keenum for two years and then be ready to go. But, I’d like to see them take a running back, myself.’’

Some historians say Kermit Alexander was a No. 5 overall pick for the Broncos in 1963, but that was in the American Football League draft and the cornerback signed with the San Francisco 49ers instead. The start of the NFL common draft was 1967, and Odoms to this day is the Broncos’ only No. 5 selection.

And he may still be if Elway trades out of the No. 5 slot, as he said he’s willing to do. Odoms lives in Missouri City, a suburb of Houston, and it’s obvious he keeps up with the Broncos.

“Oh, yeah,’’ he said. “I get together with my friends and we’ll bet beers on the Broncos games. I had to buy a few beers last year, but that’s OK. I’ve won a lot of beers over the years.’’

Here is a profile I wrote on Odoms for the book, “The 50 Greatest Players in Denver Broncos History” where he came in at No. 26:

No. 26: Riley Odoms, tight end, 1972-1983

A simple check of the career numbers revealed a stunning comparison.

While compiling interviews for this project, I didn’t have to conduct a formal survey to understand Bronco players from the 1970s and 80s believe tight end Riley Odoms is the most glaring omission from the team’s Ring of Fame.

I checked out Odoms’ stat sheet and while they were impressive, it was unfortunate injuries and the 1982 players strike robbed him of the chance to top off his numbers in his final two years.

“Then those numbers would have been something to look at,’’ Odoms said.

But wait. While digging into Odoms’ career, I accidently came across the career stats of Dave Casper. Just about everybody agrees Casper was deserving of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was elected in 2002. Then I remembered Detroit’s Charlie Sanders was elected as a senior candidate in 2007.

I remembered because I didn’t think there was any way Sanders should have gone in when at least five or six Broncos deserved to go in first.

From 2000-2017, only three tight ends had been elected into the Hall of Fame: Casper, Sanders and Shannon Sharpe, who in 2011 became the fourth Bronco honored. Sharpe played in the 1990s, which was a more pass-happy period, a time when he could be used as much as a receiver as a blocker.

Casper, Sanders and Odoms had their best years in the 1970s, when they blocked at least 80 percent, if not 90 percent, of the time. Here’s a comparative look at the stats compiled by those three tight ends during their careers:

Charlie Sanders, 1968-77 (10 years): 336 catches, 4,817 yards, 31 touchdowns.

Dave Casper: 1974-84 (11 years): 378 catches, 5,216 yards, 52 touchdowns.

Riley Odoms: 1972-83 (12 years): 396 catches, 5,755 yards, 41 touchdowns.

Odoms smoked Sanders in all three significant categories of catches, yards and touchdowns. I was surprised to learn Odoms also out produced Casper in catches and yards. Odoms had 18 more catches and 539 more yards than Dave Casper? Casper and Sanders are in the Hall. Odoms is not.

Never mind whether Odoms should be elected into the Broncos’ Ring of Fame. That should have happened long ago. But look at those numbers again and ask why Odoms hasn’t joined Casper and Sanders in Canton?

“The way I Iook at the Hall of Fame, or Ring of Fame, is it’s out of my control,’’ Odoms said from his Houston-area home in February, 2017. “There’s nothing I can do about it, so I don’t worry about it. But I played with so many great ballplayers.’’

And those great ballplayers from the Broncos’ Orange Crush years all say Odoms was their most underrated teammate.

“Riley was a fantastic athlete. He could crash down on the O-line,’’ said Broncos’ receiver Haven Moses. “He was very instrumental in the run game and the softest hands for a tight end I had ever seen. He ran great routes. That’s what made us so successful because when you have a tight end like that it puts a lot of pressure on the strong side of the defense. He should be in the Ring of Fame. To me he is the foundation of the tight end history here with the Broncos.’’

There’s a story behind those soft hands. Raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, Odoms would return every summer to his grandmother’s house and his birthplace of Luling, Texas. There he and his three brothers and five sisters raised by their father George, who worked as a hotel bellhop, and mom Narcissus, a cafeteria cook, would help in the watermelon field.

“I was the second youngest of nine kids,’’ Odoms said. “The youngest person there would be on the trailer, catching the watermelons. You could catch them and stack them all day long but once you’d drop one and it’d burst, you’d have to get down off the wagon.’’

The wagon meant not walking or lifting. Just catching and stacking. The field meant walking miles on end, crouching, lifting and hoisting.

“I did my best to never drop one,’’ Odoms said. “We did that every summer.’’

There is also a story behind Odoms’ athleticism. The description has been used frequently in this book.

You don’t become one of the 50 Greatest Players in Broncos history without some form of superior athleticism. Odoms, though, was a 6-foot-4, 235-pound freak.

“He did something I had never seen a human do,’’ said Broncos safety Billy Thompson.

It was after Super Bowl XII and Bronco players were again competing against the Dallas Cowboys, only this time in a less intense Superstars competition in Hawaii. Players on both sides were competing in an obstacle course race. It was fun until someone said go. Then the intensity of competition between these elite athletes raised to game-day Sunday levels.

“There was a high jump pit,’’ Thompson said. “Most guys would get to the high jump pit and would just lag over. Riley Odoms hurdled it and came down on the other side in stride and kept running. I had never seen an individual that big do that. That’s the kind of talent he had.’’

Odoms explained that instead of using the customary Western Roll technique in clearing the bar, he used the Eastern Cut, which features a scissors action with the legs, a maneuver more closely resembling the hurdle clear.

“I was a 6-10 high jumper in high school,’’ Odoms said. “I did the Eastern Cut and I just went over it. And it was perfect. They were all saying, ‘How did you do that?’ It was natural.’’

Odoms played mostly receiver at West Oso High School in Corpus Christi, but because it was a smaller classification school, he also played running back, quarterback and middle linebacker. At the University of Houston, the Cougars ran a veer offense but in his senior year, Odoms was one of three All American tight ends named after he had 45 catches for 730 yards and eight touchdowns in 12 games.

In the subsequent NFL Draft, Odoms became the highest pick in Broncos history when he was selected No. 5 overall in the first round. Since then, the Broncos have only had three players taken higher: Chris Hinton, at No. 4 overall in 1983; Mike Croel, at No. 4 overall in 1991; and Von Miller, who went No. 2 overall in 2011.

Odoms was a backup tight end and special teams player in his rookie year of 1972, then started all 14 games in his second season of 1973, breaking out with 43 catches for 629 yards and seven touchdowns.

“There were times when Denver would flank Riley out at wide receiver,’’ said Broncos receiver great Lionel Taylor, who was coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers receivers from 1970-76. “And throw that hitch to him or a slant and he’d scare the hell out of you. I know I was coaching Pittsburgh and we’d go, “Oh no.’’ Riley was big. He’d run over you.’’

Odoms was a first-team All Pro in 1974 and ’75. He did not miss a game through his first seven seasons, then played with a broken arm in 1979 and dislocated shoulder in 1980.

“’The Judge’ we used to call him,’’ said Broncos defensive back Steve Foley. “There was a good reason. He was 260 and if Riley got the ball and the defensive back was coming, he would punish you. That’s why we called him, ‘The Judge.’ I mean he’s looking for you. I’m telling you he’s going to punish you. He had an edge to him that was, ‘Don’t mess with Riley.’ He was a mean – not a mean person, great person – but on the field he’s got a meanness to him that I felt for the DBs who were coming up on him. You don’t know what you’re about to run into. You’re 195 pounds? Watch this.’’

Odoms made the Pro Bowl team four teams but he was mostly overshadowed in his era by the likes of Kellen Winslow, Ozzie Newsome, and Russ Francis. All played in the AFC.

“Just my opinion, Riley was the prototype tight end at that time,’’ said Rick Upchurch, the Broncos’ returner and receiver from the mid-1970s until mid-1980s. “He was just as good or better than Russ Francis or Casper, Ozzie Newsome and all those tight ends. He was the total package. He could block. He could run. He could catch. He was a beast, man.

“And Riley was the type of guy who would pull you off to the side and say, “This is how you catch the ball. This is what you have to do. This is what you ought to do. Because I know the type of potential you have.’’

The highlight of Odoms’ 12-year career with the Broncos?

“You never forget the kinship we had with the Super Bowl team,’’ he said.

He then recalled his favorite play, a 13-yard reception early in the third quarter of the AFC Championship Game that turned second-and-8 from the 15 into first-and-goal at the 2. (And on the next play, Raiders fans, Rob Lytle did NOT fumble!).

Odoms had 37 catches in that championship ’77 season before having a career-best 54 receptions for 829 yards and six touchdowns in 1978.

“Our offense was never highly rated, it was just the Orange Crush defense that everybody recognized,’’ Odoms said. “It wasn’t until we crossed the 50 when they let us go. Even though we had Otis Armstrong and Haven Moses, our offense was set up so we would not make a mistake on this side of the 50 because we knew teams couldn’t go 80 yards against our great defense. So we never wanted to leave our defense with a short field. But once we got across the 50 yard line we had a very explosive offense. Once we crossed the 50, then we’d start throwing the ball around a little bit.

“But I don’t complain. Our era just started to throw to the tight end. I watched John Mackey growing up as a kid. And I would go, ‘Whoa, this Mackey can catch the ball.’ But then he’d go back to blocking.’’

The Broncos never could get their offense going in the Super Bowl against Dallas, but as Odoms recalls it, it could have been different if not for some bum luck early in the game.

“I remember running out there in the big old stadium for the Super Bowl,’’ Odoms said, referring to the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. “And I remember one play. We knew that (linebacker Thomas) Henderson was going to bite up on that run on play-action. We called it. It was early in the first quarter.

I’m at the Dallas’ 30 or 25-yard line cutting across the field. Wide open. And Too Tall Jones leaps up and knocks the ball down. Oh my gosh. It was my time. Wide open.’’

Since his retirement as a player, Odoms has stayed busy while settling back in Houston. He was in the auto parts business for years, then worked for cable and communications companies. His left knee still bothers him from an injury suffered near the end of his career, as does the right ankle from his rookie year. His back is stiff most of the day until it loosens up as the day goes on.

“You just deal with it,’’ Odoms said. “I have quality of life. I just deal with the pain and go about my day. I walk better as I step. First thing in the morning I’m real stiff but better than looking up at the roots in the ground.’’

Around Houston, Odoms still follows the Broncos closely.

“They don’t call me ‘Riley’ here,’’ he said. “They call me ‘Omaha.’ When Peyton would call out, ‘Omaha, Omaha,’ I’d walk into a bar here and they’d say, ‘Here comes Omaha.’’’

Maybe someday he’ll walk into the Ring of Fame, if not through Canton’s hallowed halls.

“If it happens, it’ll be nice to go on back there and see the guys again,’’ Odoms said.