Tackle Jason Odom retired from the NFL on Tuesday due to continuing back troubles
When the 1999 season began, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a solid pillar at each of the critical offensive tackle spots. Longtime standout Paul Gruber was in his customary left tackle position, the up-and-coming Jason Odom manned the right side and the Bucs felt good about the edges of their front wall.
However, neither Odom nor Gruber would be on the field when the Bucs advanced to the NFC Championship Game later that season. And neither, as it turns out, would play again in the NFL after that.
Odom was waived by the Bucs on Tuesday and subsequently announced his retirement. He had not played in a game since September 26, 1999, after which a lower back injury forced him to the sideline and eventually into surgery.
Though he re-signed with the Buccaneers during the offseason and attempted a comeback during the 2000 preseason, his back failed to come around. The pain continues to this day, to the point where his main goal is to regain the ability to lead a normal life, to golf, to go on his cherished hunting trips, to - of all things - pick up his two-year-old daughter, Lauren, without wincing.
"As of late, I've been worrying a lot more about doing things associated with life rather than football," said Odom. "This is a step that had to be taken, and we knew it was going to be taken with my release and retirement from football."
Odom follows his mentor into Life After the NFL, as Gruber retired in September after using most of the 2000 offseason to rehabilitate a broken leg suffered in the 1999 regular season finale and mull over a possible return.
Odom had a much shorter career than Gruber, who retired after 12 seasons as clearly the best offensive lineman in Buccaneer history, but he appeared to be following in Gruber's footsteps.
"Jason was very consistent, much like Paul Gruber was," said Buccaneers Offensive Line Coach Chris Foerster. "Jason was setting himself up to have the kind of career where he was going to be the same guy every day.
"He came to the office every day, prepared the same way, practiced the same way, played the same way. He was very consistent. You were going to get out of Jason every single day the most that you could. You weren't going to have the peaks and valleys – you were going to have consistent play that was going to get to a certain level of play and maintain it. And that's the player he was going to be if he would have stayed healthy enough to reach that level."
Foerster joined the Buccaneers' coaching staff in 1996, the same year that Tampa Bay tabbed Odom with the first pick of the fourth round of the draft. As the best offensive lineman in the SEC for two years running at Florida, Odom played the left side in college and was considered a long-term replacement for Gruber.
In the meantime, however, Odom and Foerster set about making him a right tackle, where the Bucs were much less solid. Odom did play one game at left tackle in place of an injured Gruber early in the season, but was the starter on the right side by the campaign's final six games.
"I think the thing that Jason did best was that he came in here and learned the system quickly," said Foerster. "He had to play as a rookie and played well as a rookie. He worked very, very hard to get himself ready at a very early stage in his career, and that paid off for him."
That first start for Odom, on the left side, came against Denver. He then started 36 of the next 37 Buccaneer games, including playoffs, missing the 1998 season opener due to a game-day bout with the flu. His final start in that stretch, on September 26, 1999, came, coincidentally, against Denver. In what turned out to be his last NFL appearance, Odom endured great pain to help his team, as he actually hurt his back before the kickoff, though he kept that fact to himself.
"It was during pre-game warmups," Odom recalled. "We'd already had a lineman get hurt pre-game, and I was blocking my good friend Jerry Wunsch. I came off the ball in pre-game warmups and my lower back and butt area just kind of snapped and (there was) just incredible, intense pain.
"I didn't know what to do because we already had a lineman go down and, if you know the dynamics of football, you only have a certain amount of linemen that are dressed out. So I just kind of kept it to myself and said, 'I've got to play.' I went through that game just praying after each play that I could play the next play. I couldn't sit down between series. I could hardly stand up after the play, but I just kept playing, kept playing.
"At the end of the game, I remember telling Tony Mayberry – I had just come out of the showers and was just hobbling across the floor – I said, 'Something's wrong with me and it's serious.' I didn't know it was going to be this serious, but I knew it was different than anything I'd had before."
He had some back pain before and, in retrospect, this day might have always been around the bend. "Basically, I've got two levels of disc problems. It's a degeneration problem. A lot of people have some sorts of those things, but mine (is) coupled with my weight and my occupation."
In the end, that experience against Denver brought about the end of his career, though he didn't even contemplate that possibility until almost a year later. Gruber's expected retirement before the 2000 season had Odom in line to move to the left side, where he was a good bet to continue the Bucs' tradition of stability at that position.
"Save injury, he should have had a nice, long career on the offensive line, playing well for a long period of time," said Foerster.
However, the back pain, which had bothered him for some time, became severe enough after that third game of 1999 for the team to put him on the sideline for some rest. After seven more games had rolled by and Odom's injury was showing little progress, he was placed on injured reserve on November 24 and sent into back surgery days later.
The surgery, a discectomy designed to relieve pressure on nerves affected by a bulging disc, was considered a success and Odom was sufficiently on the road to recovery in March to prompt the team to re-sign him to a three-year contract. He went to training camp with the left tackle job in his pocket before his back flared up during the very first week of contact.
Several weeks into camp, he attempted another return but failed to make it through a single practice. He was placed on injured reserve on August 27 and has spent the time since attempting to relieve the pain in his back. It was at this point that he began to realize that his playing days might be over, though he attempted rehabilitation throughout the fall. However, he has dropped around 60 pounds from his playing weight of 310 in order to relieve stress on the area.
"It hurts me to this day, every day," said Odom. "It's been a battle of sorts. My worse days are when my allergies are at their worst, because sneezing absolutely kills me. I fall to the ground every time I sneeze."
Odom, low-key but intelligent and quick to laugh, will be missed at One Buccaneer Place.
"Jason played some great football and was a key contributor for us," said Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy. "He played a big part in what we have accomplished over the last five years. We will miss him greatly and wish him well in all the endeavors he chooses to pursue."
General Manager Rich McKay echoed those sentiments.
"It is truly a shame that Jason was not able to make it back from his injury," said McKay. "He was a good football player for us and we wish him well."
Since thoughts of a return to football have only gradually been driven from his mind, Odom and his family have only recently begun to consider what he will do next. He may pursue business opportunities, he may coach, he may try to reach children through ministry.
He will not, however, return to the NFL at any time.
"Well, if somebody wanted a 250-pound tackle (maybe I'd return)," said Odom with a laugh. "The answer to your question is no. I don't want to leave anything out there for people to say, 'He's going to come back.' No, this is it. My hope is that I can get back to the point where I can play a round of golf or something like that. But with the condition I have, I don't think I can go back to playing offensive line in the National Football League."