Oregon State was in control of the Las Vegas Bowl, and all that remained was for the final minutes to tick off the clock. That is when the afternoon turned into one the Odoms and their son, Gators tight end Jonathan Odom, now have chiseled into their memory book.
“First of all, I was thankful that the moment it happened, we didn’t actually see the injury,” said Jason Odom, who played at Florida in the mid-1990s and then in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Bucs. “We were sitting low enough that the Florida sideline was blocking him when he caught that ball and tried to turn upfield. I just knew it was bad based on the reaction of the coaches.”
They didn’t see their son catching a short pass, making a cut, and then crumbling to the turf. Jonathan Odom tore the ACL in his right knee. As the team’s medical staff attended to Jonathan, his parents instantly transformed into Mama and Papa Bear.
Jason texted Paul Silvestri, Florida’s head medical trainer, to see if they could visit Jonathan in the locker room afterward. Silvestri delivered the on-field diagnosis and told them he would be ready.
Jason and Linda, who met their freshman year at UF, grew up as athletes. Jason’s NFL career was cut short by a chronic back injury, and he suffered an MCL sprain while in college. They prepared themselves to comfort Jonathan, who had cracked the lineup late in the season and caught his first career touchdown pass a month earlier in the home win over South Carolina.
“Jonathan was very emotional,” his father said. “We knew what we were walking into. We were going to have a son that was going to be absolutely demoralized. We just tried to encourage him, told him, ‘There is no good reason why this happened. Bad things happen sometimes in this game. You’ll work hard and make it back.’ “
Jonathan Odom took the message to heart. He returned to the lineup in the season opener at Utah, catching a career-high four passes for 46 yards — eight months after that day of dejection in Las Vegas.
Odom’s outlook shifted before he even stepped on the plane to return to Florida.
“Probably when I was in the tunnel at Allegiant Stadium,” he said. “You know, at first, it was like my world was crashing down, but then my parents came down. My mom’s always having me look on the bright side of things.”
The mindset prevented Odom from lingering in the dark. He confronted rehab as if it was a tackling dummy.
“He is a very professional person,” teammate Tyreak Sapp said. “He’s been seeing this all his life, so he understands how to approach things and how to attack them. He is very effective at what he does, and the way he attacked that recovery coming back, I loved it.”
Jason Odom checked in with Jonathan every few days to see how his recovery was going in the offseason. Jason knew the drill from his days as a player and wanted to be an encouraging presence.
He expected the process to be similar to when he played. He soon discovered times change during a phone call still stored in his mind.
“What did you do today?” Jason asked.
“I ran,” replied Jonathan.
“What do you mean you ran?”
“I ran on a zero-gravity machine.”
Silvestri texted Jason a photo as proof of a tool that he never had.
“If you would have told me eight months ago that we would be in this position, I would have never believed you,” Jason said. “It feels like it’s been quick, but in the same breath, I know it’s been extremely tough and long for him.”
Jonathan’s timely return has him in position to start on Saturday night when the Gators host McNeese in the home opener.
A 6-foot-5, 250-pound junior from Tampa, Odom’s commitment to rehab and his team has made him a favorite in the locker room.
Gators head coach Billy Napier recalls seeing Odom as his parents consoled him following the Las Vegas Bowl, an image that resonated as Odom played in the opener at Utah. He respects the way Odom pushes himself each day to make a difference.
“Odom is a very smart player. He has worked at his fundamentals,” Napier said. “Certainly, the rehab process is a challenge. People don’t understand the time on top of the normal work the team has to do. You add in the rehab process. This guy has been on one heck of a journey.”
A journey that is in a much better place than on that Las Vegas afternoon that ended with tears and hugs. Jonathan Odom said he is not 100 percent, but he is giving 100 percent of what he has.
That’s what he does.
“Little victories were the most important thing I felt,” Odom said of his rehab process. “I can walk now, or I can get my knee past 90 degrees.”
The biggest smallest victory came at Utah when he caught his first pass and got up.
On Saturday, he has another one in mind: running out of the tunnel at The Swamp.
The same tunnel his father used to run from with Linda watching in the stands.
“I’m just ecstatic that I’m able to be out there and contribute,” Jonathan Odom said. “I think that’ll be a more full-circle moment. I get tingles everywhere. No matter how many times you do it, no matter who you’re playing, it’s an absolute blessing, especially from the predicament I was in.”