Inside Rome Odunze's long, strange trip home from Tucson
A collapsed lung prevented Washington's star receiver from flying home with the team. A fractured rib couldn't stop him from helping UW beat Oregon.
SEATTLE — Though her son quickly stood and walked to the sideline without assistance, Necia Bunnell knew he was hurt.
“I could tell right away,” she said, “because I saw the way he came off the field.”
Rome Odunze recovered the onside kick that helped secure Washington’s 31-24 victory at Arizona on Sept. 30, but the Huskies’ star receiver did so as he absorbed a knee to his ribcage. He clutched briefly at the area with his left hand, then sat down on the bench. Dr. Ashwin Rao, a team physician, later sat beside him and asked questions. The Huskies used four rushing plays to run out the clock with Odunze still seated.
Initially, Daren Nystrom, UW’s head trainer, figured Odunze may have just had the wind knocked out of him. By the time the game ended, he knew it had to be something more.
Bunnell walked down for a closer view and watched it all — then watched Odunze walk straight off the field and, it turned out, into a two-day, 1,600-mile ordeal that remained under wraps until KJR’s Dave Mahler tweeted about it last week.
William Inge, UW’s co-defensive coordinator, helped Bunnell onto the field. While teammates Germie Bernard and Dillon Johnson smiled and answered questions on the set of the Pac-12 Networks’ postgame show, and coach Kalen DeBoer met with reporters near the visitor’s locker room, UW’s doctors were recommending that their All-American wideout visit an emergency room to obtain a more precise X-ray of his ribs.
His teammates showered, dressed and eventually boarded a bus for the airport. Odunze left Arizona Stadium in the back of an ambulance.
Another X-ray and more tests at Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson — Arizona’s head trainer and director of sports medicine have strong connections there, Nystrom said, and “were amazing” in coordinating care — confirmed Odunze had fractured a rib. But he also had developed a pneumothorax — a collapsed lung — which occurs when air gets inside the chest cavity.
Doctors kept Odunze for monitoring overnight, and released him around 6:30 a.m. Sunday.
Unfortunately, the cabin pressure on an airplane is not an ideal environment for recovering from a collapsed lung. Also unfortunately, there is no Pac-12 locale farther from Seattle than Tucson. Odunze would have to return home via motor vehicle, and so they began plotting their course.
Bunnell had flown from her home in Las Vegas to Phoenix, where she rented a car and drove to the game. After brief deliberation, Odunze, his mother and Nystrom determined they should leave immediately for Las Vegas — about a six-and-a-half-hour drive — with Bunnell at the wheel. They left the hospital, stopped at McDonald’s and started driving.
After regrouping for a few hours at Bunnell’s home, Nystrom and Odunze climbed into a white Dodge Durango and set out for Salt Lake City — another six hours or so — where they would meet Mike Dillon, UW’s associate athletic director for health and wellness, who had flown from Seattle to drive Odunze the rest of the way. They stayed at a hotel near the airport before departing early Monday morning. Nystrom, who flew home, figures Odunze and Dillon pulled into campus around 4:30 p.m. Monday — about 24 hours of driving, not counting stops.
“It was fun, it was crazy,” Nystrom said. “We were both kind of dog tired at the end of it.”
Odunze was fortunate that Washington was on its bye week, but the Huskies’ Oct. 14 showdown against the Ducks loomed the following Saturday. On their drive from Tucson to Vegas, Bunnell said, the conversation stayed positive. They focused on the testing and rehab to come, and what Odunze needed to do in order to get back on the field as soon as possible.
As a fourth-year player who has spent ample time in the training room, Odunze knows Nystrom well. To pass the time between Vegas and Salt Lake, they talked about the game, and about Odunze’s injury. Nystrom tried to put it in perspective, telling Odunze their first priority needed to be his safety and long-term health. They listened to the radio. At times, they sat in silence.
What Nystrom remembers most, more than two months later: “That dude was already worried about what he could do to get better and be ready for Oregon.”
From the time they arrived at the emergency room in Tucson, Odunze already was adamant he would play in the game.
“The moment that was ahead was too big to miss,” he said Wednesday.
He might have been alone in that belief.
“In my mind, there was no way he was going to be playing in the Oregon game, just based on the injury,” Bunnell said. Though Nystrom said Odunze was optimistic and uncomplaining as he operated on next to zero sleep — and never once asked to stop — Bunnell said her son told her the pain felt like “a million pins being pushed into his chest.”
Nystrom said “there’s not a ton of case studies” on return-to-play timelines for Odunze’s particular injury, so as the miles piled up behind them, he didn’t have any clear answers for Odunze or UW’s coaches. His best guess, though? “My initial thought was, no, he wasn’t going to be available,” Nystrom said, especially when factoring in the travel delay.
His lung healed relatively quickly, Odunze said. With regard to the rib fracture, it essentially became a matter of pain tolerance. The bye week afforded “about three or four days to play with,” Nystrom said, to see how it responded, and to ensure no setbacks with the lung. By that weekend, Odunze was moving around well enough for Nystrom to believe he had a chance.
“There’s always the first practice back where you’re watching it on pins and needles,” Nystrom said. “He did not make a big deal of it. If you didn’t know what was going on, you wouldn’t have known. You couldn’t tell by looking at him.”
There isn’t much you can do to help a fractured rib heal faster, Nystrom said, so the focus is “working on all the soft tissue around it, trying to build that back up.” The staff customized a shirt for Odunze to wear under his jersey — a hard shell inside of a compression shirt that would protect the injured rib. “He didn’t love it,” Nystrom said, but it was better than nothing.
Oct. 14 arrived. Odunze played. He caught eight passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner, a broad smile stuck on his face as he celebrated UW’s biggest victory in ages with fans and teammates on the field afterward.
“He’s tough. He didn’t complain about pain,” Nystrom said. “It wasn’t like he was fighting through a bunch of excruciating pain, at least that he reported to us, or that we saw.”
He’s felt it before. Bunnell still has the letter that summoned her son to the head football coach’s office at Bishop Gorman High School, where, as a sophomore, Odunze learned he would begin the season on varsity.
But he took a big hit at the team’s first padded practice, and found himself in a doctor’s office soon after. Bunnell was certain Odunze was hurt. To her surprise, the initial diagnosis was negative.
Odunze continued practicing. The pain never subsided.
They sought a second opinion from a specialist.
Turns out, mom was right: Odunze had practiced for two weeks with a broken collarbone.
He missed most of his sophomore season, returning only in time for the state playoffs. Every follow-up appointment prior to his return ended with the same question — “I can play now, right?” — and, of course, the same, disappointing response.
“He was devastated, because of the opportunity,” Bunnell said, correctly noting how crucial a player’s sophomore season can be in recruiting. “But Rome was a champ in regards to lifting up every other guy, being in the middle of huddles, making sure that everyone else was on point and ready for games, during games, cheering people on.”
Stellar junior and senior seasons made Odunze a four-star recruit in the 2020 class — and Nevada’s Gatorade Player of the Year — and it soon became obvious he would be one of the Huskies’ best players. He paired a 6-foot-3 frame with state-champion track speed, and a professional work ethic with the kind of toughness needed to navigate the various injuries that one might encounter throughout any college football career. Odunze played hurt last year, too, and though he missed only one game while piling up 1,145 receiving yards, he dedicated himself this offseason to adding strength and bulk, intent on staying healthy and showcasing his full range of skill.
“I feel like your first mindset should be to try to play through whatever you can,” Odunze said, “and if you go out there on the field and you just can’t, then you can’t.”
Usually, he can. As for his current condition, Odunze said, “there’s a little bit of callousness built up where the rib was broken, but it’s mostly comfortable now.”
Some injuries, Nystrom said, you simply can’t play through. But in this case, “our team felt like it was safe for him to play if he wanted to and could, and I think once he got to that point, there was no question in his mind that he 100 percent was going to not let this hold him back.”
Interstate 15 passes right by Allegiant Stadium, site of this year’s Pac-12 championship game. This wasn’t lost on Nystrom on the way out of Vegas, as he pointed the Durango north toward Salt Lake City and peered out the window.
He remarked to Odunze: “Wouldn’t it be cool to be back here in a couple months?”
— Christian Caple, On Montlake