No one who was around during the early 70s can forget Steve Odom, one of the most explosive players ever to wear a University of Utah football uniform. A wide receiver and kick returner, Odom had quickness, speed, moves and brains, all of which earned him All-America honors, Academic All-America honors and a job in the National Football League.
But that was only the beginning. In a way, all those years of football were training for his current occupation. These days Odom, who on Monday night was inducted into the Crimson Club Hall of Fame during a ceremony at the Red Lion Hotel, is a detective/undercover narcotics officer in Berkeley, Calif. At the age of 37, he's still using his quick feet to run down drug dealers and other criminals.For instance, there was the time a suspect escaped police custody. Odom pursued, weaving through traffic on a busy one-way street, and, well, let him tell you the rest: "We go three blocks, and I'm a sprinter, not a distance runner, and I'm dying, he's dying, I'm out of gas, I'm losing my baton, my radio is flopping around. I finally dive and trip him up and he goes down in the middle of the street. He gets back up and runs again and so do I. I'm running on fumes. I make another diving tackle. This time I get him. But I tore my uniform and jammed a thumb and a toe. I've had a lot of guys run on me like that, over fences, down alleys. I think I lost only one race."
As an undercover narcotics officer, Odom purchases drugs, supervises other undercover officers, identifies dealers, arranges arrests, runs reverse sting operations (in which he poses as a drug dealer and arrests buyers).
Occasionally, Odom goes "deep" undercover. In police parlance, there is undercover work, and then there is deep undercover work. "When I first moved to Berkeley I worked deep undercover," he says. "I had a relatively private swear-in ceremony, then I disappeared for six months. They didn't even want other officers to know about me. When you're deep under, you infiltrate as far as you can. I just saw Brian Bosworth's movie, Stone Cold. It's like that. You might have one agent assigned to communicate with you, but he never sees you. You infiltrate drug organizations, become friends with dealers, identify dealers, befriend as many as you can and gain their confidence."
For six months, Odom, who has a wife and a son, lived in a YMCA, under an alias, and hung out on the streets. "After you work deep undercover, you go to a desk job for a while," he says. "The burnout factor is a real problem. The danger point is six months to a year. You could actually go to the other side. When you hang out with those kind of people like that and live the fast life, you can get obsessed with it."
It's difficult to imagine Odom as a street thug. He is college educated, articulate (he uses words like "eclectic" and "Freudian" freely), quotes the Bible, doesn't swear and rarely drinks.
"A lot of it is being an actor, because it is out of character for me," he says. "Even when I'm talking on the street, I'm thinking "These guys can read me," but they don't. I don't swear, for instance. I feel awkward cursing. I just try to be a toned down version of me."
It's a strange life for a man who began his professional career as an athlete and psychologist. Odom's first career was football, although it might have been baseball (he was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies out of high school) or track (he once beat Olympic champion Bob Hayes - a.k.a. World's Fastest Human - in a 40-yard dash.) At Utah, Odom set five NCAA return records and became the first kick return specialist named to the All-America team, but he was equally successful in the classroom. He pulled a 3.7 grade point average, and during an All-Pro five-year career with the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants, he earned a master's degree in clinical psychology.
After retiring from football, Odom began a private practice, working primarily as a counselor and therapist with youth offenders and their families. He also landed a counseling job with a youth service program and was assigned to the Westminster (Calif.) Police Dept. It was here that he became interested in police work.
"It looked like a combination of things that I was familiar with," he says. "The camaraderie of a team, the uniform, the losing and winning, working with people, understanding people. It was a combination of football and psychology."
Odom decided to attend the police academy and graduated at the top of his class. After serving a few years as a patrolman, he was promoted to detective. Since then, he has led a difficult, adventurous life, with enough Hollywood-like thrills and chills to fill a movie.
Odom, who grew up in the Bay Area, was in the middle of one deep undercover operation, about to be introduced to a major heroin dealer for a buy, when he suddenly recognized the man as a former classmate. Odom hoped the intervening 15 years had altered him beyond recognition, but as quickly as they were introduced the man asked, "Steve Odom, is that you?"
No. "Yeah, you're Odom," the man insisted, and he began to recite Odom's personal history, including the fact that he had played pro football. "Do I look like I played pro football?" replied the 5-foot-8 Odom, who, fortunately, was wearing a baggy coat to cover his muscular physique. The man was finally convinced, but not without muttering, "You sure look like Steve Odom."
There have been other scares. There was the time two men - one of them a convicted murderer - bummed a ride from an unarmed Odom while fleeing a robbery. And there was the time Odom was sitting in a seedy bar, hoping to make contacts, when six men asked him to step outside so they could check out the suspicious stranger. Eventually, he talked his way back into the bar and ordered a beer "to blend in," but he was careful not to drink much of it "because I'm not a drinker, and I have no tolerance." Then the men returned.
"The door closes and locks and it gets real quiet," recalls Odom. "I'm on my own. I've got no help and no radio and my gun is on my ankle." Again, they challenged him, but "Fortunately, I had befriended the guy sitting next to me and he vouched for me. It was really close. It was two hours of being on edge."
If not longer. Odom, after all, has made a career of living on the edge, whether it's returning kickoffs or busting drug dealers.