Rome Odunze sat down earlier in the week to do his first media interview as a member of the University of Washington football team, impishly looked into the camera and offers, “Hi mom.”
The local football factory typically goes to great pains to shield early on newer players from the journalist crowd, fearful they either lack the maturity or the nerve to answer rapid-fire questions from strangers.
Yet Odunze, a second-year freshman wide receiver from famed Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, demonstrated over 15 insightful minutes that he should have been given his own radio talk show the day he walked on campus.
He’s bright, cheerful, loquacious. A natural in front of an audience. An NIL agreement waiting to happen.
For all of the negativity surrounding this 2-4 Huskies team that plays hapless Arizona (0-6, 0-3 Pac-12) in Tucson at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Odunze is a lifeline to better days, maybe the best player on coach Jimmy Lake’s roster. His absence was one of the reasons UW stumbled out of the gate, missing the first three games with an unspecified injury.
Fans have been fearful that this stagnant season combined with liberal transfer-portal provisions might cause someone such as Odunze, a highly skilled 6-foot-3, 200-pound pass-catcher who was a prep champion sprinter, to go elsewhere. One of his family members even teased that possibility on social media. He cleared the air.
“I’m happy to be a Dawg, for sure; I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Odunze said. “I love the culture here, the people, I love the fans. I’m just excited to put more into it, honestly. I think it’s a challenge to be down 2-4 and to have these opportunities to come.
“It’s really a test of who we are as a team, who we are as a culture and who we are as a family, and what we’re going to do — we’re all in this together.”
Before touted edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui made his celebrated return against UCLA last weekend from surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon, Odunze’s season debuted two games earlier, after recovering from his injury.
However, Saturday’s game was just as much of a coming-out party for Odunze as it was for the player known as ZTF. The receiver made his first start, caught the first touchdown of his Huskies career and just missed out on another score.
“You see the intensity and how dynamic he is on the field,” tight end Cade Otton said. “You can tell he’s been playing big-time football for a while, and he’s ready to make plays.”
In the second quarter, the rangy pass-catcher — think tall like DK Metcalf, only lighter — got behind the UCLA secondary and hauled in a 26-yard TD strike from Dylan Morris.
Earlier, Odunze caught a 17-yard pass from Morris that he hauled down to the Bruins 2 before getting shoved out of bounds. He felt he should have scored there, too.
Typical of this incomplete season, they lost 24-17 to further discourage their fan base. But not the receiver.
“It’s frustrating, because I definitely think Washington has a history of success,” Odunze said. “We want to amplify and portray that in our games, and come out and dominate opponents. It’s a hard game.”
In spite of the unexpected despair, Odunze presents himself as a fun-loving personality.
After his touchdown, he blew kisses to his mom in the stands. Following the 31-24 overtime victory over California, he enthusiastically slapped hands down a long line of students in the end zone. He took a piggyback ride to practice one day on the back of freshman center Geirean Hatchett.
He often wears an equipment bag netting over his head in daily workouts to help him focus on catching balls.
Odunze, who has 10 receptions for 134 yards in his half-season, provides heroics, hands and hope.
“We harp on adversity here a lot,” he said. “Life is adversity. What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. I like to live by that.”
If a guy like this can have so much fun while losing, imagine what might happen to Odunze when UW begins winning again.
More of former Seattle Post-Intelligencer journalist Dan Raley’s work can be found here at si.com/maven