"It's a dream come true": Rome Odunze talks about epic journey to the 2024 NFL Draft

It's Week 4 of the 2023 college football season. The No. 8 Washington Huskies are up 38-12 over Pac-12 foe Cal on a chilly Seattle night. Late in the first half, Washington's top receiver, Rome Odunze, is split wide to the left.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. takes the snap and Odunze beats press coverage immediately, racing up the seam. Penix Jr. knows where he wants to go but sees a safety lurking in Odunze's way. He launches a deep pass to the corner, away from the safety but also away from Odunze's original path, forcing a tight-window throw.

In a split second Odunze looks back at the ball, adjusts his route, and looks back again in time to secure the pass for a touchdown - a sight Huskies fans saw 13 times over the course of the season.

"That was one of my favorite plays from the season," Odunze said, crediting teammate Jalen McMillan with helping develop his elite ball-tracking abilities. "You have to be ready for that moment and retain the focus through a route adjustment to make the catch."

It's plays like that on the field - and the man Odunze is off of it - that make him one of the top prospects in the 2024 NFL Draft. That potential began in Utah more than a decade ago.

Rome Odunze's journey from Utah to Seattle

Odunze, named after the Roman Empire thanks to his father's love of history, was born in Orem, Utah. At age 3, his parents moved to Las Vegas. Even with the distance, Odunze made the trek back to Provo, Utah to spend summers with Wayne and Helen Bunnell, his maternal grandparents, at their farm.

"I remember the four-wheelers, I remember the cows, the hay, the barn, the tractors," Odunze recalled with ESPN. "Also the hard work."

Odunze made the varsity team at high school football powerhouse Bishop Gorman High School mid-way through his freshman year. He earned All-State honors as a junior as Bishop Gorman won a state title in 2018.

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Odunze credits Wayne's work ethic providing for the family as a model for success.

"My family, my mother, my pops, where I come from, we're all hardworking and determined people with tenacity," Odunze said. "It was naturally instilled in me as a young man and continues to be instilled in me to this day."

Success kept coming for Odunze on the football field. Bishop Gorman fell short in the title game in 2019 but Odunze earned Gatorade Nevada High School Player of the Year honors.

His outstanding play on the field complemented his stellar work off of it. Odunze was a 3.47 GPA student and a volunteer with charities including the Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada and the Special Olympics.

In August 2016, Wayne went out for a bicycle ride as he did often after a day of work on the farm. But this time he crashed and went over his handlebars, suffering a traumatic brain injury in the process.

He's legally blind and never got to see Odunze shine on the field for the Huskies. Instead, Helen watches diligently and fills him in on every catch.

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Building a winner in Seattle

In the Huskies' 2020 recruiting class, Odunze wasn't even the top-ranked receiver. That honor went to McMillan, a four-star wide receiver out of Fresno, Calif.

During his second year in Seattle, Washington fired coach Jimmy Lake after video showed him shoving linebacker Ruperake Fuavai during a loss to Oregon. As a highly touted recruit, Odunze could've entered the transfer portal and looked elsewhere.

"I had already made my mind up that I wanted to leave the place better than I found it," Odunze said. "I felt like there was so much still to accomplish. When the new staff came in and we talked about their offense, they talked about [Penix Jr.] coming in, I knew it could be something special."

He stayed as the Huskies hired new head coach Kalen DeBoer and the results on the field were immediate. Odunze made a leap and led the conference with 1,145 receiving yards and eight total touchdowns.

"The offense allowed for a lot of plays to be made by the receivers," Odunze said. "I had the skillset, I had the talent, just putting more work in through the offseason and I grew as a player... the offense started to allow me and all my brothers to eat."

During that breakout season, he took a day in December with teammates McMillan, Bralen Trice, Troy Fautanu, and Alphonzo Tuputala to wrap gifts for underprivileged children with The Forgotten Children's Fund.

That community work continued ahead of his third season, too. During Dawg Derby, a charity event put on in July by the University of Washington that pairs players and fans for a fishing tournament on Puget Sound, Odunze's foundation donated $5,000 to the Tulalip Boys & Girls Club.

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Odunze's record-breaking 2023 season

After earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2022, Odunze earned a new title before the first kickoff of 2023: team captain.

"It's one of the biggest honors I've ever received," he said. "That's something I hold closer to my heart than a lot of awards that I've received and that's because it's voted on by the team. For those boys to see me as a leader, as someone they want to captain the team, to lead them out into battle every game, I felt very blessed."

His third season in Seattle was a record-breaking one. Odunze's 1,640 yards in 2023 broke the program's single-season record by nearly 200 yards. All of this while playing through a fractured rib and a collapsed lung suffered late in Washington's 31-24 win over Arizona.

This is the same man who played for two weeks of his sophomore season in high school with a broken collarbone. He'd miss no playing time for the Huskies who were gearing up for a showdown with Oregon.

“That dude was already worried about what he could do to get better and be ready for Oregon," Washington's head trainer Daren Nystrom told Christian Caple of On Montlake. “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.”

Odunze kept playing and Washington kept winning. A win over Oregon in the final Pac-12 championship game ensured a spot in the College Football Playoff.

"I've been winning championships playing football for a long time," Odunze said. "Finally, to get my first Pac-12 championship with my brothers, it was a four-year journey. When we finally did and we could relish in the moment, that's something that I'll never forget."

After winning the Sugar Bowl over Texas, Odunze was the last player on the field at the Superdome. He was signing autographs for any kid who wanted one.

Though the Huskies lost the College Football Playoff national championship game, Odunze's proud of building one of the most successful teams in program history. His impact didn't go unnoticed by key figures in the program, either.

“Just over and over again, think about how many times he’s come through when you really needed it," DeBoer, now at Alabama, told reporters. "A lot of times you think about when you lose football games or you didn’t come through in the big moment. You remember those. I can’t remember Rome not coming through.”

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Rome Odunze's draft potential

You don't have to look far to find praise from scouts and analysts about Odunze. He put on a show at the scouting combine while other top prospects sat out, including staying later than any other prospect to get the time he wanted in the three-cone drill.

That drive - in addition to his talent and production - is grabbing plenty of attention.

NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah said Odunze is his favorite player in the draft in a media call. An NFL scout told The Athletic's Bruce Feldman Odunze is the safest guy of the top tier receivers and "he's built right to last and run routes." A wide receiver coach also raved about Odunze's football IQ. draft analyst Lance Zierlein compared Odunze to future NFL Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald.

In most other years, Odunze's production, athleticism, and character make him the top wide receiver in a draft class. But Ohio State's Marvin Harrison Jr. and LSU's Malik Nabers are a pair of other top prospects at the position.

"I think [Harrison Jr.] is a tremendous wide receiver," Odunze said leading up to the draft. "He has a Hall of Fame father who has installed that in him... he kind of emulates that in his own game."

Regardless of how you rank the top receivers, Odunze is a near-lock for the top 10. USA Today's latest mock drafts have Odunze going No. 9 overall to the Chicago Bears and No. 10 overall to the New York Jets.

He's one of the few prospects invited to Detroit to be at the NFL Combine live. When he hears his name called, it'll be the culmination of more than a decade of work that sprouted from a family farm in Provo.

"It's a dream come true," Odunze said. "It's something I've been chasing since I was six years old... and I think my family's even more excited than I am."

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Following Odunze's rookie season

Fans of the franchise that drafts Odunze can look forward to a standout weapon in the passing game. Advanced metrics from Reception Perception show he stands out even at the top of the draft class at route success rate.

"I'm going to work," Odunze said. "I'm a young guy coming into a team, an organization that's been there for many years with many players going through so I'm just going to play my part and put the work in it."

He's also keen to do more than just produce on the field. Odunze noted in a recent interview on This Is Football that his locker room presence and leadership will be an emphasis early on.

"My involvement in the community as well, I feel, is second to none," he added.

He's working with Verizon this year to take fans through his experience. Verizon's following Odunze as well as Texas wide receiver Adonai "AD" Mitchell as they transition from college to the NFL in a series titled "Call to Pro," similar to the annual "Hard Knocks" documentary program.

The first part of Odunze's series will feature him making the call back home to tell Wayne and the rest of his family where he'll be playing professional football.

"He won't be able to make it to the draft because of his condition," Odunze said. "So Verizon hooked me up and that'll be the first person I call to let them know that I've been drafted."

That first part of the series will be released Friday with Odunze's social media platforms.

"I'm sure there'll be so many people I'll be connecting with," Odunze said. "The whole NFL experience is an incredible journey so they'll be right there along the way."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Rome Odunze became one of the top prospects at the 2024 NFL Draft