Odell Barry, a Broncos kick returner and wide receiver during their infancy, died earlier this month at the age of 80. He wasn’t a John Elway around Denver, but his identity as an ex-Bronco, deservedly, stayed with him his whole life.
He was the first sports figure of any prominence that I met after coming to the Rocky Mountain News as executive sports editor in 1982, and I’ll never forget him.
Odell was a rookie in the upstart American Football League the year I graduated from high school. He led the league that season with 47 kickoff returns for 1,245 yards. He also ran back punts—one a 48-yard touchdown run against the Jets that sparked the Broncos to one of their two wins that year.
Those 47 kickoff returns stood as Denver’s single-season team record for 35 years, until Chris Watson topped it by one in 1999. Fifty-eight years later, those 1,245 yards are second-most in team history, a mere 24 behind Glyn Milburn’s total in 1995.
Odell’s Broncos weren’t very good back then—2-11-1 and 4-10, in the fifth and sixth of 13 straight losing seasons that began their now, 62-year run.
Maybe a porous defense explains, in part, how Barry was able to lead the league and reach team highs: Opponents scored 438 points in ‘64 (exceeded in more than six decades only by their 473 the season prior), which meant plenty of opportunities for the guy returning kickoffs in Orange and Blue.
But he still had to do something productive each time he caught the ball, and he averaged 24.5 yards per return. Being a sprinter who was considered Olympics material no doubt helped. (In 1962 he tied the world record in the 220-yard dash, but it was not recognized because it was wind-aided.)
Largely because of that speed, 5-foot-10, 180-pound Odell Barry was picked 145th in the ’64 AFL draft—in the 19th round out of Findlay College, a small school in northwest Ohio about 45 miles south of Toledo, where he grew up in a housing project. Findlay College became the University of Findlay 25 years later.
(Since the pro football draft has had only seven rounds since 1994, he would have been signed as an undrafted free agent in any of the last 27 years, if signed at all.)
His career ended prematurely when post-season surgery resulted in the loss of a kidney. The end of his Broncos career, however, was the beginning of something better: more than five decades of impactful life, as he engaged in a variety of political, business, civic and charitable endeavors.
He was elected mayor of Northglenn in 1980—becoming the first African American mayor elected in any Colorado city, and was influential in the local Democratic Party for decades. Before that, he opened the first full-service Dairy Queen in the state; later, he founded Barry and Associates, a real estate and consulting company.
He served on the Denver Baseball Commission, which paved the way for the expansion Rockies. And when it came time to replace Mile High Stadium, he chaired the Site Selection Committee that decided on the location of what is now Empower Field at Mile High.
Working in the Northglenn Recreation Department right after his pro football career ended, he championed Northglenn’s youth football program. “His biggest legacy is what he did for the youth,” his son Damon was quoted after Odell’s death.
It was as the organizer of the MS Dinner of Champions that he made an indelible impression on me.
My first day at the Rocky was April 13, 1982. A very short time later, I received a phone call from Odell, inviting me and my wife to be his guests at that year’s dinner, which was a matter of days away.
The MS Dinner of Champions was, in most ways, like every other fund-raising gala: dinner, a program after dinner, etc. But Odell made it unlike any other benefit event I’ve ever attended. (And I’ve attended many.)
After dinner, to the accompaniment of musicians whom he persuaded to donate their time and talents, Odell went table to table, visiting EVERY one. He seemed to know someone (usually several attendees) at each stop, making something that’s very difficult to do look easy and natural, as if he were catching up with old friends every time.
Smiling and gregarious, he thanked everyone seated at each round for coming, and for supporting the MS cause, and told them how important they all were. Often, he had a joke or engaging exchange with one or more folks.
I attended Odell’s banquets until I left the Sports Department for other responsibilities at the Rocky, and tried to help him any way I could. I admired his style and passion. I never counted how many tables he visited in any given year, but my guess is at least 25, probably more.
As chairman of several benefit dinners myself in succeeding years, I always recalled Odell’s special personal touch. And a couple times I tried to replicate it.
But I was no Odell Barry
I don’t know anyone who is.
Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 13 books, seven of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at email@example.com.