ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Colorado lost a significant figure in its history on Monday, as Odell Barry, who was a Denver Bronco from 1964-65, the state's first Black mayor elected by a major city and a prominent local leader, passed away at 80 years old.
The former return specialist came to Colorado in the 1960s to join the Broncos, but he would stay for decades.
In the many years to come, Barry would make an even bigger impact in Northglenn, as he became a successful entrepreneur, a community leader and mayor of the city. In recent decades, he continued to have an impact on the Broncos as the chairman of a committee that played an instrumental role in the creation of Empower Field at Mile High and as a member of the Denver Broncos Alumni Association's Alumni Council.
Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Barry didn't harbor large dreams for himself. In a 2002 conversation with Toledo’s “The Blade” newspaper, he recalled memories largely of violence from his youth — "killings, fights" and "a lot of bigotry."
His athletic talents would help provide a path to college at the University of Findlay, but he wouldn't forget his home.
"The projects really grounded me," Barry said. "I really didn't have any dreams of being a professional football player because I thought I was too small. I had a counselor in high school who told me to forget about college. When I did get to Findlay, it was the farthest I'd ever been away from home."
At Findlay, Barry was also an exceptional sprinter. In 1962, he tied the world record in the 220-yard dash, though it would not be made official because of wind.
It was because of that remarkable speed that the Broncos took a chance on him with the 145th-overall pick in the 1964 AFL Draft.
As a rookie, he sparked the Broncos to one of their two wins that season with a 48-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Jets and 139 total return yards. For his effort, the Denver Broncos Quarterbacks Club named him “Player of the Week,” an honor that netted him a television set, a $100 savings bond, a plaque and the use of a car for a week.
But Barry's promising football career would end abruptly in 1965, when he underwent surgery to remove an infected kidney.
In his two seasons, Barry appeared in 26 games and made his biggest impact as a return specialist. On 73 kickoffs, he averaged 25.4 yards per return for a total of 1,856 yards. He also returned 37 punts for 359 yards and a touchdown.
He stayed in the Denver area and proceeded to start anew in Northglenn's recreation department, where he would spend several years, eventually rising to the position of director of Northglenn Recreation District. Even though he originally planned to be there only six months, he would discover his desire to help his new community far outweighed any desire to go somewhere new.
"There was so much to do," Barry said in 1980. "Northglenn had no physical recreation activities at all."
In the years that followed, Barry remained active in the community even as he moved on from a focus on recreation. In 1972, he was sworn in as a Northglenn city councilman, and he would also venture into business more, eventually opening the state's largest Dairy Queen and working as a partner in a real-estate firm. Still, football and recreation would hold a significant place in his heart, and he said took off two weeks every summer to run the Northglenn recreation center's football camp.
As the decade came to a close, he mounted his campaign for mayor of Northglenn, ultimately defeating the incumbent in the election. It was a historic moment for the state, as Barry broke a color barrier as Colorado's first Black mayor of a major city.
"Every time we have a first, it has inspired others to say 'I can do that,'" Barry said in 2006. "It's a celebration — we're taking another step."
Barry returned to private life in 1982 after Northglenn elected a new mayor, but he remained a pillar in the community. He served on the Colorado Economic Development Commission, helped bring Major League Baseball to Denver, organized a yearly dinner to benefit a multiple sclerosis foundation for nearly two decades and was an important figure in politics in the region, including for Denver's current mayor, Michael Hancock, and the city's first Black mayor, Wellington Webb.
"He was an astute businessman, but more than that, he carried a lot of water for (current Black politicians in Colorado)," Hancock told The Denver Post’s Kyle Newman. "Not only for me, but for Wellington Webb too, quite frankly. Odell opened the door and he desensitized Colorado to the fact that African-Americans can lead cities in this state. Wellington Webb rode on his shoulders, and I rode on Wellington Webb's shoulders, and it's just kept going. He was a pioneer here."
Barry also served in a key role that helped pave the way for the development and construction of Empower Field at Mile High. In 1996, Barry was named chairman of the site selection committee, which chose the location near downtown as the future home for the new stadium.
But whether as a pioneering political leader, a remarkable businessman or in his years of work to help Northglenn's recreation projects, Barry's impact was most felt by children who grew up in the region, as Damon Barry, one of his two sons, told Newman.
"His biggest legacy is what he did for the youth," Damon said. "He mentored so many youth in Northglenn and the whole state. Being an African-American man in a predominately white city (like Northglenn), and being as well-respected as he was in the '70s and that never changing — that's special. People of all colors and likes and creeds really looked up to him and respected him. He used that (status) to help mold the next generation."