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'It all changed … when we started winning': How Ring of Fame TE Riley Odoms helped Broncos set past aside, establish championship standard

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — He wasn't used to losing.

Before Riley Odoms' Ring of Fame career, he starred at the University of Houston. In three years, he recorded 883 scrimmage yards and 11 touchdowns as the Cougars posted a 26-8 record.

Odoms was accustomed to success, and he arrived in Denver in 1972 unfamiliar with the struggles he would soon face.

By the middle of November during his rookie season, Odoms and the Broncos suffered as many losses as he did during his entire collegiate career. It was a stark awakening, and the fan base's displeasure was clear.

After one road preseason loss, Odoms remembers flying back and seeing a sign waiting for the team.

"Welcome home [to] the Denver Donkeys," Odoms recalled the sign reading.

"I wasn't used to that kind of negativity," Odoms said Thursday. "… I'm going, 'What did I get myself into?'"

At that moment, the Broncos had no history of team success on which to rely. Their previous best campaign came in 1962, when Denver started 7-2 but proceeded to lose its final five games to finish the season with a .500 mark.

Odoms, though, would help spur change and build the standard to which the franchise still holds itself. In 1973, the Broncos posted their first winning record — and they would earn their first playoff berth and Super Bowl appearance just a few seasons later in 1977.

The fifth-overall pick in the 1972 NFL Draft, Odoms played a major role in the turnaround. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound player recorded three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances from 1973-75 and added first-team All-Pro nods in the latter two campaigns. He recorded at least five receiving touchdowns in five different seasons, and he posted at least 500 receiving yards from 1973-75.

Odoms — who finished his career with the third most receiving yards by a tight end in NFL history — agreed with a reporter's sentiment Thursday that he may have helped revolutionize the tight end position.

"My speed and coordination did me very well over the years from high school and to the Denver Broncos," Odoms said. "Did I revolutionize that? Yes, I could play along with anybody back then."

Put more simply, Odoms' significant frame and athleticism gave him a unique advantage over cornerbacks — and he'd often make that known on the field. Former quarterback Craig Morton referred to Odoms as "Judge" — and fellow Ring of Fame electee Steve Foley said Odoms was often the jury, too.

"He was judge and jury when he caught a pass," Foley said. "He would punish a defensive back. … He was a vicious tight end, as well as a great blocker and pass receiver."

View photos from former Broncos tight end Riley Odoms' Ring of Fame career.

Odoms agreed that once he caught a pass along the sideline, he wouldn't let anyone prevent him from scoring six points.

"If I could get to that sideline, then I'm getting to that end zone," Odoms said. "There was nobody that was going to stop me or push me out on my routes or on anything down that sideline. I just looked for that goal line."

Odoms received the surprise phone call Thursday from Owner & CEO Greg Penner that he'd been elected to the Ring of Fame, and he'll be officially inducted during the Broncos' Week 5 game against the Raiders.

"I'm very happy," Odoms said. "I'm happy that … there's no waiting anymore. It's just the opportunity. I'm feeling good, I'm feeling great. I feel great because I always loved playing in Colorado. I loved the fans, and I never had an opportunity to just tell them how thankful I was to play for them."

He'll get that chance in October — and the gratitude and appreciation will surely be returned after Odoms helped the Broncos move past the days of the Denver Donkeys. Instead, he helped set the table for the franchise's championship teams.

"It all changed," Odoms said. "It all changed in one season when we started winning."

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