Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze (1) makes a catch in front of Oregon defensive back Jahlil Florence (6) during a game Oct. 14 in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze (1) makes a catch in front of Oregon defensive back Jahlil Florence (6) during a game Oct. 14 in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

Inside Odunze’s long, painful journey to starring against Oregon

How UW’s star receiver endured a broken rib, a punctured lung and a 23-hour drive to overcome the Ducks.

Rome Odunze overcame much more than Oregon.

On Sept. 30, Arizona kicker Tyler Loop lined up for an onside kick with 1:08 left. Trailing No. 7 Washington 31-24, Loop bounced the ball directly in front of him, hoping the Huskies couldn’t cleanly handle it.

He challenged the wrong receiver.

Odunze — a 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior — slid to his left, absorbed shots from Loop and safety Dalton Johnson, and fell on the football anyway. He stood, flipped the pigskin to a referee and grabbed the right side of his midsection.

Minutes later, UW coach Kalen DeBoer addressed the media following Washington’s 31-24 win.

“He did (take a big hit), but credit to Rome, just fighting,” DeBoer said. “It’s important to him to get wins.”

Against Arizona — and later, Oregon — that continued to be clear. After collecting five catches for 64 yards, Odunze was transported to a hospital in Tucson, Ariz., where it was determined he’d broken a rib and punctured a lung. Doctors evaluated X-rays throughout the night, to ensure air was not continuing to expand inside his chest cavity.

“I remember the last X-ray was around 5, 6 a.m.,” Odunze recalled Wednesday, more than two months after the injury. “After we got that and confirmed the pneumothorax (punctured lung) wasn’t building we were allowed to leave. So we left right after that, got some McDonald’s breakfast on the way and were headed out.”

Out of an abundance of caution, Odunze was not allowed to fly, so he hit the highway in a rented Chrysler 300, more than 1,600 miles from Montlake. Over the course of a 23-hour drive, the car made stops in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City — with Necia Bunnell (Odunze’s mother), senior associate athletic trainer Daren Nystrom and associate athletic director/director of medical services Mike Dillon splitting driving duties along the way.

“It was a tough drive,” said Odunze, who added that he got his hair braided in his hometown of Las Vegas during a two-hour break. “Thankfully I was with my mom for a leg of it. I got to spend some time with her, which was nice. But you can only have so much conversation in a 23-hour drive.”

When it came to Odunze playing against Oregon two weeks later — following a timely bye — the conversation was surprisingly simple.

“I was telling them as soon as it happened that I was looking to play regardless of how it felt,” Odunze said. “They were just telling me it was a matter of comfortability, because a pneumothorax goes away pretty quickly. So it was just a matter of the broken rib and making sure the air wouldn’t expand in my chest cavity going forward. As soon as that wasn’t a risk and I felt comfortable with my rib and how I was maneuvering, that’s when I was comfortable and they were comfortable allowing me to play.”

Of course, Odunze acknowledged that, “I was still feeling a few things (with the rib) here and there, especially going through practice and things like that. But for me, the moment that was ahead was too big to miss. So I had to fight through some things, but I was able enough to go out there and perform, for sure.”

That might be an understatement.

In No. 7 Washington’s 36-33 win over No. 8 Oregon on Oct. 14, Odunze overcame — notching eight catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns (including the game-winning 18-yarder). He has amassed 81 catches for 1,428 receiving yards, 13 receiving touchdowns, a rushing touchdown and a return touchdown in 13 games this fall.

Last week, Odunze finished third in the voting for the Biletnikoff Award — which honors college football’s premier pass catcher — behind Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. and LSU’s Malik Nabers. He also piled up a handful of first-team All-America honors and a first-team All-Pac-12 recognition for the second consecutive season.

Odunze sits just 26 yards shy of Reggie Williams’ single-season receiving record, an achievement he’ll likely reach in the Sugar Bowl against No. 3 Texas (12-1) on Jan. 1. He and Williams are the only Huskies to record multiple 1,000-yard receiving seasons. And along the way, he’s solidified himself as a surefire first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft.

So, yes: Despite the broken rib and punctured lung, he’s been able to perform.

“I definitely feel it a little bit,” Odunze said Wednesday. “There’s a little bit of calluses built up where the rib was broken. But it’s mostly comfortable now, nothing too crazy.”

On Wednesday, Odunze’s passing teammates serenaded him as he spoke.

“Rome Odunze!”

“Rome! Rome Odunze!”

“Rome for president! Rome for president!”

“Biletnikoff!”

In a prolific four-season stretch, the persevering Odunze has earned plenty of fans.

All the while, he’s kept fighting.

“I’m just a kid from Vegas who plays football, man, in my mind,” he said. “That’s the way I carry myself. I appreciate people appreciating what I’ve done on this field for the University of Washington. I just take that as respect, and I give that respect back. So it’s an honor to be in that light in some people’s eyes. But to me, I’m just my mom’s child.”

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