SIOUX CITY | I have a hard and fast position when it comes to those textbook sports debates that involve phrases like “all-time best.’’
Comparing teams or athletes from different generations can be little more than meaningless, jaw-flapping exercises for which definitive answers are impossible to pin down.
So, as I offer into evidence yet another instance of how bad news doesn’t always travel as fast as myth would imply, I’ll likely be dodging a few issues regarding the great Bob Odell, perhaps the most decorated athlete Sioux City has ever known.
I am sorry to report, at any rate, that Odell, the 1940 East High grad who was runner-up in the 1943 Heisman Trophy voting, has passed away at the age of 90. And, I am astonished in this Internet era to be learning of this more than three weeks after the College Football Hall of Famer’s death from kidney disease on Dec. 15.
Odell, survived by his wife of 67 years and all three of their offspring, was undergoing care at a nursing facility in King of Prussia, Pa., a northwest suburb of Philadelphia, where he starred at halfback and later served as head coach.
Runner-up to Notre Dame’s Angelo Bertelli in the ’43 Heisman voting, one of the more legendary figures in Sioux City sports history was also that season’s Maxwell Award winner, back when the Maxwell and the Heisman carried nearly the same clout.
Although I never had the privilege of meeting him in person, I did enjoy a couple of lengthy telephone interviews with a classy gentleman who had an excellent seven-year coaching stint at Bucknell before taking on a challenging assignment at Penn.
In later years, too, he coached at Williams College, an NCAA Division III program, before retiring to Lewisburg, Pa., in 1986, volunteering on the staff at Bucknell.
The notes I was cherishing Monday came from two years after this, a 1988 interview tied to one of the many hall of fame nods bestowed upon the fifth eldest in a family of three sons and three daughters. It was a delightful conversation in which he reflected on his Sioux City years, which spanned nearly all of his childhood.
“We were all on a farm around Clarinda, Iowa,’’ said Odell, born in Corning in 1922, three years before Johnny Carson’s birth in the same community. “My mother decided when I was born that we should move off the farm and move to Sioux City.’’
Margaret “Bessie’’ Odell opened a beauty salon in downtown Sioux City and her husband, Harry, taking a correspondence course, became an electrician.
Together, they raised their large family at 3108 Fourth Avenue in Morningside. And, it was a highly motivated tribe of Odells, all of them gifted athletically, that matriculated one after another from East.
Howard, the eldest, 10 years older than Bob, played college football at Pittsburgh under Jock Sutherland, one of the college game’s true icons. Howard, who later served seven years as the head coach at Yale and five at the University of Washington, was an assistant at Penn when his kid brother turned down Iowa, just months after the famed Ironmen and star halfback Nile Kinnick’s history-making 1939 campaign.
“Howard was my idol,’’ said Bob in ’88. “And, he was the backfield coach at Penn. I was going to go to Iowa, but blood’s thicker than water.’’
So, Bob, armed with a tuition-only scholarship, hopped on a cattle car, riding the caboose in exchange for helping keep watch over the train’s ill-tempered cargo.
“Odell did it all,’’ the University of Pennsylvania stated on its website the other day. “He ran, passed, punted, received, returned kickoffs and punts, and played defense.’’
The handsome Iowa native helped make Penn football the most popular college football attraction of its time. From 1938 to 1942, a whopping 1.78-million fans flocked to home games at Franklin Field, 300,000 more than the turnstiles dialed up at Southern California, second in the nation for attendance.
But Odell was all too modest about all the good fortune that came his way.
“I was in the right place at the right time and lucky,’’ he told me as a 66-year-old. “I had one of those days. We played Army when they had Glenn Davis and I made a lot of tackles and scored the tying touchdown.’’
Grantland Rice, the masterful sports journalist, was present for that performance, heaping sufficient praise on Odell to nail down All-America laurels and so much more.
Three years in the Navy during World War II and beyond were followed by a contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I signed for the same amount Frank Gifford made -- $8,000,’’ Odell recalled.
However, a knee injury incurred playing basketball left him wondering if he should reconsider pro football.
“The Steelers’ team doctor said, ‘You could probably play, but if you were my son, I’d advise you not to,’’ he said.
So, coaching became his life for the next 40 years. And, if there were any regrets, he never let it be known.
“Bob was a really nice guy and a heck of a good athlete,’’ said Chet Axthlem, 92, who grew up just a few houses away from the Odell family. “In those days, the three sports were football, basketball and track and he excelled in all of them.’’
Don, the middle brother, was five years older than Bob and he, too, starred in football at East.
Bob, a 5-11, 160-pound halfback, was fairly robust for his time and he helped lead East to 8-0-1 seasons as a junior and senior, in 1938 and 1939. Both years, the Raiders deadlocked with Omaha Central.
“In those days, we were considered one of the better teams in the United States and we were invited to play a championship game in the East, but the school board wouldn’t let us go,’’ said Axthlem, a senior on the ’38 squad. “I think we could’ve beat a lot of college teams.’’
And, although he had graduated, Axthlem said the Raiders of ’39 may have been even better.
Odell played both football and basketball for Coach Les Davis, another local legend, and it was somewhat ironic, I’d imagine, that Helen Odell, one of Bob’s three sisters, wound up married to Don Fleming, who enjoyed tremendous success as the football coach at Heelan.
As a coach, Bob Odell’s Bucknell program twice claimed the Lambert Cup as the East’s top small-college team in 1960 and 1964. Then after a modest 24-29-1 record in six seasons as the head coach at Penn, he had a 16-year run that yielded a nifty 75-40-4 record, giving him a final career mark of 136-95-5.