Petersen, who coached Odhiambo at Boise State, said the native Kenyan — who lost his father before moving to the U.S. at age 7 and lost his mother while in high school — is “just such a special guy from the things he has been through.”
Six years before he was drafted by the Seahawks, Rees Odhiambo made a strong first impression on Boise State’s coaches.
“I remember watching him at practice and thinking, ‘This guy has got a big chance, just physically, just the way he moves,’ ” said Chris Petersen, who was Boise State’s coach in spring 2010 when he traveled to Mansfield (Texas) Legacy High to recruit Odhiambo. “We were just really, really intrigued by how big he was and how well he moved and the fact that he really hadn’t played that much.”
Then Petersen, who now coaches at Washington, heard the rest of Odhiambo’s story:
Rees Odhiambo bio
Position: Left guard.
Height, weight: 6-4, 315.
College: Boise State
Born: Sept. 23, 1992 in Nairobi, Kenya.
Notable: Last name is pronounced “Ah-dee-AHM-bo.” ... Graduated with a degree in exercise science in December and was named to the Mountain West Conference All-Academic team three times. ... He was an All-Mountain West first-team selection in 2015.
• He had moved to the Dallas area with his mother and younger sister from Nairobi, Kenya, when he was 7, shortly after his father, George, had died. His mother, Evelyn, spurred the move, with a goal of becoming a pharmacist to create a better life for her family. “It was all about education,” Odhiambo said. “ … Both of my parents … they were both trying to come here and get better.”
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• Odhiambo’s mother, after earning a degree in chemistry, died of a sudden illness at age 38 in November 2009 when he was a junior in high school, forcing him to live with an uncle and get rides to school every day with an assistant coach.
• For a time after his mother’s death there was talk that, without a parent in the country, he might be forced to return to his native Kenya.
“I couldn’t believe his story when we were hearing it,’’ Petersen said. “And then sometimes you worry about that, because … that’s a lot of stress to put young guys through, and (that) can have ramifications down the road.
“But for Rees, it just made him tougher and more resilient. He just always had a really good demeanor and optimistic outlook on life. and it was like, ‘Wow, this guy is special and impressive for the things that he has been through.’ ”
Petersen said Odhiambo’s story is unique among the players he has coached.
“And that’s the reason he is like one of my favorite all-time guys,” Petersen said. “He’s just such a special guy from the things he has been through and how he has navigated it and the toughness and grit and determination that he showed.”
Six springs later, when Seahawks general manager John Schneider asked Petersen for a scouting report on Odhiambo, Petersen repeated that phrase, calling Odhiambo one of his “all-time favorite guys.”
Hearing that endorsement reinforced what the Seahawks thought of the 6-foot-4, 315-pound Odhiambo, who they selected in the third round of last month’s NFL draft. After starting the past three years at Boise State, Odhiambo is expected to play a key role in resurrecting Seattle’s offensive line.
Overlooked in high school
Though Petersen and Boise State assistants Chris Stausser, now the offensive-line coach at UW, and Brent Pease, then the receivers coach at Boise State who headed recruiting in the Dallas area, were getting to know Odhiambo, most other schools were taking a pass.
According to Mansfield Legacy coach Chris Melson, the scholarship offer from Boise State was the only one Odhiambo received.
The high school is hardly off the beaten path, situated about 15 minutes from the stadium in Arlington where the Dallas Cowboys play and with an enrollment of more than 2,300.
Also in the same senior class as Odhiambo were cornerback Tevin Mitchel, a four-star recruit who signed with Arkansas, and receiver Josh Doctson, who became a star at TCU and a 2016 first-round draft pick by Washington.
Coaches from dozens of big-name schools would come to Mansfield Legacy to see Mitchel and Doctson. Although they also couldn’t help but notice Odhiambo, only Boise State offered a scholarship.
“Which is unbelievable, because he was by far the most talented and best-looking lineman in the metroplex in Dallas,’’ Melson said. “These college coaches would ask me who has offered him and I’d say nobody, and they would just walk away. Everybody but Chris Petersen and Boise State. They saw it.’’
Odhiambo’s lack of experience might have been a factor. He didn’t play football until his sophomore year after being asked to turn out by an assistant who had him in a P.E. class.
He spent his sophomore season on the school’s junior-varsity B team (the school also has a varsity and a junior-varsity A team).
He made it to varsity as a junior, listed then at 6 feet 3 and 285 pounds. Melson said Odhiambo would spend hours by himself each day in the school’s weight room.
Melson said he thinks there was another factor in Odhiambo going largely unnoticed.
“College coaches, for the most part, if somebody else hasn’t pulled the trigger, they don’t want to be the first to do it because then it is their butt on the line,” Melson said. “They don’t want to stand before their head coach and say, ‘We’ve got to take this one,’ which is really, really ridiculous. But I respect Coach Petersen so much for that. He was right, and I was right, and everybody else was wrong, and Rees is in the NFL.”
Road blocks to Boise State
One college offer was good enough for Odhiambo. He surprised Pease in July 2010, when the coach was in his car on his way to a football camp, with a call to commit to Boise State.
That call came shortly after the death of his mother and sudden uncertainty over whether he’d be allowed to stay in the United States.
Petersen said there were questions about Odhiambo’s green-card status and legal guardians.
“You talk about bureaucracy and the run-around for a guy that everybody is trying to help, that should be here, that’s doing great things with his life and is going to have his education paid for, and it’s like there were still so many roadblocks,” Petersen said.
Petersen said it took a month or two before everything got sorted out. Boise State helped by assuring that Odhiambo would have a scholarship. Odhiambo moved in with an uncle nearby, getting rides to school from a Mansfield Legacy coach.
Melson marvels that Odhiambo was able to roll with the punches.
“You never really saw a change in his behavior or his attitude,’’ Melson said. “He just kept lifting weights, kept going to class and practice. Never really wavered. He’s just steady.’’
At Boise State, Odhiambo became a starter at right tackle as a sophomore in 2013. His first career start came in Seattle in a 38-6 UW win, the first game after the Husky Stadium renovation.
He started at left tackle in 2014 and 2015, with the only disappointment coming in the form of nagging injuries. He ultimately had surgery on both ankles.
A good fit at guard
If not for the injuries, he might have been drafted earlier — the Seahawks selected him at No. 97 overall, late in the third round.
The Seahawks plan to play Odhiambo at left guard, where he will compete with second-year player Mark Glowinski for a starting role.
Petersen called that move a good one.
“I think he is going to be physical enough to play inside, and then you bring that athleticism with him in terms of all the zone blocking and having quickness to take over the center’s block or get up to the next level and get on those ’backers and stay on those ’backers.” he said. “He’s athletic as anybody we ever had over there, and we had some pretty good ones.”
Odhiambo was cooking prime rib at the Clyde Hill home of former Boise State teammate and former Bellevue High star Marcus Henry when his phone rang.
When Odhiambo heard he had been drafted, his trademark calm broke for a few seconds as he momentarily was too stunned to respond to Schneider.
“Oh, my gosh, was that amazing?” Melson said. “I think he was just shocked. But he’ll be the most loyal Seahawk ever. Those teammates will love him, those coaches will love him. That will be his family.”