Former St. Augustine football star remembered as ‘fearless competitor, gentle friend’

Tarek Odom, a St. Augustine High graduate and The Record’s 2010 Player of the Year, died suddenly on Tuesday night.


Odom, 24, was at a rec flag football game at Joe Pomar Field when he collapsed and was later pronounced dead. An autopsy was pending, according to the medical examiner’s office in St. Johns County.

“He died doing something he enjoyed, playing football,” said his mother, Belinda McDowell. “He was that gentle giant, that teddy bear.”

Odom, who went on to play four years in college at Wofford and also had stints in arena football, had returned to his alma mater last year to coach linebackers on the junior varsity team.

Odom’s quiet and gentle demeanor was a 180 from his intimidating physical presence. He was a state champion weightlifter and a fierce defensive lineman who routinely drew double teams, yet one who had no problem challenging teammates to foot races, even when he was pushing 300 pounds.

“He was a fun-loving person with everyone he came in contact with,” McDowell said. “No matter if they were male, female, young or old. He was one of those people I don’t think he would have any regrets about anything in his life that he did. I feel God said ‘Well done, son. Well done, son. Come on home.’”

McDowell typically works overnight; but, she did not on Tuesday night. Doing so allowed her a final opportunity to say goodbye to her son.

“When he came here yesterday from work, he told me he wasn’t feeling well,” McDowell said. “That day, I called in. It was like God was preparing me. Now, that this has happened, (I see) He was preparing me.”

She said Odom took some medication, laid down for a few minutes, then left with a cousin to be at the field in time for his 6:20 p.m. game.

McDowell’s phone began to ring, but she ignored it. Eventually, the son of a neighbor brought her the phone.

“John Augustus, the same one who got him started in football said ‘Mrs. P-Chad, you need to come with me.’ When I got there, they were working on him in the ambulance. When they said they were working on him for 15 minutes, I knew he was gone. It was like God gave me comfort.”

She said it’s also comforting that Odom’s former coaches, teammates and the St. Augustine community embraced him during his life.

“Tarek impacted a community,” said former St. Augustine football coach Joey Wiles. “Tarek’s life in (almost) 25 years, he lived a lot. There are some 90-year-olds who haven’t lived that much life. His smile just brought you in. He knew the names of your family, your kids. You lose a guy like that, it’s like losing a member of your family.”

To those who knew Odom’s backstory, it was an inspiring one.

Born in St. Augustine on April 16, 1993, he was always big for his age and wanted to play football, but could not. McDowell said he was too heavy to play Pop Warner and was turned away due to his weight every year he attempted to register.

In a 2010 story, McDowell said she and her son left signups every year in tears because of that rejection due to his weight. Odom ultimately played one year of youth football in eighth grade in the Police Athletic League.

Augustus, a former St. Augustine quarterback, started a team and asked McDowell whether it would be acceptable for Odom to play. She emphatically said yes.

He barreled into high school football as a 250-pound menace on the defensive line with plenty to prove.

“He played the game like that. You could see how demoralizing it must have been to him to not be able to play as a kid,” said St. Augustine coach Brian Braddock. “We called him the ‘Kung Fu Panda.’ Sounds silly, but he really was that gentle, super sweet kid. But boy, he had that athleticism. He’s a St. Augustine football icon and he actually matched that with the type of kid he was.”

Former Yellow Jackets football player Rashard Hall was older than Odom, but remembers him well because of his leadership, tenacity and liveliness. Hall’s closest friend, Chaz McDowell, was Odom’s cousin and all three of them played on the defensive side of the ball.

“The way he played on the field resembled how he was in life,” Hall said. “I remember him being a young guy, but getting reps with a state-championship caliber defense and standing out. He was always standing out. Even more in practice than in games (Yellow) Jackets are known for swarming to the ball. He always played 100 miles per hour. He was always underrated because of his size, but he outplayed people.”

Odom’s weight climbed to 290 pounds as a junior, and he was virtually unblockable on the line. But it was during Odom’s senior season in 2010 that things changed.

He lost 35 pounds, grew a couple inches and the St. Augustine staff began plugging him in as a fullback during the second half of the season. The Yellow Jackets reached the state semifinals that year, with Odom starring on the line and running the ball. He had 30 tackles for loss as a senior and 12 rushing touchdowns. Odom earned Super 24 honors, as well as All-First Coast defensive player of the year and overall player of the year accolades from the St. Augustine Record.

Odom drew interest from schools like Arkansas and Florida State late in the recruiting cycle, but signed with Wofford and became one of the better players in Terriers history. He played in 46 career games, finishing with 126 tackles and 34 for loss.

Recently retired Wofford football coach Mike Ayers said Odom was the complete package, strong, quick and athletic on the field and studious, humorous and a tremendous leader off the field. Ayers said Odom was an ambassador for the program in the Spartanburg, South Carolina community.

“I can remember one coach that we played against in the conference,” Ayers said, “and he asked ‘Where did you get that guy?’ I told my coaches ‘I don’t care how tall they are. What I want is a guy like him.’ ”

Odom was an All-Southern Conference second-team defensive lineman in his sophomore season and a first-teamer in his junior and senior seasons. He was Wofford’s MVP in 2014 after recording 41 tackles, 11 for loss, four sacks and recovering a fumble.

“I told the kids this morning, when somebody passes away, people say a lot of nice things about them,” Braddock said. “With Tarek, every single one is factual. He was as humble as he was talented, as fearless a competitor as he was a gentle friend. How many people are like that, those two things are paradoxes.”

Odom leaves behind a large family and everlasting memories.

Chaz McDowell remembers that his cousin was the type of person who liked to use football as a way to influence people positively. But his lasting memory occurred in November 2016 after Thanksgiving dinner.

“We decided instead of getting rid of the leftovers, or have family give them away, we decided to go to downtown St. Augustine and give them to the homeless,” McDowell said. “We handed out plates and prayed with the homeless. Seeing how big his wisdom was and his heart was to give his time and efforts to support and care for someone who was less fortunate than him was a major staple (of his life). It was one of my greatest memories of him.”