“They said he would be alright.”
August 21, 2012. The Millington Central Trojans were having a routine practice. They were scheduled to open the season at Kirby in three days. Hike. Sophomore receiver Dana Payne crossed the middle of the field looking to make a routine play. Senior Defense Back George Odum just so happened to break from his man he was guarding, putting him in Payne’s path. Odum said he tried to pull-up to lessen the impact. “He ran into my shoulder,” Odum said. “And he fell.”
Payne got up. But he fell again. He stopped breathing. He was given CPR and regained his breath. He was conscious as he was taken to Le Bonheur’s Children Hospital in Memphis. “He was fine when he was going to the hospital,” remembers Odum. “They said he would be alright.” But he wasn’t.
Payne died before making it to the hospital. A report from the Shelby County Medical Examiner’s Office, days later, stated Payne died from bronchial asthma with the impact to his chest as a contributing factor.
When Odum got the news, he wanted to go to the hospital immediately. He didn’t know much about Payne other than he was a younger teammate, but he felt it he had to be there. He felt it was his fault. “Don’t go,” countless people advised him. They didn’t know how the family would take his presence.
“And don’t talk to anyone about it," he was advised. "I didn’t say anything,” Odum recalls. “I kept quiet.”
He heard that people were threatening to get the guy who was “responsible” for Payne’s death. The next day, Odum and his teammates were isolated in their high school auditorium. “Security people were around us,” said Odum. To him, this move was to keep him safe, but the real purpose was to provide support to Odum and the rest of Trojans.
“There were grief counselors present, as is always the case in these type situations,” Coach Michael said. “He needed to be with his teammates. They needed to grieve together. The (school) administration did a great job of making sure (the team) got all the counseling and support they needed.”
Odum made a decision. “I told everyone I was going to quit football.”
“That’s understandable,” said Michael. “It’s hard to bounce back from something like that.”
Odum’s teammates tried to talk him out of it. So did his family, but he needed to hear it from someone else. He had to hear it from Payne’s mother Tameka Smith.
“She told me, ‘It wasn’t my fault,’” said Odum. “She told me to keep playing.” Odum listened, but he didn't forget.
On August 30, 2014. Odum played his first game as a collegiate athlete. His University of Central Arkansas Bears played Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas. He forgot something. He didn’t bring his rubber wristband with the letters DP, for Dana Payne, on it.
In a show of sportsmanship, the Bartlett Panthers’ football team had presented Millington Central with the wristbands when the two played during the second game of the 2012 season, two weeks after Payne’s death.
“I missed almost every tackle [in the Texas Tech game],” Odum said. He would make the mistake only once. He wore the wristband the next game against the University of Tennessee Martin, the Bears' home opener. “Made every tackle,” he said.
Michael was there also. UCA won a close one 26-24. Odum and Michael spoke after the game. Odum did not mention Payne. “I didn’t want to dwell on it,” Odum said. But his play spoke volumes about how he honored his former teammate.
The Bears’ redshirt freshman will always remember. He remembers every time he puts on the wristband.
After redshirting in 2013, his freshman season at Central Arkansas, Odum was told by Bears coach Clint Conque that 2014 would be his year. But, during the off season, Conque left to take a job as Stephen F. Austin’s head coach. Odum wasn’t as bothered with Conque’s decision to leave as he was with how he announced his departure, via text.
It was only a minor setback. Odum worked his way into the starting line-up. And now Conque gets to see maybe more of Odum than he anticipated. Central Arkansas and Stephen F. Austin play Saturday, October 4, at Homer Bryce Stadium in Nacogdoches, Texas.
“We talked about it,” he says of his Bears teammates. “When we make a tackle we’re just going to stare at (Conque).”
And Odum will be wearing his DP wristband while doing it.
Follow Jamie Griffin on twitter @flyerpreps.