Nate Richam-Odoi ’20 was a latecomer to football. Instead of putting on a helmet at age six, he had to wait until he turned seven.
Chalk it up to the rules. In Richam-Odoi’s hometown of West Hartford, Connecticut, the local pee-wee football league mandated that players be either seven years old or in the third grade before they padded up. Richam-Odoi, whose December 28 birthday made him the youngest kid in the second grade, was neither.
I met the running back outside the entrance to Hyde Hall, where he lives as a proctor.
“All my friends were playing, and I was just like ‘I want to play this sport so badly; I want to be with all my friends so badly,’ and I just couldn’t do it,” says the running back.
In the 14 years since Connecticut deemed him old enough to put on a helmet, Richam-Odoi has made up for any lost time. Now in his senior year, he has become one of the most decorated running backs in Bowdoin football history. He holds the single-game rushing record—which he set on September 22, 2018, breaking a 42-year-old record with a 288-yard effort against Middlebury—and, on October 12, he became the first Bowdoin football player ever to rush for more than 100 yards in three consecutive games. He currently sits second in the NESCAC in rushing yards and carries, and his 1,861 career rushing yards are the seventh-most all-time among Bowdoin players. He is on track to move into sixth or even fifth place by the end of this season.
In the 2019 season, Richam-Odoi is responsible for 30 of Bowdoin’s 68 total points; over his four seasons, he has put on some of the most mind-blowing displays of athleticism that Whittier Field might ever witness.
His numbers are made all the more impressive by the fact that he has missed the functional equivalent of an entire season due to injuries—a lateral collateral ligament and meniscus tear midway through his sophomore season and a bad case of turf toe in 2018.
The injuries have not changed his approach.
“I run left, and I run right, and I look for a hole. I just run.”
We walk together to the David Saul Smith Union, where he tells me about the football career he never thought he’d have.
Today, Richam-Odoi is 5’11”, able to hang clean 350 pounds and squat 500. He looks like the kind of guy you really, really wouldn’t want to arm wrestle. But it hasn’t always been that way.
“From my [highlight] tape that I had junior year [of high school,] I didn’t think I had enough of what it took to be a college athlete,” says Richam-Odoi, who considered playing collegiate lacrosse instead of football. “I remember sending my tape out to a lot of other NESCAC schools, and all of them were like, ‘We’re not looking much right now, we’ll get back to you.’”
The only coach to get back to him was Kevin Loney, Bowdoin’s assistant coach for running backs and the team’s player development coordinator.
“We were watching his film and we thought, ‘OK, this kid is actually a really good tailback, so we reached out to judge his interest,” said Loney, who also grew up in West Hartford, playing football against Richam-Odoi’s high school.
Then, on his first visit to Bowdoin that fall, a 16-year-old Richam-Odoi walked into the coaches’ office and declared his intent to commit to Bowdoin.
The barriers that Richam-Odoi had to clear before stepping into that office, however, were greater than a lackluster highlight reel. The child of two immigrants—his mother arrived in New York City from Jamaica at 18, his father from Ghana at the same age—Richam-Odoi is the first member of his family, including two older siblings, to go to college.
But it’s what he’s done while here that’s meant the most to him and his family.
“We had a family shakeup a couple years ago, and my relationship with [my dad] wasn’t always the best before that,” Richam-Odoi explains. “But after going to college … that’s kind of brought him more into my life, just out of support and out of the joy of making something out of his son.”
His father now texts him supportive messages before most games and has attended a few himself. His mom, Michelle, has been to all but one.
Family is a blessing that he doesn’t want to go unacknowledged. After going by “Nate Richam” for the first three years of college, he took on his father’s full last name, “Richam-Odoi,” this past year.
“Seeing me in college is like the biggest source of joy for him,” says Richam-Odoi. “I kind of wanted to have that full name back.”
But Richam-Odoi, who speaks with the staccato rhythm of someone for whom speaking is a labor of love, is characteristically understated about his background.
“If anything, being those accolades—first-generation, African-American college athlete—is more of a confidence boost to myself. Just knowing that through the adversity I’ve gone through—not having that kind of knowledge of what college is like, how to even apply to colleges, how to do any of the logistical stuff for it and getting here and making it through—it’s more of a confidence boost than anything to feel marginalized for,” says Richam-Odoi.
It’s just another thing that, over the years, he’s learned to take in stride.
“I always grew up in a predominantly white town, so standing out wasn’t something new to me,” he says. “I realized this, like, two weeks ago, that I’m the only black person on [the team’s] offense, and I think [it has] been that way for the past two years.”
He pauses to think.
“It’s not something that I have to deal with or put a weight on my shoulders for, but it’s just another label that you can put me down as.”
And labels, as he’s learned, often hide more than they reveal.
“When I got [to Bowdoin], I wasn’t sure if I could do the school work because of the stigma of being a student-athlete and only being here for football,” he says, matter-of-factly. “But after one semester, I knew that I could do this work. I was as smart as any of the kids here. I can just do this.”
He pauses, his mind running left, running right, trying to find a hole.
“I don’t think it’s any more difficult because of football, and I don’t think it’s easier.”
Fourteen years after taking the field for the first time, Richam-Odoi will step off of it for good in 14 days. It’s not easy to organize pickup football, he explains.
With the end in sight, he’s grappling with a college career that has given him both so much and so little.
Over three and two-thirds seasons, the 11 members of the class of 2020 have a 1-31 record to their name. Every passing week represents a lost chance to raise that one to a two.
Over time, it takes a toll.
“A lot of football is just controlled rage, and I’ll hold up stuff and just let it loose on the football field,” says Richam-Odoi. “I think a lot of it comes from having bad games in the past and wanting to get some guys back for it.”
When he looks back on his Bowdoin football career, the stats are not what he’ll remember—or at least so he says.
“We always talk about how, even looking back at high school, you always say you don’t remember the records of the games. You really don’t,” he says. “You always remember the guys that you had with you the entire time. And I think these senior guys are more resilient than any other guys I’ve met in my entire life.”
But surely, knowing what he does know—that four years of toil would yield only one win—would he have chosen a different path?
“Maybe…” he hesitates, looking skyward. “Maybe. … I don’t think I made the wrong decision at any point along the way. I think everything this college has given me, everything I’ve learned from this game, being on this team—it’s taught me a lot more than some other teams would have, honestly.”
After graduation, Richam-Odoi—an economics major with a minor in psychology—will work as an equity research analyst in the Manhattan offices of Bank of America, where he interned in the summer of 2018.
He says he liked the work, but finance is not his long game.
“I’m a huge fan of green grass, dogs and kind of chill vibes, so going to work right on 42nd Street at Times Square was definitely an adjustment,” he says. “People aren’t really too worried about smelling the roses.”
His short-term goal is to make some money to give back to his family before he can get back to the things he loves the most: working with kids and coaching football.
“There are really few things in life I enjoy, and football is number two, family is number one, and number three is far, far away.”
As we part ways, Richam-Odoi for an econ class, I for home, I ask him if the effort is ever just too much—if sometimes he just wants to lie on the couch all day, eating Doritos and playing video games.
“That’s what Sundays are for,” he says, and chuckles.