In between workouts back home in Arlington, Texas, Chris Odom was left to ponder his place in the vast expanse that is the NFL draft.
There was the College Gridiron Showcase in early January. There was some buzz at Arkansas State's pro day after a senior season -- his first as a full-time starter -- in which Odom posted 12.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss, part of an 8-5 campaign that concluded with the Red Wolves' first bowl win since 2013.
It was not unlike high school, where Odom played alongside projected No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett -- who went on to Texas A&M -- for the Martin Warriors. Odom is used to maximizing the most of his opportunities in tight windows. But what does that mean for him right now, a month away from the 2017 NFL Draft? He received no invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine. He did not attend the Senior Bowl. Through the first three weeks of March, no official team visits were scheduled, despite his noticeable speed and technical ability. At his pro day, teams were more curious about whether he could play another position -- outside linebacker -- than they were about his ability at his natural 4-3 defensive end spot.
Other prospects are doing interviews on TV, being followed by cameras, being talked about in mock drafts.
"Since I'm so far under the radar, I feel like any attention is a good thing," Odom told me last week. "I just -- I guess sometimes I don't know how it is because I'm so far under the radar. I don't know what teams are thinking. I don't know what they're expecting. All I can do is control what I can control and be the person I know how to be.
"Hopefully they like what they see. It's nice to talk to the scouts."
As he prepares for the draft and this momentous time in his life, Odom has surrounded himself with good company, people who understand where he is right now: underdogs looking to climb their way out of the shadows edging the NFL's periphery. Odom's agent, Louis Bing, is an up-and-comer with one other full-time client looking to grow his business and establish himself as a strong recruiter and close confidant for NFL players. Then there's Jeff Bauer, the Jets' former director of college scouting, who advised Bing through a program that connected young agents with experienced scouts. Bauer insisted Bing go after Odom, redirecting him from recruiting another player on the Red Wolves' roster.
Bauer, who was let go by the Jets in 2015, is looking to get back into the league. With a few memorable diamond-in-the-rough finds throughout his 15-year scouting career already under his belt, hitting on Odom could be the push that gets him over the edge.
Which is why Odom's story, like so many leading up to the draft, features multiple acts and different perspectives. It is the most important moment of his life, but in many ways, it's also a pivotal moment for others in his orbit. In a month, skill, luck, business savvy and gut instinct will come together. It's about one person and everyone else.
"I don't block it out," Odom said. "I use it as motivation and inspiration. I have a team counting on me -- an agent counting on me. All of it. I don't block it out because, if anything, it makes it more exciting for me. I'm definitely not nervous. If anything, I'm nervously excited."
* * * * *
Bing, who is now 30, settled in at a job with Goldman Sachs after graduating from Miami. He was 21 and entrenched with the financial behemoth -- but he felt a calling. He played football in high school, and that was his crowd. He could chop it up with his football-playing friends no problem. Speak their language.
An interest in the law -- he ended up going to law school at SMU -- made his eventual career shift to NFL Players Association certified contract advisor all the more obvious.
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"I love what I do," Bing said. "I feel like I'm providing them with things that they need, but I can also call them my friends and not just players that I have a business relationship with."
Over his four years in the industry, he's managed to land one current player on an NFL roster: Seahawks defensive tackle Rodney Coe. Coe was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Dallas Cowboys in 2016, then had stints in Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. The Seahawks signed him to a reserve-futures deal back on Jan. 19. Bing also represented center Andre Gurode at the tail end of his career before Gurode's retirement in 2014.
Those who would call Bing unsuccessful should consider the current landscape for a young agent starting out. The industry is essentially run by a few mega-firms with deep budgets and dozens of employees scattered throughout the country. They can be there at the client's whim, pay for their combine training and housing and play a role in their foray into post-career life rather mechanically. They also have the resources to poach existing clients from agents at any time -- a common tactic around the NFL.
According to the Sports Agent Blog, Creative Artist Agency had 30 players drafted in 2016 -- seven first-round picks and 16 overall in the first two rounds. An unofficial count of the firms listed by that site shows that the top 30 firms were responsible for 176 of the 253 players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft. The 176th pick last year was the first of the sixth round. This does not include high-profile boutique firms that might only have one client who also happens to be, say, the No. 5 overall pick.
"I've learned a lot," Bing said. "I started at 26, and pretty much starting by myself without any connections in the league, without a big agency, without any money. A lot of people tell me that I've come a long way. I feel like I'm nowhere near where I wanted to be after four years as an agent, but at the same time, I could see someone in my situation -- I can call it an accomplishment just to be here. Still in the league."
Like Odom, Bing is facing career-defining questions. Could he partner with one of the big firms and surrender some of his freedom? Would he be amenable to splitting the commission on a player's deal in order to have more resources?
"The goal changes every once in a while," he said. "When I got into this, I always wanted quality over quantity. I always said I'd rather have a roster where I worked with five great players over 30 mediocre players. But it's just so hard to predict who is going to be a great player in the league."
Landing Odom on an NFL roster would help. Bing thinks he has an eye for defensive line talent in particular, and placing a second D-lineman in the league would provide some confidence.
There is also something about working with Odom that puts him at ease. Odom is low-maintenance. He's from a football family (his father, Cliff, played in the NFL for 13 seasons between 1980 and 1993 with the Browns, Colts and Dolphins). He never needs prodding to get his work done.
"To me, he's a sure bet," Bing said. "Whether or not he becomes a star one day, that's up to him. But at worst case, he's going to find a spot in the league for a long time because of the way he is on and off the field. To me, it's a pretty sure bet, if everything goes well."
He added: "When Chris makes the league this year, I definitely already have some targets in mind for next season, so it would definitely help my career, as well."
It helped that Bing received Odom's name -- after a meeting with Bauer in Iowa over coffee this fall -- when Odom had just four sacks. Bing wanted Bauer to check out another player, but the natural intangibles of the 6-foot-4, 256-pound defensive end stood out. Odom, who can whip around an offensive tackle with little effort, more than tripled that sack total by the end of the season.
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Bauer is soft-spoken but instinctive.
He knows small-school kids. Their heart is the greatest measure against prestige competition. It was obvious on a scouting trip back in 2012 when, as a Midwest area scout for the Jets, Bauer saw Damon Harrison at William Penn. Harrison was a former high school shooting guard who tore his meniscus and gained a significant amount of weight. He played just one year of football and made all-district in Louisiana.
Harrison bounced around, spending time at Northwest Mississippi Community College and stocking pet food on the graveyard shift at Walmart. He took a last-chance opportunity at William Penn, an NAIA school in Oskaloosa, Iowa, and went on to make the Jets as an undrafted free agent. Last March, after four seasons with the Jets, Harrison signed a five-year, $46.25 million deal with the Giants.
"The kid has to have the right heart," Bauer said. "There's 100 scouts that go across this country and write up small schools and every state in the union. But you don't know how the players are going to react when they have Nick Mangold in their face. But Damon had it. I loved Damon."
Bauer gave Harrison a draftable grade, as did another Jets scout who cross-checked his work.
"Once he came in, everyone was like, 'Wow,' " Bauer said.
Bauer was named the Jets' director of college scouting in 2012 after that draft, but he was let go by the team in January of 2015 amid massive upheaval. Changes at the general manager's position -- from Mike Tannenbaum to John Idzik in 2013, to Mike Maccagnan in 2015 -- are not easy to survive.
That's when Bauer heard from Neil Stratton, the creator of a website called Inside the League. The site is made to connect prospects' parents, agents, trainers, financial advisors and scouts in the ultimate consortium of those who are looking to get into or remain in football. Bauer used to work with Stratton's wife during his time as a coach and teacher in Houston. Stratton wanted Bauer to help out some younger agents who were still learning how to evaluate prospects.
Bauer never stopped watching film when the Jets let him go -- "That's what I know I'm good at and what I want to keep doing," he said -- reviewing all the tape he could get his hands on and making his own draft notes. This was a chance to make some money on the side.
"I started watching some of the [Arkansas State] games for a couple other guys, and this Chris Odom, he's going to make someone's roster," Bauer said. "He wasn't on anyone's list because he didn't do much in 2015. NFL teams are looking for kids who can bend the corner like that and rush the passer. He ended up being a great kid, great family.
"This kid is going to sack a quarterback in the NFL. I'm happy it worked out."
Maybe it will work out for Bauer, too. He's a man of faith who, in our conversations and correspondence, often referenced God and prayer informing him of what's next. When he was let go in 2015, after 15 years with the Jets, it was the first time he'd lost a job in his entire life.
He spoke with the New York Giants and Detroit Lions about positions last year and has an eye on the post-draft landscape. Often times, teams will make changes to their personnel departments after selecting their latest crop of players because scouting contracts run through May.
Bauer cross-checks himself now. He looks at players he liked in particular while with the Jets -- Shonn Greene (4,110 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns, after being selected as a third-round pick in 2009) and Quincy Enunwa (58 catches for 857 yards and four touchdowns in 2016, after being drafted in the sixth round in 2014) -- and hammers himself on the players he missed. He always prided himself on work ethic. While working the pro day circuit during his time with the Jets, he wasn't going out for beers with the other scouts at the end of the day.
"They know when I'm at a school, I'm working," he said. "I work on my reports at night and get on to the next school."
A walk-on college ballplayer at Iowa State who earned a letter every year, Bauer knows enough about the industry and its inner workings to understand that a climb back into the league won't be easy, even if he hits on Odom and a few other prospects he's recommended as a freelancer. But every day he gets up, grazes NFL Network and college football reports and logs into the film databases he has access to.
"God has a plan for me," he said. "Right place, right time, it'll happen for me."
* * * * *
Odom trains six days a week at a facility down in Fort Worth, Texas. He gets cryotherapy, hangs out with his dad and watches TV. In his room at night, he'll play "Call of Duty" or "Madden" and talk to old teammates via his Xbox. He has not resorted to creating himself in video-game form yet. The pass rush moves, to him, are not yet realistic enough.
Having his family close by has eased the stress. His mom plans nightly dinners around Odom's healthy lifestyle. A strong support system can be the best weapon against the banality of the pre-draft waiting game.
"It's been nice to take the time with my parents while I can," he said.
But last Thursday, a few hours after speaking to me about his draft experience, he received a phone call from an NFC team asking him to fly out for a top-30 visit. His first one.
Odom couldn't wait to run through the door and tell his father. Finally, someone recognized all the hard work he's been putting in. It was the chance they've all been waiting for.
"It was an unexplainable feeling," he said.
Follow Conor Orr on Twitter @ConorOrr.