A fighter once aimed toward jail now has eyes on the Olympics

Under the coaching of Bernard Roach, 17-year-old Jerry Odom prepares for the USA National Boxing Championships with his eyes on the 2012 Olympics.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010

In the shadow of "Justice Court," a cluster of red brick apartment buildings in Northeast Washington, next to an air-conditioning unit on which boys slouch and sip Mountain Dew, a small patch of sand peeks out from the balding grass.

"That's where I started fighting," Jerry Odom, 17, says.

He was 8 years old. His opponents, 11. The two picked on him. He snapped. He fought dirty, tossing a handful of sand in their eyes. His anger took care of the rest: They lost. He won.

To this day, Jerry fights this way -- all unrestrained power and will. He is "TNT," those who know him say. For most of his life, that has made him a problem child, a thug of a boy who can't remember a year he didn't get kicked out of school.

But now -- after two men focused that strength -- it makes him a contender. He is no longer just a fighter; he is a boxer. In a few weeks, the teenager will step into a ring in Colorado Springs and compete with grown men, some could be twice his age, at the USA Boxing National Championships, the country's premier amateur boxing tournament. If he wins, he will be one step closer to competing in the 2012 Olympics, a goal everyone in his life speaks about more as fact than dream.

"The success is not for you," his uncle Kenneth Williams, 40, tells him as they walk through the old neighborhood, the Paradise projects.

Jerry nods but remains quiet. With a 30-3 amateur record, he has heard this before.

"The success is to reach back and help another person," Williams says. "And if you don't do that, it's for nothing. It's null and void. You understand that? The success is not for you."

A nod. A smile. Jerry gets it.

At 14, he stood in a D.C. courtroom in front of a judge he knew was tired of seeing him. It was Jerry's third time there.

Jerry, who is almost 6-foot-1, 178 pounds of defined muscle, says he has never fought anyone smaller than he is. But his restraint often ended there. "I wasn't like I am now," he says. Now, he keeps a small yellow ball in his pocket to squeeze whenever he starts to lose his temper. "I was hard. In the neighborhood I was in, that's how you had to be. You couldn't be no sucker."

In eighth grade, he walked up to a boy at school and punched him once, making him fall. Jerry says he didn't know whether the boy was badly injured because he didn't look back. Jerry says the boy's friend flashed a gun at a party, threatening him. "Where I am from, you pull out a gun, you use it," Jerry says. Later, he earned a reputation for making other teenagers turn their pockets inside out to reveal whether they had anything worth taking. The point was less to steal than to humiliate. "It was just dudes that used to run their mouths," he says. "I just had to prove to them they're not hard."

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