Chris Odoi-Atsem never dared pose the question, “Why me?”
For the former University of Maryland soccer standout, a Prince George’s County native who also starred at DeMatha, his dream job as a defender for D.C. United had already been sidetracked by injuries one year after the hometown team selected him in the first round of the 2017 Major League Soccer SuperDraft.
First came the bone spurs in his ankle and then compartment syndrome (painful pressure buildup from internal bleeding or swelling of tissues) in his calves, both requiring surgery. But nothing compared to what came next for Odoi-Atsem.
A tumor was discovered in his chest that was diagnosed as Stage II Hodgkin’s lymphoma in October 2018. Then came eight rounds of chemotherapy that spanned three months at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, which helped him become cancer-free in January 2019.
The 25-year-old, in his fourth season with D.C. United, said since the day he was diagnosed — no matter the pain and grind — that he knew he would get back on the field.
On Oct. 18, he showed just how far he’s come. From his right back position, Odoi-Atsem (pronounced OH-DUE-EE AH-CHAM) made an aggressive run to the far post in the 78th minute of a tie game to knock in a rebound for his first career goal, lifting D.C. United over host FC Cincinnati, 2-1.
For Odoi-Atsem and the team, which has had few bright spots in a bumpy 4-10-6 campaign, the goal meant so much more.
“The main thing was just being happy to get the win, but I feel a little more being able to get the goal myself. It was a great feeling,” said Odoi-Atsem, who made his eighth start and 15th appearance this season, but is currently sidelined with a concussion. “Kind of every step I’ve taken in my return has been a little bit better, first making it back on the field and then getting my first start. This year, I’ve been pretty much healthy, so I’ve been able to get consistent minutes, consistent games and that’s been great for me. And now I’m starting to add some stats to my game as well with this goal.”
Odoi-Atsem’s big goal on that Sunday night in Cincinnati reached many, both near and far.
“It’s so awesome,” United interim coach Chad Ashton said. “He has just been through a lot and continues to work and work and work. It’s such a credit to him, and I am so happy for him. He is well deserving to get that [goal].”
Fellow United defender Donovan Pines, whose freshman season at Maryland overlapped Odoi-Atsem’s senior year, had an ideal view. He had been noticing in previous games that Odoi-Atsem was getting in great position up the field to create scoring opportunities for the team. Pines knew it would only be a matter of time for him to connect on one.
“I was like ‘Oh my gosh, he’s right there’ and then he scored the goal,” Pines said. “I started running as fast as possible to get to Chris, but he’s a fast guy and he jumped over the billboards. I’m like 'Oh man, I got to get over to him before they call us back, so I’m running diagonal to him as fast as I could to congratulate him because I was so happy for him. I was just really proud of him. He’s like a brother to me, so it was a really special moment.”
After the game, Odoi-Atsem got tons of job-well-done messages. One from a close friend hit home.
“One person said ‘When you scored, it felt like I scored,’ just because they were by my side the whole time and helping me any way they could. That really meant a lot to me and I know a lot of people had the same feeling I’m having of the joy of being able to score the game-winning goal.”
Odoi-Atsem talks candidly about his struggle with cancer. He’s appreciative of the support he has received from so many and has a different mindset now, paying more attention to small details and taking a more positive approach to life.
Seeing the stories of NFL players James Conner and Eric Berry overcome the same disease provided him with inspiration he now wants to pass on.
“When I saw how they were able to make it back to the top of the game, it gave me all the confidence that I could do the same and eventually some kid may see my story and it can give them hope with what they’re going through. That means everything to me,” he said.
As for all that is now in front of him, he knows he came out on the other side a stronger and better person. Pines can attest.
“Chris has always been a strong, independent individual and is always garnering everything he can get,” he said.
“He’s impressive in the fact that he does what he says and it’s very cool how he carries himself. Calm, cool and collective Chris all the time and he’s great to have in the locker room.”
Odoi-Atsem’s primary goal coming into the season was to stay healthy and be available for his team. As much as he doesn’t mind sharing his experience with cancer, when the subject turns to soccer — the game he has loved since his childhood — his voice perks up. With the setback behind him, he’s been able to focus on improving his game.
For Odoi-Atsem, the dream is safely back on course. And he’s exactly where he wants to be.
“I grew up going to D.C. United games at RFK Stadium and it’s crazy how everything went full circle and I’m able to play for the hometown team,” he said. “It’s funny how life works sometimes and I’m grateful to be here and grateful for the team supporting me through everything. I hope I can repay them by working hard every time I step on the field and playing well.”