A little over two decades ago, when Cesar Odio was still in his early 30s, the 6-5 former Columbus High and Florida Southern forward signed up to play a charity basketball game.
On the opposing team were several Miami Dolphins football players, including offensive linemen who outweighed him by 70 pounds.
That didn’t faze Odio.
“Since he was our tallest guy, he matched up against these behemoths,” former Miami High and FIU basketball coach Shakey Rodriguez said. “Cesar was in there trading elbows.
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“I told him, ‘Cesar, you’re going to get us in a fight. We’re going to get killed.’ But he wouldn’t back down. Cesar was tough and hard-nosed. That’s how he played, and that’s how he coached.”
It’s also how Odio traded punches with cancer, beating leukemia in 2008 and again in 2012.
On Wednesday, Odio — who won more games as Barry University’s men’s basketball coach than anyone in the history of the program — lost against the one behemoth he couldn’t completely conquer, passing away at the age of 58.
He battled the deadly disease for nine painful and traumatic years but never sought sympathy.
All he wanted, really, was basketball and family, which included his father, also named Cesar, who is a former Miami city manager. It also included Odio’s wife, Mary Kay, and their children, Emily, who played volleyball at Killian High and Wingate University, and Eddie, a 6-8 forward who followed in his father’s footsteps at Columbus before playing in the ACC for Boston College.
In November of 2014, when Eddie took an inadvertent elbow from a BC teammate and sustained a concussion, Cesar was immensely proud that his son was able to make it back on the court.
“[Eddie] got a black eye, but it made him look good,” Odio told the Miami Herald in 2015. “It made him look tougher.”
Ryan Saunders, who played point guard and served as an assistant coach at Barry, both under Odio, said his mentor had a photographic memory but was not an overly sentimental person.
“He didn’t like to show emotion or weakness,” Saunders said. “But when Eddie got the scholarship to Boston College, he couldn’t stop talking about him.”
Former Miami Dade College athletic director Jim Cox, who met Odio more than 30 years ago, said Cesar was a true friend.
When Hurricane Andrew tore through Cox’s house in Perrine, Odio visited him the very next day, somehow making it through closed streets to tend to his buddy.
Rodriguez said Odio’s honesty was another trait that stood out.
In a profession, Rodriguez said, where college coaches routinely exaggerate to land a recruit, Odio was a straight shooter.
“He told you what he saw in you and what your role would be,” Rodriguez said. “I had a world of respect for him.”
A native of Havana, Odio led Miami-Dade high schools in scoring as a Columbus senior in 1976-77, earning first-team All-County honors. Odio, as the Florida Southern captain, went on to lead the Moccasins to an NCAA Division II national title in 1981.
Odio served as a head coach for seven years at Miami Dade College (Kendall Campus), putting together a 128-84 record. He took over at Barry for the 1994-95 season and compiled a 266-218 record in 17 years.
He was twice named the Sunshine State Conference’s Coach of the Year before making the transition to assistant athletic director in 2013-14.
Saunders said Odio was so competitive that Barry had no choice but to ban the coach from playing intramural basketball years ago.
Let’s just say Odio never lost the sharpness of his elbows, and he took that same approach to coaching.
“He had what we called, ‘The Odio Stomp,’ ” former Barry forward Willie Whitfied said. “If we made a mistake and he got mad, you would think he was stomping a hole in the court. You would see his foot coming down like a hammer.”
But that competitiveness wasn’t all that Odio was about.
Whitfield had few offers coming out of Miami Springs High in 2007, but Odio recruited him, in part, because he thought Willie was a good person.
“He was genuine,” Whitfield said. “He wanted Barry-type guys who were hard-working and not selfish.
“And you could never argue with him about a play because he remembered everything. If you tried to argue about what you did on a certain play, he would say, ‘Do you want to go watch the film?’ You would lose that battle every time.”
The only loss in this case is what is being felt now by South Florida’s basketball community.
“He didn’t have a lot of quantity of life,” Cox said. “But because of everything he accomplished and everyone he helped, his quality of life was three times his chronological age.”