By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — On a warm Pacific Northwest autumn day, Kenechi Udeze looked up toward a scattering of puffy clouds in an otherwise clear, blue sky and closed his eyes.
“Every day, you hear about somebody losing their life, and I try to stop for a second — maybe 10 seconds — and put my face toward the sky,” he said after assisting the University of Washington coaching staff at a football practice two days ago. “I was in the hospital for 60 days, and I told myself when I got out, I would start appreciating life more.”
Twenty-seven years old, Udeze stood on the turf of Husky Stadium long after all the players and coaches had gone inside. He appeared as comfortable as ever in his new life and was able to talk about the one he used to have without any hint of self-pity.
Two-and-a-half years have passed since Udeze’s life was forever changed by a sudden diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He received a life-saving bone marrow transplant six months later, and 13 months ago Udeze was forced to retire from the National Football League due to complications of chemotherapy.
He wants people to know that he never gave up, and he’s not giving up on the game of football.
“Just me being out here with these (UW players), they don’t really appreciate that, for as much as I have in my life, they really are what keeps me going,” he said upon opening his eyes. “I feel like I can be a mentor to them. If they can’t learn something from me, then that’s their own blind (spot).”
A lot of people could learn from Kenechi Udeze, who lived a charmed life for 24 years and then saw everything change one month shy of his 25th birthday.
Now cancer-free and working as an assistant strength coach with the Huskies’ football program, Udeze finds a lot of good in the past 21/2 years of his life. That his leukemia was diagnosed at a young age, when he was in prime condition both physically and mentally, could have only helped him beat the disease. He also marvels at the fortune to find a marrow donor in such a relatively short period of time, thanks to his older brother, Thomas Barnes, whose marrow was a match.
And, on a lighter level, he’s forever grateful to be back on a football field.
“It’s still good just to be productive, especially working with young men,” he said two days ago. “It’s not where I envisioned myself being at 27 years old, but I’m just happy that I can still be around and still be part of the game.”
For most of his adult life, Udeze found himself at the highest levels of the game.
After showing up for a USC football camp at a doughy 371 pounds, Udeze earned a scholarship to the school when assistant Ed Orgeron convinced him to shed 40 pounds. During his redshirt year, Udeze lost another 60 pounds and moved from defensive tackle to defensive end, where he went on to become a full-time starter and one of the original building blocks in the resurrection of Trojan football.
Upon leaving USC after his junior season, he was selected by the Minnesota Vikings with the 20th overall draft pick in the 2004 NFL draft. Udeze overcame a knee injury to earn his way into the starting lineup in 2006 and 2007.
But then, in the early weeks of the 2008 calendar year, Udeze began struggling with migraine headaches. While visiting with his then-wife’s family, Udeze found the pain so disabling that he went to a Boise-area hospital to get checked out. After going through a series of tests, Udeze sat in the waiting room for a full hour before doctors summonsed him.
“When I was greeted by doctors the second time around,” he said this week, “there were two other people, and they were oncologists.”
What they told Udeze was that his white-cell blood count, which had previously been within the normal range of 4,000 to 12,000, had swelled to 280,000. Yes … two-hundred eighty thousand.
“At that point, I’m still not realizing what’s going on,” Udeze said this week. “They told me: ‘You have a very aggressive form of leukemia. It needs to be treated immediately.’ I thought they had made a mistake; I must have been in some form of denial.”
There was the initial why-me wrestling match inside his own head.
Haven’t I lived a good life?
Aren’t I in better shape than 99 percent of the population?
Wasn’t my football career just about to take off?
Why me? Why now? WHY ME?
“For the life of me, I didn’t understand, when I first was diagnosed, why my goals and my plans were cut short,” he said this week.
Upon returning to Minnesota, Udeze immediately put his NFL career on hold and began chemotherapy. Doctors told him that his mental approach to the disease would be the most important factor in his ability to beat it. And never, not one single time, did Udeze think he might not beat it.
Then came the 60-day hospital stay, where he slowly lost almost all the muscle he’d worked so hard to put on.
“Physically, the hardest part was watching my body start to deteriorate,” he said. “You can’t work out, so my only physical activity was taking a shower and moving from the couch to the bathroom, then back to the couch.”
For most 25-year-olds, it was enough to break a man’s will. But Udeze refused to give up.
“It’s all a part of the process,” he said this week. “To say that my experience was harsh? I can’t say that. I was diagnosed in February, and I had a bone marrow transplant that same year in July. That’s six months, exactly to the day, from the time I was diagnosed. I hear of people going through it for years. So I have no complaints.”
He vowed to return to football — and a year after receiving the transplant, Udeze did just that. He reported for a Vikings minicamp, hoping that he’d shake off the rust and be ready for the 2009 season.
But after only 26 practice snaps, Udeze knew it was over. A condition called peripheral neuropathy, which had caused his feet to often feel like cinderblocks, made it impossible for Udeze to move like he used to.
On July 29, 2009, at the age of 26, Udeze officially retired from football.
“When I went into this,” he said this week, “I said: ‘There is no way I’m going to be a charity case. People aren’t going to look at me and feel sorry for me. There’s no way I’m going to come back and play at this level unless I’m playing better or at the same level as I was when I left.’
“And when I made that decision, it was easy for me to walk away from football because I realized, as much as I loved the game, there’s a lot more to life than just football.”
But football is one of Udeze’s favorite things in life, and so he wanted to find a way to stay in the game. With NFL and college training camps about to begin, there were very few — if any — opportunities to join a coaching staff. He made calls to new UW head coach Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Nick Holt, both of whom knew Udeze well from their days at USC, and they offered him a position as an assistant strength coach. He’s not recognized or compenstated as a member of the official coaching staff, but Udeze does get to work with the coaches and players and be at the games.
Shortly after hiring Udeze in August 2009, Sarkisian said: “He brings motivation, experience and he’s overcome a lot.”
Now Udeze enjoys being a role model — not only to the UW players but also to young children.
“When I see kids, I get really emotional,” he said. “They don’t know what life’s like; they haven’t been through any of the trials and ups and downs of life yet.
“I feel like I was more prepared than anybody else my age to come into this (battle against cancer), whether it was from football or watching my mom struggle as a single parent. Everything around me just helped me for that battle.”
And this battle seems to have come with a happy ending.
Udeze says he’s been cancer-free since the marrow transplant. He’s also secure financially, thanks again to his brother, who urged Udeze to take out an insurance policy that — coincidentally — came only a couple of weeks before he was diagnosed. (The NFL, Udeze said, has not been as helpful in terms of helping to cover his medical expenses.)
And now Udeze gets to stand out on a football field again. There are still times when the peripheral neuropathy makes his feet hurt. But he can still run and do exercise — just not the kind that involves putting on a helmet and pads.
“I didn’t even go to this school, but every time I’m out here I want to put on my pads,” he said while standing on the turf at Husky Stadium. “Not to prove a point, but I want to show (the players) how to do it. That’s why I put on pads. I feel like I was a technician at what I did.”
After returning to USC to earn his degree in sociology last spring, Udeze hopes to one day become a full-time assistant coach. But for now, he’s happy just being around the game again.
“I honestly felt, once I was diagnosed, that I would be all right,” he said. “I never had a bad day thinking: this might be my last chapter. No, I knew I would get past this.
“Me being in the NFL and trying to make a return, that gave me something to reach for and to shoot for. It was just unfortunate that I didn’t get to do it, but I really tried. That’s one thing I want people not to think about me: that I was a quitter. Because I’ve never quit anything in my life.”
Standing out on the turf at Husky Stadium, Udeze hasn’t given up on his football dream. Maybe his coaching career will take him to places that he went as a player. Maybe it won’t.
Either way, he’s not giving up. Kenechi Udeze doesn’t know how to give up.