NFL: Former Viking Kenechi Udeze keeps busy in fight against cancer
By Judd Zulgad
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Kenechi Udeze’s schedule might be more hectic these days than it was during his four seasons with the Vikings. He serves as assistant strength and conditioning coach at the University of Washington, is close to getting his degree in sociology, and has devoted time to working with charities that help raise money for cancer research.
It’s that cause — one that is extremely personal to Udeze — that will bring him back to Minnesota next month for the first time since he retired from the NFL last summer. Udeze will serve as the guest speaker for the 32nd Fools Five Road Race, which will be held on April 11 in the southeastern Minnesota town of Lewiston.
“I’m always going to be obliged to helping the cause,” he said. “I feel like honestly it’s a responsibility of mine to do that. I’m going to be there working with the Livestrong Foundation. I’m really trying to do the best to bring more awareness and to hopefully one day finding a cure for this disease.”
A first-round draft pick by the Vikings in 2004, Udeze was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in February 2008. He had a bone marrow transplant that summer and missed the entire season. Udeze put in countless hours in an attempt to return in 2009 and took part in portions of the Vikings’ offseason program. However, he soon realized that foot pain caused by peripheral neuropathy from chemotherapy was going to be too much to overcome.
Following his retirement, Udeze made one appearance at training camp in Mankato to see old friends and then got on with the rest of his life.
During an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, he said he watched every Vikings game last season and still talks to some former teammates. “I’m doing great,” said Udeze, who turned 27 on March 5. “Everything has just been kind of taking its course and I’m enjoying what I’m doing now. I can honestly say I’m happier doing what I’m doing now than I ever was playing professional football.”
Udeze has embraced his job working for Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian, who spent seven seasons as an assistant at Southern Cal and got to know Udeze when the defensive end was playing for the Trojans. Udeze said working in the strength and conditioning end of things is a good fit for him because of how much time he spent in the weight room at Southern Cal.
He also is working with the defensive line. “When I get my degree here hopefully I can be promoted to a defensive line position because that’s something that I would like to be here in the near future,” he said.
None of this is to say Udeze doesn’t miss playing football. He readily admits that, but he also said, “one thing I think a lot of people don’t come to grips with is reality,” and the reality was he knew he could not continue his career.
“I’m always going to want to play football, that’s something that I honestly fell in love with at a very young age and if I had my way I’d still be playing right now,” he said. “(But) neuropathy is nerve damage and after a certain point your nerves can only get so much better and that’s pretty much where you’re going to be for the rest of your life. Honestly, if I felt I could go out there and compete with some the best athletes in the world then I would do it. But I just felt like not only would I be a liability, I wouldn’t be the kind of player that I would feel comfortable being.”
Udeze issued a statement when he retired but did not address the media. He says now that as training camp approached in late July he knew wasn’t going to be ready. “I wasn’t going to put myself out there and be a charity case where people felt bad for me,” Udeze said. “I didn’t want to be that guy.”
Just as importantly, Udeze realized he could deliver the message about his battle against cancer even if he wasn’t playing.
He sounded just as enthusiastic talking about the Fools Five Road Race as he did discussing football, running down a list of events that includes a silent and live auction on April 9 and a Bone Marrow donor registry drive on April 11. (Go to foolsfive.org for more information.) It was Udeze’s brother, Thomas Barnes, who proved to be a 100 percent match for the bone-marrow transplant that helped Udeze get on the road to recovery.
Udeze remains extremely grateful to his brother and to Vikings owner Zygi Wilf for what they did for him during the roughest period of his life. The Vikings paid Udeze during the 2008 season when he could not play.
“To this day, I’m still very thankful for what the Wilf family did in respecting my contract and seeing that I’d get the best help possible through this whole situation,” Udeze said. “I really respect the fact that he gave me that much. I really appreciate that. I thank the Wilf family and the whole Vikings organization for supporting me probably during the roughest time of my life.”