Udeze returns (as coach) after beating cancer

Kenechi Udeze during his playing days

Former Vikings first-round draft pick Kenechi Udeze was back on the practice fields of Winter Park after beating cancer almost five years ago. This time, he was a coaching fellow as leukemia ended his playing career.

It's been almost five years since Kenechi Udeze was decked out in Vikings garb and walking the practice fields of Winter Park in a formal team capacity.

In July 2008, Udeze was placed on injured reserve by the Vikings as he was attempting to recover from a diagnosis of leukemia. He visited his teammates at their June minicamp and, at the time, many of his coaches and teammates didn't know if he would survive.

Five years later, not only was Udeze back on the fields at Winter Park, but was looking amazingly healthy for someone who had been given what many thought was a death sentence. Instead it has become a life sentence and he plans on living it to its fullest.

Udeze is working with the Vikings this week as part of the Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship Program. Aside from Udeze, the other coaches taking part in the fellowship program are Kelvin Bell (special teams, University of Iowa), Peter Davila (outside linebackers, Otterbein University in Ohio) Chadwick Germany (offensive coordinator, Southern University), Brandon Lynch (defensive backs, Northern Iowa) and former Viking Richard Angulo (offensive line, Trinity International University). Walsh was known for hiring minority coaches and giving them their start, including former Vikings head Dennis Green.

The genesis of the program is to give coaches exposure to the NFL in a reciprocity-type situation – teams give the coaches a chance and, in turn, they get to see what they bring to the table and it gets them recognized in NFL circles. While they may not end up with the team, as coaches disperse throughout the league, they will keep those coaches in mind when they have job openings. Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier has embraced the program. Just as players try to make the most of their opportunities, Frazier did that in coaching after his NFL career.

Even before he received his leukemia diagnosis, Udeze believed he would have a future in coaching after his playing days were over. His connection to his alma mater USC got that ball rolling. In 2010, former Trojans assistant coach Steve Sarkisian brought Udeze into the coaching profession as an assistant strength and conditioning coach at the University of Washington. In 2012, his former USC head coach Pete Carroll brought Udeze to the Seattle Seahawks as an assistant defensive line coach. It was the combination of those two opportunities that inspired Udeze to believe he will have a long football career, just not one he initially intended to start so soon.

"Coaching is a passion of mine and it's something that I definitely want to do for a very long time," Udeze said. "It was always going to be amazing working with any organization, especially the one that drafted you and took an interest in you at a very young age, but it felt good just because I feel like I owe this organization so much more because it was cut short. To still be around guys like Coach Frazier, Brendan Daly (defensive line), Coach (Jimmie) Johnson (tight ends) and Stew (George Stewart, wide receivers) having my back, they really welcomed me and make me feel really important. I can tell that they are appreciative of me being back in the building."

Udeze's final season with the Vikings was in 2007. It was Frazier's first year on the coaching staff. When he first got the news that not only was Udeze's playing career over, but that his life was hanging in the balance, the satisfaction he felt over seeing Udeze looking in peak condition and looking to a post-leukemia future with long-term plans was obvious when he spoke to the matter at his Tuesday press conference.

"When you know the story and knowing that he has recovered from leukemia – I remember visiting him in the hospital and seeing what he was going through – every time I see him I'm amazed," Frazier said. "It's almost like seeing a walking miracle because, at that time when I was visiting him in the hospital, it was a concern whether or not he would survive much longer. To see him today healthy, moving around real well, communicating, talking, it's just an inspiration. If you're someone that may be facing adversity and going through a tough time, you look at a guy like Udeze and you say, ‘You know what, there's hope.' He never gave up and continued to battle and it's great to have him around. It's an inspiration to our entire organization."

When Udeze got the dire news back in 2008, it unexpectedly put him on a life timetable that looked to be perilously short. While he continues in his recovery from the disease, in hindsight, the moment was a lightning bolt of clarity for the what Udeze would do with what remained of his life.

"It put things into perspective, but more importantly it opened my eyes to a lot of things," Udeze said. "I'm not saying football was never important. It always and forever will be my passion and something that I'll never lose sight of, but coming up here on my five-year anniversary in July, I have a lot to be thankful for. I hear all these stories about other people having to endure for years and years. I went through it for six months, and I was just fortunate enough that my physical health and the state that I went in (to rehab with) helped me so much with the recovery. But to say that I only suffered from nerve damage, that's a blessing. It's really a blessing."

Just as Frazier's first season with the Vikings was Udeze's last, it was also the first season for another former first-round draft. As a well-liked teammate, Udeze helped ease the transition for Adrian Peterson. When Udeze was diagnosed with leukemia, Peterson took the news hard. To see the strides Udeze has made in his recovery brought the rehab A.P. went through due to a career-threatening knee injury into better perspective.

"It makes you feel real good," Peterson said. "When I saw him in meetings yesterday, my face lit up just to see him back here in the building. Knowing everything he went through just tells you about his character and how strong and tough, perseverance and resilience being able to bounce back and not let things that you're going through hold you down. He's a perfect example of that. It's motivating, especially for me and the guys here that know what he's been there."

The Vikings aren't just paying lip-service to having Udeze coaching up the young defensive linemen trying to make a roster. Helping teach young players the nuances and little things that can make a world of difference on the field is something Udeze has taken to like a duck (not an Oregon Duck) to water.

"I love it," Udeze said. "The thing is, this game is about knowledge – putting it on tape, putting it on the field. So when I get that opportunity to give any kind of insight on the game, it really makes me feel good. Because I can't play anymore, but if I can give anybody any kind of tips or answer or identifying a certain personnel, I definitely wouldn't hesitate to give them that."

As Udeze walked the practice fields, it almost seemed to turn back the clock to 2007 when he was in the early stages of his NFL career. He looks like he can still get the job done, but, while his recovery has brought back some of his strength, he's the first to admit it took the NFL out of him.

"My days are done," Udeze said. "Trust me, there's nothing left in the tank. I still suffer from nerve damage (in my feet), so that literally stopped everything."

Five years ago, coaches, teammates and fans were feeling sorry for Udeze. Five years later, he's providing inspiration to those same people.


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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