Kenechi Udeze (Craig Lassig/AP)
Vikings defensive end Kenechi Udeze participated fully in Thursday’s organized team activities after spending last year undergoing chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant since being diagnosed with leukemia in February 2008. His presence on the practice field was a welcome site.
Of all the sights and sounds of Thursday’s OTA session for the Vikings, one sight that many fans, players and coaches thought they might never see took place, as defensive end Kenechi Udeze practiced for the first time since being diagnosed with leukemia a little more than a year ago.
At this time last year, some believed Udeze had seen his last moment in a Vikings uniform, but that changed Thursday as he took to the practice field. It was enough to get head coach Brad Childress shaking his head in disbelief.
“It’s inspiring,” Childress said. “When you talk about a guy that 365 days ago was in the middle of intensive chemotherapy, fighting for his life. To put that in perspective, that was even before he could be considered for a bone marrow transplant. I mean, to be A: Alive. I don’t profess to be an oncologist, but to be playing professional football, back on the field, it kind of defies description. We know of one other professional athlete that had that form of cancer, I think it was a tennis player that got back playing. I don’t know where (Udeze) will go. I know he doesn’t know either. But I know how hard he’s worked to get back to this spot. He’s always maintained that it was nothing more than a common cold.”
There were some concerns that Udeze wouldn’t be able to handle a full practice workload, but Childress said there weren’t any limits put on what he could or couldn’t do in practice and that Udeze gave his all in every drill. Childress said they didn’t hold back or place restrictions on him.
“Obviously, he’s had more blood drawn and physicals and doctors – we did some things with him and the medical staff,” Childress said. “We just wanted to knock the rust off. He wasn’t going to take every rep of every practice. It was just a matter of getting back in and doing football-related things. While he has done that at USC when he was getting his degree, you’re not competing with guys across from you, putting those things into play. We didn’t limit him at all.”
Childress added that once contact practices begin, there won’t be restrictions placed on what Udeze can or can’t do. If his comeback is going to be complete, there will have to be some hitting, and both Udeze and the Vikings coaching staff realize that it will be coming. While the natural inclination is to be concerned about Udeze’s health, Childress said they can’t let those concerns overwhelm them.
“I think we always remind ourselves that he’s not a hemophiliac,” Childress said. “We’re not worried about getting bruised, or grabbed, or kicked, or anything like that. It’s just the physical nature of football and he’s passed every check and balance to date.”
The future for Udeze is far from assured, since coming back from such a medical diagnosis is a long shot at best. Childress said he isn’t making predictions whether Udeze can make the full comeback to play defensive end for the Vikings this season. His comeback to this point has been amazing and he isn’t ruling out the possibility of a full comeback.
“I think time will tell,” Childress said of the long-term prognosis. “Just knowing how he sets his mind to things, I know he’ll set the bar. It’s hard for me to be clairvoyant.”
Will Udeze be able to come all the way back from his cancer diagnosis to a successful return to the NFL? He was unavailable to the media after Thursday’s practice, but Childress said he is ready to give it his best shot and live up to the reputation that made him a first-round draft choice in the NFL.
“I spent time with him out at USC’s workout and they had how many guys drafted in the first round?” Childress said. “He was as impressive looking a physical athlete at that workout as there was. He has done a great job. We are talking about going from no cardiovascular, nothing, no lifting weights. I don’t know how many of you people have squatted before and know what that feels like a few days later, but just to hear the story about him walking into a class at USC and letting himself down into a seat and groaning, ‘Ugh,’ you know, because his legs were (tired). From that spot 365 days ago till right now, it’s hard to believe it.”