Kenechi Udeze (Tom Dahlin/Viking Update)
Kenechi Udeze fought through emotions and neuropathy to participate in offseason workouts after a year-long battle with leukemia, but he was officially placed on the Vikings’ reserve/retired list before training camp opened.
Kenechi Udeze has retired.
The 2004 first-round pick (20th overall) of the Minnesota Vikings was diagnosed with a form of leukemia, a cancer of the blood, in February 2008 and was forced to miss last season as he received chemotherapy and a blood transfusion.
The Vikings opted to pay his base salary of $807,000 anyway, and earlier this year he was given a fairly clean bill of health and allowed to return to practices and workouts.
“It feels really good, just more or less being around the fellas again,” Udeze said in late May after an offseason practice. “I still have a couple things I need to work out amongst my own body, but for the most part I'm feeling pretty good.”
Udeze said he wasn’t born and raised to believe he wouldn’t make it back and oftentimes responded to questions about that possibility with a bit of disgust. Vikings coach Brad Childress said Udeze consistently treated the disease as a common cold and maintained a positive attitude throughout the dark days of his battle.
“I've had great coaches throughout my life and they just instilled in me everything I needed to get through this,” Udeze said then. “Besides that, coming from a great family, my mom always being the provider and the force behind our family. Then my older brother (Thomas Barnes, who was Udeze’s bone marrow donor), who you guys already know about. I've been training for this my whole life. I'm doing good.”
Udeze said in May that “of course” he’d be ready for training camp, but he wasn’t trying to underplay the struggles he had been through.
“I'd be lying if I said it was easy. There was never an easy point. The first time I went back to USC and started working out with the fellas, I fell,” he said. “I took two steps and I fell. That's the only thing that I'm really suffering from. That's why I really can't complain about much. I took small steps at first and, to where I am now, I can't complain.
“My brother said, 'For neuropathy (an abnormality of the nerves) to be the only thing that's really slowing you down, you really have a lot to be thankful for.’ I just wish it would kind of hurry up and take a leave of absence. It's going to be tough and I'm going to get through it.”
For now, however, he has been placed on the reserve/retired list.
It’s a far cry from where he was in 2007 before the diagnosis. Then, he tied for the team lead and tied a career high with five sacks, adding 53 tackles, including five for a loss, 30 quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery that he returned for 37 yards as he was part of the league’s leading run defense.
That was the climax to his pro career after a stellar college performance at USC.
One of the nation's premier defensive ends in 2003, Udeze guided the Trojans to a share of the national title in his final season there as the leader of what was regarded to be the premier defensive line in college football. There, he was a dominating pass rusher who combined size, speed and strength to defeat double-team coverage. He was a three-year starter (36 of 37 games), recorded 135 tackles (94 solos) with 28 sacks for minus-185 yards, 51 stops for losses of 245 yards, a school career-record 14 forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, an interception, five pass deflections and two blocked kicks.
Doctors recommended Udeze take a year off after his bone marrow transplant, but he said he’s “not like other people.”
“I can't take a day off. I can't take a second off,” he said in May. “I'm still miles away from where I was before compared to (teammates) out here. … I'm not in the same playing field now. But that's what I'm striving to and that's what I'm working to. Until today, until the first game, that's what I'm getting to.”
In Nigerian, Kenechi means "God's love will always be with me." In what is sure to be an emotionally trying time, the thoughts of Vikings fans are undoubtedly with him as well.