Kenechi Udeze returns to Vikings on coaching fellowship: 'I love it'
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Kenechi Udeze's feet still don't feel right.
They haven't felt right since he underwent the bone marrow transplant that saved his life in the summer of 2008, months after he'd been diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia.
Four days after the transplant from his brother, Thomas Barnes, Udeze's feet "started feeling like cement and never rebounded," he said on Tuesday. He had nerve damage. Udeze didn't know it then, but an NFL career that began as a first-round draft pick was over after four seasons.
Yet Udeze offers no other complaints as he approaches the five-year anniversary of the transplant. He's still in football and, as of this week, back with the team that drafted him, beginning a Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship with the Minnesota Vikings.
"I feel great," Udeze said after Tuesday's open organized team activity practice. "The only thing I've got to worry about is my feet giving me and issue, and that's it. So, I really lucked out throughout the whole thing. Yeah, I lost my career. But I'm still alive and I'm still here."
Udeze wasn't out of football long after he ended his comeback attempt and retired before the Vikings' training camp in 2009, citing side effects from his treatment -- including neuropathy in his feet caused by chemotherapy.
He spent three seasons as an assistant strength and coach at the University of Washington under Steve Sarkisian, who was an assistant at the University of Southern California when Udeze starred there from 2001 to '03.
Last year, Udeze returned to the NFL as a coaching intern working with the Seattle Seahawks' defensive line under another former USC coach, Pete Carroll. He spent "my most influential year" there, staying with the team through January's Senior Bowl, and decided he'd found his calling.
"Coaching is a passion of mine and something that I definitely want to do for a very long time," Udeze said.
So, Udeze got in touch with the Vikings, who made him one of their minority coaching fellows, along with former teammate Richard Angulo and several others who will be with the team through the second preseason game in August.
Coach Leslie Frazier was in his first year as the Vikings' defensive coordinator in 2007, when the former No. 20 overall pick had probably the best of his often disappointing four seasons -- then found out in February he'd been diagnosed with the leukemia.
"I remember visiting him in the hospital and seeing what he was going through," Frazier said on Tuesday. "Every time I see him, I'm just amazed. It's almost like seeing a walking miracle, because at that time, when I was visiting him in the hospital, it was a concern about whether or not he survived much longer.
"To see him today, healthy, moving around real well, communicating, talking -- it's an inspiration. If you were someone that may be facing adversity, 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. He continued to battle, and it's great to have him around."
Still only 30 years old, Udeze watched closely and clapped his hands as the Vikings' defensive line went through drills on Tuesday. After practice, he pulled aside two undrafted rookies, Marquis Jackson and Collins Ukwu, for some additional technique work.
"I love it," Udeze said. "This game is about knowledge, putting it on tape and putting it on the field. So, when I get an opportunity to give a player 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 hints or identifying a certain personnel, then I definitely wouldn't hesitate to give them that."
He said the coaches he knew from his playing days -- including Frazier, defensive line coach Brendan Daly, tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson, receivers coach George Stewart -- welcomed him and "make me feel really, really important. I can tell that they are appreciative of me being back in the building."
Had he not undergone the bone marrow transplant, Udeze faced a five-year survival rate of only 40%, according to The Marrow Foundation. Thanks in large part to his brother, who ended up being a perfect match as a donor, Udeze will reach five years next month.
"It put things into perspective, but more importantly, it opened my eyes to a lot of things," Udeze said. "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 on my five-year anniversary here 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 helped me so much with the recovery. To say that I only suffer from nerve damage, that's a blessing, it's really a blessing."
Put pads and a helmet on Udeze, and he'd still look the part of an NFL player. Asked by a reporter if he could still play, though, Udeze smiled and said firmly there's "nothing left in the tank."
The passion remains, though. Udeze has no plans and no job lined up beyond his fellowship with the Vikings, but he hopes to get a chance to coach a defensive line on his own somewhere soon.
In the meantime, he'll try to help -- and maybe even inspire -- some of the same Vikings players he once played alongside.
"My face lit up to see him back here in the building and knowing everything he's gone through," said Vikings halfback Adrian Peterson, a rookie during Udeze's final season in 2007.
"It tells you about his parents and how strong, tough and perseverance ... to bounce back and not let things you are going through hold you down. He's the perfect example of that, it's motivating. Especially for me and guys here who know what he's been through."