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|Minnesota Vikings defensive end Kenechi Udeze is making the long journey back from leukemia and is hoping to make the 53-man roster. |
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- His leukemia was in remission. Doctors had given him permission, albeit grudgingly, to embark on an NFL comeback. So Kenechi Udeze lined up to run this winter with a group of athletes near his home in Los Angeles.
He wasn't prepared for what happened next.
"I took two steps," Udeze said. "And I fell."
Neuropathy, a debilitating side effect of chemotherapy, "made my feet feel like they were in concrete," he said. "It was hard just to get them to move."
Yes, Udeze began this journey from the most humbling of places: flat on the ground. He got up, learned to push through numbness in his feet and worked himself into good-enough shape to participate in Minnesota's minicamp last weekend. Sixteen months after being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), Udeze made it through all four practices and remains on track in his improbable voyage toward an NFL return.
He is far removed from his peak physical condition, and his former position has been filled. But with the quiet confidence that has marked his fight with leukemia, Udeze vowed to be ready for training camp and to make the Vikings' 53-man roster.
"There's only one more thing to do and that's to keep going," he said. "I can't take a day off. I can't take a second off. I'm still miles away from where I was before, compared to other guys out here. ... I'm not in the same playing field now. But that's what I'm striving to do. That's what I'm working to do."
You might recall we profiled Udeze last June as he wrapped up chemotherapy and prepared to undergo a bone-marrow transplant from his brother, Thomas Barnes. He spent three weeks in the hospital and the next 100 days wearing a mask to prevent infection. When we last visited with him in November, Udeze was beginning to attend Vikings home games -- where he watched from a suite to limit exposure and give him a place to rest.
Udeze went on to spend a good portion of the winter in Los Angeles, his hometown. He took a full semester's courseload toward his sociology degree at USC, leaving him one class short of a diploma, and began working out with a long-term goal of being fully rehabilitated in time for training camp.
Udeze has been in remission since April 2008, but his doctors at the University of Minnesota urged him to take a second year off from football. Limiting physical activity for a full year after bone-marrow transplant is the typical medical course, but Udeze said: "I'm not like everybody else."
Indeed. And so I wonder how many people on the Vikings' practice field last weekend grasped how rare the experience was. Did they know Udeze had only a 25 percent chance of finding a bone-marrow match within his family? Would they have known the five-year survival rate of people who can't find a match (40 percent)? How many knew Udeze was so weak after surgery that he often took five naps a day?
"I don't believe that the younger guys have a complete grasp or understanding of what a difficult journey the last year and three or four months have been," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "I don't think they possibly could."
Once you get past Udeze's medical improvement, however, you realize he faces a challenge to make the Vikings' regular-season roster. You figure at least three defensive ends are locks to earn roster spots ahead of him -- Jared Allen, Ray Edwards and Brian Robison -- and there is no telling how the team will have to configure its depth chart to compensate for the possible suspensions of defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams.
There is also the simple fact that no one knows how long it will take Udeze's body to bounce back fully from the disease. It's one thing to achieve remission and regain health. It's another to establish professional-level conditioning. His biggest obstacle is the neuropathy, which makes his feet feel numb on some occasions and sensitive on others.
"That's the only thing that I'm really suffering from," he said. "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 to be the only thing that's 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 [but] I'm going to get through it."
No one is betting against him. Udeze once lost 100 pounds to earn a starting job at USC, and he is approaching this challenge with a similarly ferocious mindset.
"From the standpoint of being a contributing member of this football team," Childress said, "he wants that desperately. I think he certainly has attacked it that way after he attacked his illness. To be able to put himself back into a position [to play] speaks volumes to him."