EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Kenechi Udeze’s NFL career ended too soon when the former Minnesota Vikings’ first-round draft pick was diagnosed with leukemia in 2008. Now, Udeze is hoping his former team can give him a boost in his new career, back in the NFL.
Udeze, the popular former defensive end who was picked No. 20 overall in the 2004 draft, is back with Minnesota, helping the defensive line as a coaching intern, of sorts. Udeze is one of six coaches with the team through training camp as part of the Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship program.
“Coaching is a passion of mine, and it’s something that I definitely want to do for a very long time,” Udeze said Tuesday, later adding: “I just want to stay in it. My passion is coaching defensive line, so at some point, that’s what my path is, I hope, directed toward.”
Udeze, 30, started 47 of his 51 games in four seasons with the Vikings, finishing with 117 tackles, 11 sacks and two forced fumbles in his career. But he was struck with an acute form of leukemia in 2008 and later received a life-saving bone marrow transplant from his brother. Udeze worked himself back into playing shape, but ultimately had to end his career in 2009 because of a side effect from the transfusion that affected the nervous system and caused serious problems with his feet.
Udeze, who is nearing the five-year anniversary of his bone marrow transplant, said he is feeling good and the leukemia is still in remission.
“The only thing I’ve got to worry about is my feet giving me an issue,” Udeze said. “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 said the nerve issue, neuropathy, “stopped everything” when it came to his playing career. He started feeling the effects in his feet days after the transplant, an issue that still affects him.
“My feet started feeling like cement, and they never rebounded,” Udeze said.
So the former Southern Cal star started working on a career in coaching. He spent three seasons as an assistant strength coach at the University of Washington under one of his former college coaches, Steve Sarkisian, and was with the Seattle Seahawks and former coach Pete Carroll last year as a coaching intern. Udeze called last season with Seattle his most “influential year” and said it helped him to see the game from the coaching side.
He was pleased to get this chance with his first NFL team.
“Really, 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,” Udeze said, noting the ability to work with head coach Leslie Frazier, defensive line coach Brendan Daly, tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson and receivers coach George Stewart. “They really welcomed me and make me feel really, really important. I can tell that they are appreciative of me being back in the building.”
While Minnesota has had other familiar faces around the past two weeks for OTAs, such as former quarterback Jeff George and former tight end Richard Angulo — who is taking part in the fellowship program — Udeze has been inspiring just by his presence.
“When I saw him in meetings yesterday, my face lit up just to see him back here in the building,” running back Adrian Peterson, who played with Udeze his first two years in the league. “And just knowing everything he went through, just tells you about his character and how strong and tough (he is), (and his) 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.”
Frazier, who was the Vikings’ defensive coordinator for Udeze’s final two seasons, recalled visiting Udeze in the hospital.
“Seeing what he was going through, every time I see it, I’m just amazed,” Frazier said. “It’s almost like seeing a walking miracle because at that time when I was visiting the hospital it was a concern about 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 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. It’s an inspiration to our entire organization.”
Udeze wants to help while he is here too. He spent Tuesday’s practice with Daly and the defensive line and even pulled a few players aside for additional instruction.
“Oh, 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.”