In 2013, defensive tackle Amobi Okoye was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune syndrome called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. Now he is working hard to make a comeback to the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys.
"It’s kind of like an inflammation in the brain receptors. So it’s a very, very, rare illness that they couldn’t diagnose at first," Okoye told KTCK-AM 1310 Thursday. "It was very uncommon. I was like the first male to have it. It was only found in females and young children, so that’s why they couldn’t diagnose it in my case and then they found it was this and treated it as this."
After spending training camp watching from the sidelines on the non-football illness list, working on private conditioning with coaches, Okoye is just now getting back to playing football after contracting the rare disease 17 months ago. During Okoye’s treatment, he also dealt with going into a coma, leaving him with a 145-day gap in his memory, losing 78 pounds off his 6-foot-2 frame.
"Well, what I remember from that was I was talking to one of the nurses. I was, like, arguing with her that it was March 15, and she was like, ‘I’m sorry it’s actually August 7.’ I didn’t want to believe her," Okoye said about waking up from the coma. "I asked everybody in the room, ‘Is it really August 7?’ and I answered my phone, which I hadn’t seen in forever, and it said August 7. ‘Wow. It’s really August 7.’ "
Making a full recovery from such an unusual disease, Okoye knows he is lucky to be alive.
"I’m pretty much a walking miracle," Okoye said. "I’m a sign post. I went to heaven and God told me to come back and tell people they need to act read.
"Initially, it didn’t really hit me. I just didn’t understand exactly what happened, but after a while, it started really dawning on me on me like, ‘Wow, I went through something very, very deadly and serious.’ So now I’m definitely more cautious and more aware of what happened to me. But the initial stages of it. Like the first month or so it didn’t really hit me of what happened to me."
Despite playing at such a demanding position on the defensive line, where head injuries are especially common, Okoye was assured his condition had nothing to do with playing the game.
"Well, the crazy thing about it is it wasn’t football-related at all," Okoye said. "It’s a rare, rare illness, it’s not like having a concussion of anything like that, it’s just related to the brain, but it wasn’t football related. You have to think about football and think about contact because that’s just the brain, but it didn’t happen from football."
The youngest player ever taken in the first round of the draft in 2007 at just 19 years old by the Houston Texans, the Nigerian-born Okoye is taking his comeback to professional football day-to-day. He is unsure if he will be able to play in the Cowboys’ final two preseason games or at the start of the regular season.
"We don’t know. We’re just taking things on a daily basis right now and things are looking positive," Okoye said. "As things progress, we’ll just continue to push it and see how things go."
Okoye, who is back to his NFL-playing weight after the hiatus, is entering his seventh season in the league. Drafted by the Texans, playing in Houston until he was cut in 2011, he has also played for the Bears and Buccaneers before his sickness. He signed a two-year deal with the Cowboys in May.