Cowboys’ Okoye returns to practice after battling rare brain disease

IRVING, Texas — For someone who spent three months in a coma, Amobi Okoye’s excitement about practicing football again exhibited itself in appropriate fashion.

"It was hard to sleep last night," said Okoye, a defensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys. "Just now getting that first practice out of the way feels good."

 Okoye has spent the last 17 months out of football because of anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a disease that causes seizures and brain inflammation. In addition to the medically-induced coma, Okoye experienced a 145-day memory gap and 78-pound weight loss.

On Thursday, he practiced in pads for the first first time since he began bat-tling the disease.

"A lot of contact, it felt good," Okoye described his first full practice. "As a defensive lineman, that’s what you like to do is contact."

Okoye is a six-year NFL veteran who spent time with the Texans and Bears. The Cowboys signed him in May and placed him on the reserve/non-football inju-ry list. Now that he’s begun practicing, the Cowboys have 21 days to activate him, release him or keep him on the reserve list for the rest of the season.

Okoye said he’s not returning to football with any expectations about playing in a game soon.

"To be honest with you, after the year that I went through, you never know what the heck is going to happen later," Okoye said. "I’m just fortunate and blessed to be where I am."

Okoye said sometimes it felt "normal" to be back on the practice field, and other times it felt "weird." He has not played in a game since December 2012.

Few people will know what Okoye has gone through just so he can put a hel-met and shoulder pads on again.

"It’s been real tough, just knowing the fact that you may not actually get to play anymore," Okoye said. "Having that ability to do it now is just priceless."

Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire