Kenechi Udeze’s comeback from leukemia served as an inspiration to his Minnesota Vikings teammates.
The announcement of his retirement will not diminish that.
Udeze retired on Thursday, saying his leukemia is still in remission but the side effects from the treatments for the disease were making it too difficult to continue the rigors of life in the NFL.
“I would like to thank the Wilf family and the Minnesota Vikings organization for their support,” Udeze said in a prepared statement. “I would also like to thank my fans, friends and family for supporting me through everything. Last but not least, I would like to thank all of the medical professionals and staff in Minnesota who worked tirelessly to give me a second chance at life. God bless.”
Minnesota’s first-round draft pick in 2004, Udeze was a starter for four years and tied for the team lead with five sacks in 2007. In his career, Udeze played 51 games, with 11 sacks and 117 total tackles.
“He hates to let it go and I hate for him to let it go,” coach Brad Childress said. “But it’s really best for him.”
That he made it this close to training camp—the Vikings hold their first practice on Friday—is a remarkable achievement.
He was diagnosed in February 2008 with the disease, which is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Udeze missed all of last season while dealing with his condition and the Vikings, in a classy move, paid him while he was in recovery.
After a marrow transplant from his brother more than a year ago, Udeze started working out on the campus of his alma mater USC in hopes of making a comeback.
“I’d be lying if I said it was easy,” Udeze said in May. “There was never an easy point. The first time I went back to USC and started working out with the fellas, I fell. I took two steps and I fell.”
Eventually he worked his way back into good enough condition to make a go of it at the minicamps. He showed up at the team’s facilities looking much like the player he was before he became sick. With a big smile and a chiseled physique, Udeze took 26 snaps during the weekend and spoke of what it meant for him to be back on the field after having been through so much.
The entire team rallied around the popular defensive end who had been through so much. Udeze participated throughout the minicamp, but struggled with neuropathy in his feet, a side effect of chemotherapy.
“When it sets in, your feet start getting really numb and really sensitive, and it’s really hard to (move), especially at the level that we’re at out here,” Udeze said then.
Childress said that was eventually what kept Udeze from coming to training camp. The numbness prevented Udeze from being able to plant firmly and create any burst up the field after the snap.
“He did all that stuff to put himself in a position, but his feet kind of have betrayed him, and everything goes through the feet,” Childress said Thursday. “He had no way of knowing until he went out there and posted on it and tried.”
It took quite some time for Udeze to come to terms with the fact that he had played his last snap. Over the past several weeks he has spoken with teammates and coaches while contemplating retirement, a tough pill to swallow for a proud 26-year-old whose optimistic view of leukemia as “nothing worse than the common cold” helped get him through.
“He’s so worried about being a quitter,” Childress said. “And just the thing that he’s overcome already in his young life to be alive and thriving, (it) took him a while to come to grips with that.”
But Childress said this is not the end, for Udeze, but the beginning. He took some classes at USC while rehabilitating and expects to still be around the Vikings in the future.
“He’s alive and living and thriving,” Childress said. “Just wish him well and he’s not going to be a stranger.”