(First in a two-part series.)
BKU is back.
And just as his first time coming to USC had a special one-of-a-kind story behind it, so does the most recent return of Kenechi Udeze to Trojan football.
He'll be back again, working with Ivan Lewis in the strength and conditioning program, something BKU did for three years at the University of Washington when Steve Sarkisian offered him a job after his unfortunate early exit from the NFL. But BKU makes no bones about it: He wants to coach.
First, however, he brings his story -- or rather a couple of them -- about what it means to be a Trojan footballer who, when he walked into a group of USC players the other day, said, "You probably don't know who I am but . . . " and they stopped him and said, "Oh no," they did.
But for those who don't recall, here's the quick history for a player who came to a football camp on campus that first day as a 375-pound LA Verbum Dei high schooler and left USC as a consensus All-American, a national champ and the 20th overall pick in the NFL Draft after his junior season.
But in that last year of the Paul Hackett Era, after Ed Orgeron had discovered him, he had no idea how big he was. "Coach O told me if I lost 30 pounds, they'd give me a scholarship," the soon-to-be-named "Big Kenechi Udeze" said. "I thought I weighed 315," he recalls. "We didn't have a scale in our house so when they weighed me, I was 375."
He promptly lost 43 pounds, got his scholarship and came in as a redshirt for Hackett's final season, when he lost another 60 and was ready to play at 275 when Pete Carroll arrived. For a couple of weeks, he was installed as a starting defensive tackle before the coaches decided he may have to move. Shaun Cody was just a freshman but they had to make a place for him so BKU was now a defensive end.
He didn't know at the time how good that would be for him. "My quick-twitch muscles," he says with a laugh suited the move well. And he quickly embraced it. As did USC for the defensive-minded Carroll with Coach O his position guy.
By his third season in 2003, BKU led the nation in sacks (1.3 a game), was fourth in tackles for loss (2.0) and set a USC record for forced fumbles with six. And then it was on to the NFL.
"I thought I was going to be picked by the Patriots at No. 21 in the first round," BKU says. And his older brother, Thomas Barnes, who had gone to St. Thomas University in Minnesota as a basketball player and then law school at the University of Minnesota, had returned to LA to be with his little brother -- as an agent and someone to help a 20-year-old through his first years in the NFL.
Then Kenechi's cellphone rang as he waited. "Where's Area Code 612?" he asked his brother as the 20th pick came up. "You gotta' be kidding me," his brother said. "My stuff is packed up and headed out here and we're going back to Minneapolis." And that they were, where BKU was named a Vikings starter his second day in the NFL. And remained there for four years until just after the Super Bowl in 2008 and then came a drama that's almost hard to believe.
"I was flying to Idaho," he said, to be with his son and ex-wife and it happened. The migraines were becoming more severe. He'd noticed that people had been asking him if he was all right. And he said no problem. But then it got so bad he had to go to the emergency room after falling backward going up the steps and leaving three holes in a wall. After a series of tests, the emergency room doctor came back to tell him that he'd checked with the Minnesota team doctor and that surprised BKU.
"Why would you do that?" Kenechi asked him. Sure, the headaches were bad and then a fall and it was getting worse but . . .
The doctor told him the bad news directly. "You have an aggressive form of leukemia -- acute lymphoblastic leukemia." The numbers told the story. The average person has a white blood count of 4,000 to 8,000. "Mine was 285,000," Kenechi said. "I was playing with blood cancer." And maybe the most unlikely possible candidate.
"I was in great health, a young African-American NFL player," he says with the shake of his head. What were the odds of that? Almost not possible, the doctors told him. And yet there it was.
The Vikings flew BKU back to Minneapolis but when the plane passed the 18,000-foot mark, Kenechi passed out. His blood pretty much stopped working.
"I woke up in the hospital with a big tube in my neck and I could see a nurse with a big container of my blood . . . they were rinsing it." They would come up with a protocol that would hopefully lead to a bone marrow transplant. But first the leukemia had to go into remission which hadn't happened after three months of treatment. Then the doctors realized something.
For this disease that strikes 3,400 Americans each year, you should be considered a pediatric patient until the age of 30. And so the adult protocol was discarded for the chemo and within three days, his leukemia had gone into remission. His brother Thomas was a 100 percent match, it turned out, for the transplant. And Kenechi was on his way back.
"I had to wear a mask for 100 days," he said, to keep from picking up something from someone. "And people would stare at me. And then a young boy, maybe 7- 8-years-old, came up and asked me why I had the mask on." No fear, just wondering why for that young man. "It was pretty profound," he says.
The return to health was happening but not to football. Minnesota had a place for him on the roster. "I started back for the first three-four days of OTA's," he said. The Vikings were going to keep their four-year starter no matter what. "But out on the field, my feet felt like cinder blocks," he said. The chemo had done damage to the nerves there. And BKU wasn't going to take the place of a player who could contribute even if the Vikings said he could. And so he said goodbye to his playing career.
And headed off on the path he's taking now. Back to college football as a coach. He got a call to work at Washington for Sark and Ivan in the strength and conditioning program that he pursued the next three years. After a year off, this last year he worked in strength and conditioning at the University of Pittsburgh.
The coaching change there had him talking to new head coach Pat Narduzzi about a slot as Pitt's D-line coach. The 2 1/2-hour interview went well, he says, but with all the change and getting a new defensive coordinator hired, nothing was happening. And then BKU got the call from USC. And that was all it took.
He'll be working with the Trojans, players and coaches, every day the way he worked with himself -- and bringing some of that CEO and Pete Carroll spirit with him. "You can do a lot of coaching in the weight room," BKU says.
It's a simple game, from his point of view: "Football is about big men doing things right,' BKU says, "when big men do, everybody wants to be around them."
That's a lesson BKU says he's learned in his life in football. And he plans to pass it on to his Trojans pupils starting at 6 a.m. every day.
How BKU plans to coach 'em up will be detailed in the second part of the BKU profile Friday.You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at email@example.com.