No one knows better than Kenechi Udeze how much life can change in less than a year.
In February 2007, he was in Hawaii attending the Pro Bowl as the guest of his defensive line teammates, Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, who were playing in the honorary game. While Udeze was signing autographs, a beautiful woman in her 20s who didn't even know who he was joined the crowd and asked for his autograph. He gave her an autograph and in return asked for her phone number.
Less than one year later, that woman, Terrica, was his wife of 10 months and supporting him through the emotionally and physically trying news that immediately altered his life. His journey had already been change with his marriage and the birth of their baby daughter, Bailey, now 4½ months. But the day after the Super Bowl this year, 51 weeks after he met his bride, he found out he had been diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia.
Fortunately, this past Wednesday, Udeze got the news that a biopsy produced a test that said his blood and marrow were cancer-free.
"It's been three months and I've been waiting a little while to hear those words," Udeze said Friday at the Vikings' Winter Park complex while promoting a soccer "Marrowthon" to raise awareness of the bone marrow registry program.
It was the first time Udeze had spoken publicly about his diagnosis and treatment, and being able to deliver the news that the leukemia was in remission and that his brother, Thomas Barnes, is a perfect match for a marrow transplant helped make Udeze's appearance an uplifting one.
Udeze was in Idaho visiting Terrica's family when he found out he had leukemia.
"My overall reaction was shock and I didn't really know what it was," Terrica said. "Like he said, I was uneducated on this too. I didn't really know what could be cured and what couldn't. It was a scary first few days."
Udeze had migraines for about five days and was wrestling with Terrica's brothers on Super Bowl Sunday. On Monday he woke up and knew something was wrong. He called Dr. Sheldon Burns, who works with the Vikings. Burns' over-the-phone assessment was that Udeze likely had a sinus infection. But the strapping professional athlete set aside his macho pride and went to the hospital, only to be given the shocking diagnosis of leukemia.
"Me being me, I said, ‘What does this roody-proo doctor in Idaho know.' I said, ‘Let me get out of here. They're scaring me half to death in here.' … I think the hardest thing was for me to deal with it, and then once I dealt with it was like, OK, time to get better," he said.
He, Terrica and Bailey returned to the Twin Cities. Terrica said that's when they accepted the diagnosis and went into fight mode.
"The day we came into Minnesota. I was like, I have to put on my brave face for him, he has to put on his brave face for me and together we have to lean back on each other," she said. "After we got back to Minnesota, it was clean sailing and we just worked together. There is no other way that we could get through it without each other."
Udeze was admitted to the hospital for 24 days of treatment, but the athlete in him came out shortly after his release. He tried to work out immediately and overdid it. The day after his initial workout, he returned to the hospital for a regular checkup and had a normal temperature when he arrived. Within an hour, his temperature had spiked to 105.4 degrees and he was readmitted for another five days.
"You can't ask an athlete who's been in the hospital for 24 days not to go crazy. So when I got out, I started working out," he said.
Maybe he was motivated by media reports that came out shortly after his diagnosis. He was put off by those reports, including references to his football future, he told Viking Update.
"I was really mad at first. I was sitting in the hospital … and people were talking about football," he said. "I was like, ‘What the hell are you guys talking about football for? Football is a game. That's something I do for a living. Why are you talking about football like it's the most important damn thing in the world?' That's why I was mad, and I'm glad I waited (to talk about it). … I was really upset that that was the main focal thing that everybody was talking about."
In fact, there were a number of football-related questions asked of him Friday evening and he seemed torn on his response. On one hand, he knows that football pales in comparison to getting his new lease on life. But, like the athlete in him that drove him to work out after his release from the hospital, he also admits that he wants to return to the game as soon as he can.
"What about football?" a reporter asked shortly into an interview session.
Udeze responded, "What about it? Of course, I'm going to play again. I'm 25 years old, and not to put a premium on football, especially at this time of my life, but football is my passion. As soon as I'm capable of playing at a high level again, then I'll be back."
Other than a bald head, Udeze looked good and even joked with reporters like he did so often in the locker room throughout his first three seasons in Minnesota. But his road to recovery is far from over.
He will continue to get chemotherapy treatments two to three times a week until he has receives the bone marrow transplant from his brother, whom Udeze said requested a nickname change from "Foolery" (after Tom Foolery) to "The Answer" because of the marrow match. That transplant procedure hasn't been scheduled and Udeze didn't want to put a time frame on it with so many variables involved, but he said he hasn't had a bad day yet and doctors attribute part of that to his age (25) and being in good physical condition.
"With my attitude, with my support, everybody here at Winter Park, there's no need to be scared," he said.
Udeze said his message to families experiencing cancer is that supporting the patient emotionally is the most important thing. He found that support with his new wife, with whom he celebrated his first anniversary on April 12.
"Whenever I had a bad day, she was the one that got the tirades. She's the one that sat there and toughed it out. … Some days, I didn't want to hear anybody or I didn't want to listen to some phone conversation or this and that or some speculation …" he said. "It takes somebody to go down to the University (of Minnesota hospitals) to see some of the kids walking down there and see how tough they are and strong they are. I'm 25, and when you see a little kid it kind of puts things in a little perspective about how tough they are."
Terrica said the mental approach is the most important.
"The key, I think, is all mindset, and I think he has the mindset to reach past this and I think he will," she said. "You've just got to get over the hump and we're almost over it now."
Udeze's attitude reflects that.
"Football is not going anywhere," he said, "and just like football I'm not going anywhere."
NOTE: Udeze's announcement Friday evening helped kick off a 24-hour soccer "Marrowthon" to benefit the National Morrow Donor Program, which connects patients, doctors, donors and researchers to the resources they need. To learn more, call 1-800-MARROW-2 or visit www.marrow.org.
Udeze's Leukemia in Remission
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