Udeze committed to a comeback

Vikings defensive end Kenechi Udeze has spent the last year fight leukemia, but he said Monday he is ready and determined to return to working out with his teammates when they gather as a team in April. Udeze chronicled his battle with the blood cancer and helped raise funds during a Pennies for Patients drive at a Chaska middle school.

For many, Sunday's Super Bowl is a celebration of some of the world's best athletes facing off in the country's biggest media spectacle.

For Kenechi Udeze, the Super Bowl is a reminder that even elite athletes are fallible to the diseases of the modern-day world. It was day after the Giants pulled off a mammoth upset of the New England Patriots last year that the Vikings defensive end was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

It wiped out his 2008 season and, with a six-month checkup today at the University of Minnesota standing in front of him, Udeze is confident he will return to the playing field in 2009. In fact, Udeze said Monday that his goal is to join his teammates when they start their offseason conditioning program in April.

Just last April, Udeze said he was bothered by those who questioned if he would return to the game. After working out at his alma mater, USC, at 6 a.m. for the past three weeks, he's confident he will make it back.

"No excuses, get it done. That's always been my motto. The guys back at home, they work out good enough to where I can gauge myself to where I know if I'm going to make it back next year and I know I am."

His former USC teammates never questioned his ability to make a comeback, he says.

"If you know me, you know that nothing's going to stop me from living and fulfilling my dream. That's why I say that I'm tired of the questions, because if you don't know me, then just watch what I'm going to do," he said.

While Udeze is reminded of the seriousness of leukemia, he credits, in part, his positive emotional outlook during his recovery. He says he has never had a bad day – only bad hours here and there – and Vikings coach Brad Childress said repeatedly last year that Udeze treated the disease as if he only had a cold.

Certainly, this "cold" was worse. He has had fevers spike from 98.7 degrees to 105.4 in the matter of an hour because of a viral infection. His has had an allergic reaction that caused his airway tighten up on him shortly after starting a new chemotherapy drug. And he has taken medications that made his throat so raw that he began to cough up tissue.

Through it all, including a 26-day stay in the hospital, he has been determined to beat it, repeatedly citing his wife Terrica and daughter Bailey, 14 months, as his motivation.

"Terrica will always be fine," Udeze said. "My biggest fear was not being a father and seeing my daughter grow up and doing things with her. I want a son more than anything … I want to be able to teach my offspring to go about things the right way."

On Monday, Udeze was reinforcing the importance of helping others at Chaska Middle School West. Udeze was a keynote speaker to a gym full of youth during a Pennies for Patients Kickoff Assembly at the school, which was the top middle school in the country last year in raising $30,0034.85 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Udeze's speech was the last of three stories involving families that have battled leukemia. The first was Brandon Kegg, a fifth-grader from Carver, whom Udeze befriended and dubbed "One of 11," a nickname that reflected the rarity of Kegg's disease – he is one of 11 people in the world to have his form of leukemia. The second was a tear-filled speech from Krista Johnson, who lost her daughter McKenna, then 10, in 2007 after an eight-year battle with leukemia.

Udeze followed Johnson's speech with tears for the Johnson family before composing himself, taking off his suit jacket and tie and unbuttoning his dress shirt to reveal a t-shirt that simply read, "CANCER SUCKS."

Afterwards, Udeze met with reporters and admitted that, while his year-long battle with leukemia is nothing compared to what many of the other survivors have faced, it has been an emotionally and physically taxing 12 months.

"When I heard the news, I didn't even want the bone marrow transplant because I kind of wanted to get out there and play again. I didn't really realize what my body was going to be going through," he said. "I didn't have that sense of reality to what I knew that sense of time frame was. Now that I do know, if I would have rushed back at any time prior to (now), it would have been a bad decision because I wasn't ready to go."

Udeze's weight ballooned to 320 pounds during portions of his treatment because of the fluids and medications he was receiving. Now he is back to 265 to 270 pounds and is getting his appetite back. When he was released from the hospital, he had a hard time eating a half of a sandwich. Now he is eating five meals a day and working out as the swelling in his feet has subsided.

He also reflected on going from a place in life where he had everything handed to him as a scholarship player at USC and a first-round draft pick of the Vikings to suddenly seeing the importance of giving back and inspiring others.

"It's a great feeling, meeting guys like my man here, "One of 11," I'm sitting next to (Brandon) and I feel like a superstar. It's something else," he said. "The platform helps a great amount because whenever somebody for whatever reason – whether it be a sport or a profession or anything that has come along the way – that can only help the situation. That's why I'm going to make an appearance at (Orange High School) in California (the top fundraising high school in the nation). When people have a platform, people are going to listen more and people pay more attention to us so hopefully they pay more attention to this and help however you can."

Through it all, Udeze found a real sense of family from his Vikings teammates, coaches, management and the Wilf ownership group.

"I want to say one thing more than anything. The support that I got from the Vikings this year has been tremendous, whether it was coming to a game after the fact of me being out of the hospital or just Coach Childress coming by with a bag of Chipotle or Zygi (Wilf) calling me or stopping by. Mark Wilf, Kevin Warren (vice president of legal), everybody from top to bottom treated me the same way or better," Udeze said. "I just want to take time out to say thank you to the Wilf family, to the whole organization, from my teammates to players."

Viking Update will publish a more extensive story about Udeze's battle and his fundraising campaign in the next issue of the magazine.

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