Kenechi Udeze: A Warrior in Every Sense of the Word

Jake D'AgostinoCorrespondent IOctober 4, 2009

CHICAGO - OCTOBER 14: Cedric Benson #32 of the Chicago Bears breaks away from Kenechi Udeze #95 and Dwight Smith #24 of the Minnesota Vikings on October 14, 2007 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Vikings defeated the Bears 34-31. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

To anyone who has ever played on a football field, they consider it equivalent to a battle zone. Once you reach the pros, the sport becomes more like war.

To one man, a war is nothing compared to what he has had to face during the past year and a half. I'm talking about Kenechi Udeze, a former defensive end of the Minnesota Vikings.

For those of you not familiar with Udeze, he was a 6'3", 281-pound monster during his playing days. Currently, he is just 26 years old.

When he played, he was a member of one of the NFL's premier run defenses, and was a top performer on the defensive unit. Why is he no longer playing?

On February 11, 2008, Udeze was diagnosed with leukemia, a form of cancer which causes white blood cells to grow at rapid rates inside of bone marrow.

These new cells are harmful by themselves, but also damage and kill the original, healthy cells.

Kenechi's specific type of the disease is acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

This caused him to miss the entire 2008 NFL season, but he vowed to be back, saying, "You know what? I'll be back next year." For a while, it looked like he would be.

When Udeze completed his rigorous chemotherapy treatment, he trained and practiced with the team, giving all that he had to continue his career.

It turns out that the side effects of both the cancer and the chemo were preventing him from performing at his highest level, which forced him to retire.

He still made a remarkable recovery, and his cancer is currently dormant. His progress was aided by his brother, Thomas Barnes, who served as the donor in Udeze's bone marrow transplant.

Kenechi Udeze was born on March 5, 1983 in Los Angeles, CA. He would live there all his life, and attended Vernum Dei High School which is located in L.A.

He was a force on the football team, among other sports, and was named a Super Prep All-American, Super Prep All-Farwest, Prep Star All-Western, and Tom Lemming All-West as a senior in 1999, when he played the line on both sides of the ball.

Other awards and distinctions that he earned that year were Long Beach Press-Telegram Best in the West Honorable Mention, Orange County Register Fab 15 Honorable Mention, Tacoma News Tribune Western 100, Las Vegas Sun Super 11 Honorable Mention, Cal-Hi Sports All-State Small Schools First Team, All-CIF Division XI First Team, Los Angeles Times All-Central City First Team, and All-Camino Real League Defensive MVP.

Obviously, Udeze was heavily recruited coming out of high school. Ultimately, he chose to stay nearby to home, accepting the offer from Southern California.

In his first year at USC, Kenechi was redshirted.

In 2001, as a freshman, he was named a starter right off the bat, earning spots on the Sporting News Freshman All-Pac-10 and All-American Teams.

Udeze was an instrumental part of a dominant Trojans' defense in 2002, having an excellent season en route to an appearance on the Second Team All-Pac-10 lineup.

In 2003, he was a member and leader of USC's split-national championship team, when they were named the AP National Champions after a decisive victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. The LSU Tigers were crowned the BCS Champs after a win over Oklahoma.

That year, BKU (an acronym for his nickname, "Big Kenechi Udeze") was selected as First Team All-Pac-10, and even a Consensus All-American.

He was also a Ted Hendricks Award finalist, which is a prize given to the nation's top defensive end each year.

His junior year in college would be his last. He finished his collegiate career with 135 tackles, 28 sacks (which remain a school best), 5 passes defensed, 1 interception, 14 forced fumbles, and 3 recoveries to go with it. He also blocked 2 kicks.

While at USC, head coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Nick Holt would impact him greatly. Steve Sarkisian, who at the time was the team's quarterbacks coach and later offensive coordinator, would one day become an important person in Kenechi's life.

Udeze would go on to enter the 2004 NFL Draft, and was selected in the first round, 20th overall, by the Minnesota Vikings.

Kenechi wasted no time making a name for himself. In his rookie year of 2004, he had 36 tackles, 5 sacks, a pass defensed, one fumble forced and another recovered.

In 2005, Udeze was only able to play in the first three games due to damage to the cartilage in his knee that caused him to be placed on injured reserve. He had five tackles and a sack in the three games he played.

2006 was a better year for Udeze though, as he was able to play in all 16 games and start 15 of them. He had 29 tackles and a fumble recovery on the year.

In 2007, Kenechi's fourth and final year, he had what was probably his best season.

He posted 47 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 pass broken up, a fumble forced, and another recovered.

Udeze finished his career with 117 tackles, 11 sacks, 2 passes defensed, a pair of forced fumbles, and 3 fumble recoveries.

After missing all of 2008 and training and practicing in the spring and summer of '09, Udeze finally called it quits.

On July 29, 2009, the day that the Vikings announced his retirement, head coach Brad Childress revealed that his chemotherapy and the effects of the leukemia caused pain and weakness in his feet, causing him to lose balance, which is key in football.

Although Kenechi may one day overcome this problem, chances of his returning to the football are slim to none.

Coach Childress was quoted saying, "He hates to let it go. And I hate for him to let it go, but it's really best for him."

For the Vikes, No. 95 was one of their finest players, as he contributed to one of the most successful defenses in the league while he played.

While it is certain that Udeze was very good as a pro and made his mark on the league, I think that he had the potential to be a Pro Bowl type player and one of the best at his position, making it just that much more unfortunate that his career had to be cut short.

Although Kenechi can no longer help his team by sacking the opposing quarterbacks and tackling the other teams star running back for a big loss, he has still found a way to assist other players in doing this. As of this season, Udeze has been named the University of Washington's assistant strength and conditioning coach for all football players.

Huskies' head coach Steve Sarkisian, who I mentioned earlier, was the one who offered him the job. Udeze will now be able to prepare the Washington players for the difficulties and training that await them in the NFL.

Udeze has also promoted a "Marrowthon," in which soccer teams located in the twin cities were given the opportunity to run in a race to raise money for the National Marrow Donor Program Organization.

His story, although unfortunate, is one of inspiration and hope. He told Brad Childress that he treated his illness as a mere “common cold” and that it would not get in the way of his goals.

While this did end up being his downfall in the end, Udeze never gave up fighting and never lost hope. He tried to make it back to the NFL, but was unsuccessful. And yet, what he has managed to accomplish is so much more than anything he could have done in with football.

The courage, strength, and valiance that Kenechi Udeze has exhibited since being diagnosed with leukemia is absolutely incredible and should never be forgotten. In my opinion, he is a warrior, in every sense of the word.