Diagnosed with leukemia in February, Kenechi Udeze has
been fighting the illness with a defensive end's tenacity
WHILE HIS Vikings teammates prepare for the 2008
season, Kenechi Udeze is in a fight for his life. In February the four-year
veteran rush end was visiting his in-laws in Kuna, Idaho, with his wife,
Terrica, and their infant daughter, Bailey, when he was overcome by persistent
migraines and soreness in his neck. Udeze thought he had nothing worse than a
sinus infection, but he nonetheless went to a local doctor. The diagnosis was
much grimmer: acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a potentially fatal cancer in which
immature white blood cells are overproduced in the bone marrow. "I was
thinking this doctor in Idaho didn't know what he was talking about," says
Udeze, 24. "I had been healthy all my life."
Udeze was flown to Fairview Southdale Hospital in
Edna, Minn., and over 24 days doctors worked furiously to decrease his surging
white blood cell count. Despite the 50-50 odds he was given of surviving, Udeze
was convinced he could beat the disease if he approached the intensive
treatment and grueling recovery with the same zeal he had for football.
"Once I heard [the diagnosis], I said, 'Let's get rid of it,'" says
Udeze, who remained upbeat through a withering regimen of blood rinsings,
chemotherapy, spinal taps and experimental drugs. On April 16 doctors declared
Udeze in remission and cleared him for a bone marrow transplant; the donor will
be his 32-year-old brother, Thomas Barnes.
The procedure is scheduled for early July. Udeze's
oncologist, Daniel Weisdorf, says the vast majority of patients like Udeze with
100% marrow match should recover within a year, with no serious lingering
medical problems. If all goes smoothly, Udeze, who had five sacks and 47
tackles last season, will start working toward his NFL comeback shortly after
the procedure, with a goal of playing in 2009. He's eager to repay the many
fans who have stuck by him. Udeze's message to them: "I'm coming back for
my standing ovation."