When Kenechi Udeze joined the USC Trojan football team as a redshirt freshman in 2001, he was a 340-pound, fledgling defensive end player.
"To be honest with you," he said, "the first day I came here for practice, I passed out on Howard Jones Field.”
But his mother, a single woman raising four children, had taught him the meaning of hard work. Majoring in sociology at USC College, Udeze became such an awesome player that the NFL came calling in 2004.
Before having a chance to graduate, he was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings (first-round draft pick) and moved from his native Los Angeles to Minneapolis. Four years later, at the peak of his career, he began suffering from migraines. After a checkup, he knew something was very wrong when a team of grim-faced doctors walked into his examination room. They told him he had an aggressive form of lymphoblastic leukemia.
“Cancer?” he remembered thinking. “No, not me.”
Udeze told his story to an audience during the 2010 USC student-athlete graduation ceremony. He was a main speaker during the Thursday event. After chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant and his retirement from the NFL in July 2009, Udeze returned to USC to finish his studies.
“I hadn’t taken my studies seriously,” Udeze said. “After all this happened, I said to myself, ‘I have to go back and get my degree. No matter what.’ ”
With a bachelor’s degree in sociology, Udeze is now a football coach at the University of Washington — not exactly the route he had expected to take as a cherub-faced star football player.
“Life very seldom goes where you want it to go,” Udeze, 27, told the audience. “But what are you going to do? Are you going to stand there and strike out when you have balls thrown at you? Or are you going to hit the ball and keep going?”
There have been many blessings along the way, he said. Maybe it’s no wonder that his first name, Kenechi, means “God’s love with always be with me,” in Nigerian. His eldest brother, Thomas, was a perfect bone marrow match and became his donor, saving his life. Right around the time of his surgery, his daughter, Bailey, was born.
“She gave me something to live for,” Udeze said. “I have no excuse not to be a great father. She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. She makes me realize what’s important.”
With his acute leukemia in remission, Udeze is living in Seattle, where he’s enjoying coaching and being a dad.
Just call his cell phone and you’ll gather the intensity of what this man has been through and the depth of his inner-strength.
On his cell phone voice mail, a strong voice tells callers this:
Never give up. Quitting is not an option. No matter how weak you may be, no matter how dark it gets, until you take your last breath, you have to fight. Fight.