Pitt assistant strength coach's battle with cancer inspires players
The doctor placed his hand gently on the big man's shoulder in a gesture of compassion.
Kenechi Udeze slapped it away defiantly.
“No doctor was going to tell me I have blood cancer,” he said.
Yet, it was true. Pitt's first-year assistant strength and conditioning coach, a former USC All-American defensive end and Minnesota Vikings first-round draft choice, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a type of cancer in which the bone marrow produces too many white blood cells.
Only a few weeks before the diagnosis, Udeze had finished the 2007 NFL season like nothing was wrong other than migraines so painful that he “had to stop and sit down just to collect my thoughts.” He never mentioned them to anyone.
He played the last game of that season in Denver, trying to will the Vikings into the playoffs. He didn't know it, but it was the last game of his four-year career.
“I was running to every ball. I was hurdling over people,” he said. “I don't know if it was something that was almost like a premonition.”
After the Vikings lost, he returned to his native Los Angeles and later traveled to Boise, Idaho, to be with his ex-wife's family. During the flight, when the airplane reached its highest elevation, he said his nasal cavity felt like it would explode.
“I put my head down and started praying,” he said.
Later, while climbing stairs, he became light-headed and fell backward, putting three holes in a wall. He escaped injury, but he admits, “I think the Man Upstairs said, ‘This is the only way I can get this big dummy to go to the hospital.' ”
Then, one day, a doctor walked into Udeze's room with three oncologists and the bad news. His white blood cell count was 281,000, he said. Doctors told him 4,000-11,000 is considered normal.
“My blood was so thick, it wasn't traveling through my body the way it should,” he said.
Udeze was 24. The risk for developing ALL is highest in children under 5, according to the American Cancer Society. The average person's risk is 1 in 750 and is higher in whites than African-Americans.
“The doctors told me at the University of Minnesota (where he later went for chemotherapy), ‘You are 24, you are a physical specimen, and you are African-American. The chance of you getting ALL is (the same) as winning the lottery twice in a year.' ”
Before he embarked on the fight of his life, he said he cried for two days.
“It didn't matter what time it was, I was crying,” he said. “I was on the floor at times crying. I was in the bathroom crying. People would come in, and I would tell them to leave.
“I felt like, ‘Why me?' ”
He set aside those thoughts of self-pity and spent most of the first half of 2008 receiving chemo treatments before a bone marrow donor was found. It was his brother Thomas Barnes, an attorney who quit two jobs to be near his brother, first when Udeze was drafted by the Vikings in 2004 and later, when he was diagnosed with ALL.
Udeze remembers the day doctors told him Barnes' marrow was a match.
“I said, ‘Thomas, I got good news, and I got bad news. The bad news is I burned my mouth on some toast this morning (a result of sensitivity caused by the chemo). The good news is you are my perfect match.'
“I started crying. I said, ‘We are going to be all right.' I hugged him, and I almost broke him in half I squeezed him so hard.”
Udeze was lucky. About 70 percent of patients in need of bone marrow transplants must find a donor outside the family, according to deletebloodcancer.org.
Barnes, who is 5 1⁄2 years older than his brother and lives in Columbus, Ohio, said donating his bone marrow was an easy choice.
“It was a scary time because we knew what we were facing,” Barnes said. “As African-Americans, we comprise less than 15 percent of the national bone marrow registry.”
This would be the second time Barnes saved his brother's life. When Udeze was 9, he slipped in the deep end of a swimming pool and was floundering until Barnes jumped in and dragged him to safety.
Barnes said side effects from the transplant were insignificant, although he remembers his joints aching badly.
“I imagine that is what a 90-year-old man feels like,” he said.
After the transplant in July 2008, Udeze missed that season and attempted a comeback in the spring of '09. But he developed nerve damage in his feet from the chemo. He couldn't even put on cleats.
One night, around 2 a.m., he entered the Vikings' empty practice facility and cleaned out his locker.
The next day, he received a call from Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.
“I said, ‘Adrian, I didn't quit, but I need to move on.' ”
Last year, when Udeze's girlfriend Katherine Herman was running in the San Francisco Marathon and needed $200 to reach a goal of $3,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Peterson wrote a check for $10,000, Udeze said.
“He said, ‘Kenechi, my grandfather died of cancer.' ”
After retiring, Udeze served three years as assistant strength coach at the University of Washington. He also spent time as a coaching intern with the Seattle Seahawks and a fellow with the Vikings.
This year, Pitt strength coach Ross Kolodziej, a teammate with the Vikings, offered him the job at Pitt.
“He coaches with a passion,” Kolodziej said. “He is a guy of high standards who makes the coaches around him and the players around him better.”
Udeze said the ALL is in remission.
“After the five-year mark, you move into the upper-90 percentile of it not coming back,” he said.
When Udeze and Koldziej were with the Vikings, the team led the NFL in rush defense. Their defensive coordinator was Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
“Class guy, hard worker, football lover,” Tomlin said. “(I've) really got a lot of love for Kenechi. I'm happy he's in town and working in the profession because he's a guy who's got a lot to give to young people and football.”
Udeze shared his story with Pitt players Thursday in a team meeting. Senior safety Ray Vinopal in particular was struck by the video of the Denver game, the last of Udeze's career.
The play that stood out was when Udeze rushed the quarterback, turned around, retraced his steps and tackled wide receiver Brandon Marshall 20 yards downfield.
“He said, ‘Guys, that was my last play in the NFL, and I was playing with cancer,' ” Vinopal said.
“To have inspiration like that around is pretty powerful. Everyone has a different attitude about what they got going on after hearing him say that.”
At practice, Udeze chases players to reprimand and praise, something strength coaches typically don't do on the field. It is encouraged by Kolodziej and coach Paul Chryst.
“I'm out there flying around at practice because it's my passion,” he said. “This is where I'm supposed to be.”