The Minnesota Vikings' Kenechi Udeze sat last night with other hamstrung NFL players, signing autographs at the 31st Ed Block Courage Awards ceremony. The recipients, one from each team, were tabbed for doing battle with a host of hardships, including knee, neck and elbow injuries.
Udeze? He is fighting cancer - and winning. The leukemia that struck down the Vikings' 6-foot-3, 270-pound defensive end last year is in remission. There's no trace of the rare blood disorder that could have killed Udeze, a 2004 first-round draft pick who just turned 26.
"March 5 was my birthday - and so was the day after that and the day after that," the big lineman said. "I'm just happy living life."
Never sick before, the strapping former All-American from Southern California was diagnosed with leukemia in February 2007. He began treatment immediately, undergoing withering rounds of chemotherapy and a life-saving bone marrow transplant from his brother, Thomas Barnes.
"Without that transplant, I'd have had a 17 percent chance of survival," Udeze said. "Thomas and I are blood brothers to the bone."
His struggle to beat the odds has changed Udeze forever.
"I love football to death, but there's so much more to life than lacing up your cleats," he said. "My first thought was, 'Am I going to be there for my [1 1/2 -year-old] daughter?' Molding her into a productive human being is more important to me than making a tackle or knocking a ball loose.
"We football players think we are supermen, that we walk on water. But during treatment, I couldn't leave my hospital room for 24 days for fear of infection. I couldn't even walk my family to the elevator. Immunity? That's a reality check."
Cards and e-mails have poured in by the hundreds. One note stood out, Udeze said.
"It was from a high school junior in Pennsylvania [Nick Hamilton] who had the same cancer," he said. "He was a defensive end on his football team, just like me. He said he kept reading the paper looking for updates about me."
Hamilton and Udeze exchanged autographed pictures. Udeze keeps Hamilton's photo in the top drawer of his nightstand. On the one Udeze sent to Pennsylvania, the defensive end wrote "Keep Up The Fight."
That's the mantra he now preaches when speaking to other leukemia patients, mostly youngsters.
"The chance of my getting this disease was pretty slim - less than the odds of winning the lottery twice in one year," he said. "But the worst attitude you can have is, 'Why me?'
"Deal with it. Don't sulk in your misery. If you're thrown a curveball, dig in and fight your way through it."
Udeze has resumed workouts and hopes to rejoin Minnesota next season. His strength is returning, and the nerve pain in his feet from chemotherapy is subsiding.
"My uniform still fits, if a little loose," he said. "It felt great to be back in the purple and gold."
If Udeze does return, "I don't want guys to take it easy on me," he said. "If I'm not up to snuff, I shouldn't be on the field. And if that's the case, I'm prepared to deal with that.
"But there's a lot of life left in me. Don't count me out."
Note:: The Ed Block Courage Award Foundation announced that the House of Hope in Tampa, Fla., has become the 19th Courage House in the Courage House National Network. ... Last night's attendance was an announced 1,100, down about 200 from last year.