Kenechi Udeze can’t lie.
As a three-year starting defensive end who helped lead USC to two Pac-10 titles, he battled some mixed emotions when the Trojans came to Seattle last September.
“It was a little bittersweet,” says Udeze of the day UW beat USC 16-13, a game that came with Udeze in a new role as an assistant strength coach for the Huskies — a job he had held for roughly two months at the time. “It was a great win for our team and everybody was going crazy, but that’s my alma mater.”
But now nearing almost a year since he’s been in Seattle working for the Huskies as an assistant strength coach with the football team, he’s beginning to feel more at home in Seattle.
That also means becoming a bigger part of the community.
And Sunday, Udeze (pictured in a 2006 game against the Seahawks) will participate in an event that will help a cause close to his heart, the LIVESTRONG Challenge this Sunday in Seattle . In the challenge, participants run, walk or ride bikes to raise money to fight cancer.
Udeze plans to ride a bike the five kilometers, not only helping to raise awareness and money but also celebrate his own recovery from Leukemia.
“It’s a great day for survivors to come together,” he said.,
Udeze was well on his way to a long NFL career when he was diagnosed with the disease in Feb. of 2008. He’d suffered headaches throughout the season but thought nothing of them until they persisted into the off-season. He was understandably shocked at the diagnosies.
He was also lucky in that his older brother, Thomas Barnes (they have the same biological mother and father though different names) proved to be a perfect bone marrow match. He had the procedure that July and has had no relapses since.
“Two years marks the level where we are talking about a 90 percent rate of it never rearing its face again,” he said. “I’m thankful to be in this position.”
Being a high-caliber athlete and only 25 when the disease struck, he thought he’d be able to return to the NFL once it was in remission. But chemotheraphy resulted in a foot condition that rendered him unable to return.
“My feet just started acting strange and just got continually worse,” he said.
He was with the Vikings in the early stages of training camp last summer before deciding to call it quits.
Shortly after, he got a call from UW coach Steve Sarkisian, who had been an assistant at USC when Udeze was a player there, and UW defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who had also been an assistant at USC during that time.
They told Udeze they had a position for him at UW if he was interested.
“It took me about a week to decide,” said Udeze, now 27. “As much as I would love to go back and play, I realize I had my opportunity (he spent four seasons in the NFL) to play and it was great and I wouldn’t trade it for the world and I’m upset it was taken away. But it happened and I can’t sit up there and ask ‘why me.’ You can’t ask that question. You have to keep going.”
He arrived at UW last July and with every day is becoming more ingrained in the Husky family, he says, taking a few graduate-level classes last year with the aim of getting a Master’s degree in the college athleltic leadership program. In his role with the Huskies he works mainly with the defensive linemen, able to assist them in the weight room and offer encouragement on the field.
“There’s still a learning process between me and a lot of the guys,” he said. “But as long as I have their respect and they listen, we will overcome the obstacles between us. They have responded well to this point. It’s been fun. I respect where I am now and I appreciate the opportunity they have given me.”
Not that he can completely remove himself from USC. He officially received his degree from the school just a few weeks ago, shortly before sanctions were announced on the football program.
Of the sanctions, he says: “It’s the unfortunate aftermath of terrible decisions by individuals. … USC will be back one day, but that’s a devastating blow to a national contender every year. It’s really unfortunate, and the guys that are targeted, they could care less. But it’s just the nature of the beast. It’s a business.”
Udeze says he hopes he can rise to being a position coach at UW someday, with the aim of someday being a head coach.
But he also wants to increase his efforts to help fight Leukemia.
He’s working with UW officials to set up a bone marrow transplant “welcome wagon” outside Husky Stadium for home games next season. He says his goal is to get at least 100 participants for each game.
“You go and sign up and give all the medical information that you possible have,” he said. “Then they tissue-type a cotton swab inside your mouth and into a capsule and then into the registry.”
He says there’s only a one-in-200 chance of a sibling being a bone marrow match and that “I was just fortunate my older brother was a match.”
“Hopefully people can remove themselves from the pre-game atmosphere for a few minutes and come over and save a life,” he said. “Whose to say one of those can’t save a life?”