Every time he watches an NFL game, Kenechi Udeze wonders who is next. When will the next retired player absorb a bitter truth about an industry he once considered a brotherhood?
"You hope what happened to me doesn't happen to anyone else," Udeze said. "But if it does, will they ever be consoled or comforted by anyone in the league office that employed them? I doubt it. The only way they can profit off you is if you're a commodity. You're not a commodity if you're injured or ill."
You might remember Udeze as the Minnesota Vikings' first-round draft pick in 2004, a solid four-year contributor who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2008. He is in remission thanks to a bone-marrow transplant we chronicled that summer, but side effects of chemotherapy forced him to retire in 2009.
In the years that followed, the NFL has twice denied Udeze eligibility for its disability program, which requires 100 percent incapacity in cases of non-football illnesses. Udeze has a flexible job as an assistant strength coach at the University of Washington, where Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian -- an assistant on the USC teams Udeze played on from 2001-03 -- allows him to work around his frequent bouts with a condition known as neuropathy.
On his worst days, the neuropathy "makes my legs feel like they're about to snap," Udeze said, describing it as a pencil poking his feet and then an involuntary pull of the muscles downward. It's a common side effect of chemotherapy; some episodes force him off his feet until they subside.
I've spoken with Udeze a number of times over the past year, long before it became clear that the NFL would lock out its players and before it became fashionable for players -- active and retired -- to bash the league for its work environment and the long-term health implications of playing the game. During our conversations, it was clear Udeze wasn't looking to join that chorus. He doesn't lament his shortened career, he doesn't blame his health on football and feels nothing but gratitude for how the Vikings handled his final years with the team.
Mostly, he is hoping current players will shed any naivete they might carry about the transient nature of their jobs. For Udeze, that lesson hit home during the months and years after his diagnosis. He can remember one period in particular, as he sat hospitalized in the spring of 2008, when, Udeze said, several team officials told him to expect a phone call from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The call never came.
"They sell you on the so-called brotherhood of the NFL," Udeze said. "And at the time, I'm watching [Goodell] on TV talking with Adam 'Pacman' Jones and then meeting with him. That was upsetting at the time. I've let that go. I don't hold grudges that long. But after I was denied disability, there is no way on earth that anyone can sit up there and say the NFL will do what's best for players."
To be fair, Udeze remains a part of the NFL's health insurance policy, which gives him discounts on medical services after he pays a deductible. He says those payments are "not a problem," and after earning more than $6 million in his career, he knows he is more fortunate than most cancer survivors and even many disabled former players.
Some of you might wonder why Udeze feels entitled to disability payments from the NFL when his leukemia was by all accounts unrelated to the game, as tragic as it was. From talking to Udeze, I think it goes back to a pair of concerns:
He just turned 28 this month. What will his condition be like when he's 35? At 40? And by what standard would "100 percent incapacity" be measured under the NFL's program?
The simple discrepancy of a culture that routinely asks players to bend and push and struggle through physical barriers for team success. When the tables were turned, however, Udeze ran into a rigid wall.
I don't want to spend too much time discussing the labyrinth of the NFL's disability program, other than to say that players are entitled to benefits based on line-of-duty ailments, "football degenerative" ailments and "total and permanent" incapacity. If Udeze were to qualify, it would be under the third category.
But Udeze, and doubtlessly countless others, refuse to consider the issue in such black and white terms. He thinks back to the summer of 2007, when he noticed sores under his tongue during what would be his final training camp with the Vikings. He remembers that fall, when his barber noticed large spots on his head where hair was no longer growing, a medical condition known as alopecia. And he remembers the increasingly painful headaches he endured in December 2007, about two months before debilitating migraines sent him to the hospital for a final diagnosis.
He played through that odd collection of ailments because that's what the NFL asks its players to do. He attributed the headaches to nothing more than the normal wear and tear of a season. In his mind, and I think this adequately describes an NFL player's mindset, he subconsciously subordinated some warning signs in service of a team effort.
"I played that season with blood cancer growing in me," Udeze said. "Looking back, that's what happened. You would think that the NFL would take some initiative in that kind of case, to realize I was playing with severe headaches that I never thought would be leukemia and feel somewhat attached to the situation. When you play, they always tell you that they will take care of their own."
The Vikings did their part. Owner Zygi Wilf paid the final year of Udeze's contract, a salary of $807,000, even though NFL rules didn't require him to. The Vikings' legal staff also supported Udeze's disability claim, but in the end the decision was not in their hands.
My conversations with Udeze left me convinced he isn't trying to publicly pressure the NFL into reversing its decision on his case. For now, he knows he has a better work arrangement than many people in his position. If anything, I think Udeze cringes when he thinks of less fortunate (or sicker) retired players who could run into a similar wall.
"I've had people tell me that if I don't qualify, who would?" Udeze said. "I just think people have to know and realize what's out there. As a player, you're told if you have to retire because of an injury or an illness, there are things the NFL has in place to help you. That's not the case for everyone."