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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Ex-Viking Udeze’s winding road leads to ‘dream job’ as USC assistant

By Andrew Krammer

Kenechi Udeze recalled that day like the other towering landmarks in his life.

He was at his sixth and favorite employer in the University of Southern California, his alma mater. It was his second time joining Steve Sarkisian’s staff, the hires six years apart. And yet Udeze had the same title as assistant strength and conditioning coach. Uncertainty crawled again when Sarkisian was fired in October. Clay Helton then fired four assistants, including the defensive line coach.

Udeze finally had his opening, seven years into his search. He was promoted to interim defensive line coach for the Trojans’ Dec. 30 Holiday Bowl against Wisconsin. That game, his first as a college position coach, came exactly eight years after his final NFL game.

“I’m happy to say on the 18th of December, a man finally invested in me,” Udeze said.

When Helton promoted him for one game, Udeze added another date to the many that have carved out niches in his life. The Trojans lost to the Badgers, but Udeze showed enough in his first opportunity coaching a week of practices and the game. Another monumental day came on Jan. 26, when he was promoted to USC’s permanent defensive line coach. “My dream job,” he said.

“There are times in your career when you meet someone and just know that they are going to be a superstar in the profession,” Helton said in a statement. “Kenechi is that person. I was blown away by his attention to detail with technique and fundamentals in our recent bowl game preparation and in the interview process. His knowledge of the game is something that is going to be critical to the development of your young defensive line.”

Udeze is appreciative of the chapters added now, knowing what he went through and for how long. There’s also Feb. 14, when he married the woman who’d been there for him on a long and winding journey toward his latest dream. This path started years ago on Feb. 6, 2008, when a phone call told Udeze, a 24-year-old NFL starter, he had an aggressive form of leukemia. Then July of the same year he received a critical bone marrow transplant from his brother, Thomas Barnes.

On July 29, 2009, he prematurely retired from the NFL.

Another challenge began shortly after.

“Seven years is how long it took me to reach this point in my career,” Udeze said. “And I wouldn’t take back one minute – not one second. Every moment taught me having better patience, being a better teacher.”

A persistent approach

His career at age 32 is not what he originally envisioned. Udeze was an All-American defensive end for the Trojans and first-round pick (20th overall) by the Minnesota Vikings in 2004. His five sacks in his first season tied for third among all NFL rookies that year, trailing only Kansas City’s Jared Allen and New Orleans’ Will Smith. During the 2007 season, his fourth and final, Udeze started 15 games for the Vikings’ No. 1-ranked rushing defense and tied for the team lead with five sacks.

“He always had that ability when he played for us in Minnesota,” said Karl Dunbar, the Vikings’ defensive line coach from 2006 to 2011. “It came down to it he had to give up his career because of cancer. I’m thankful he’s still winning that battle.”

Five weeks after his last NFL game, Udeze was informed his migraines were caused by acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a cancer that affects blood and bone marrow. He didn’t give up on playing. Within a year, his cancer was in remission, he’d undergone a bone marrow transplant and announced his intent to return for the 2009 season. Though side effects of chemotherapy caused nerve damage and numbness in his feet, ending his comeback.

Udeze has brought the same persistence to the coaching ranks, where he has spent much of the last six seasons grinding his teeth in college weight rooms and NFL internships. Using connections made through his playing days, Udeze found work with the University of Washington, then the University of Pittsburgh before reaching his favorite barbells in Southern California.

Bleeding stage’

Udeze left college early to pursue the NFL, so he returned to USC in 2010 for his sociology degree. However, his passion was football and he didn’t want to walk away from the game.

He also didn’t want to lead workouts as a strength and conditioning assistant. That was just his way inside the building. Udeze sought to be back on the field in any capacity he still could, and that was coaching. At each stop, he’d push the boundaries of his job title and sparingly coach defensive linemen during practices.

The first five years, spent in Bellevue, Washington, were particularly difficult.

“There’d be many a days where I’d look out the window and wonder when I was going to get out,” Udeze said.

After three years inside the Huskies’ weight room, Udeze reached out to former Trojans head coach Pete Carroll, who hired him onto the Seahawks’ staff for one season as an assistant defensive line coach. Afterward, Carroll helped him search around the country for openings, but nothing came to fruition.

The musical-chairs hiring in college and pro football was over, and Udeze didn’t have a seat in 2013.

“Nobody who leaves Seattle sits out the next year,” Udeze said. “They keep growing and growing, whether it’s with Seattle or with another team. So that was a very humbling year.”

Like his playing career, Udeze resisted outside pressures to walk away. Without a paying coaching job, he volunteered at Bellevue-area schools, taking a few local prospects who were hoping to earn NCAA scholarships under his wing. As a sports trivia whiz, Udeze was offered a broadcasting internship, but turned it down. “Because that’s not my passion,” he said.

He also accepted another NFL internship under former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and spent the 2013 training camp in Minnesota. Five years after playing, Udeze was still an intern and found himself coaching a friend and former teammate in Brian Robison.

“You could tell it was starting to drain on him,” Robison said. “You could tell he was working as hard as he could to be put in this position, so that’s why I’m so happy for him…Because I know how hard he’s worked for it. I know the time, the effort he’s put in.”

The following year, former Vikings teammate and University of Pittsburgh strength coach Ross Kolodziej offered him a job as his assistant. Udeze spent one season in Pittsburgh and took up another NFL fellowship with the Buffalo Bills before returning to USC last fall.

“You have to bleed a little bit before you get to where you feel you’re being able to produce,” Udeze said. “So I call that the bleeding stage. Every coach goes through it, some more than others.

“And I think that if anybody can look at my story and understand – there are going to be times it’s going to be hard. There are going to be times, you know, where you’re gonna have to bleed.”

A message to share

His story has impacted many lives through Udeze’s post-playing career. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson reportedly wrote a $10,000 check for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society when Udeze’s then-girlfriend, now his wife, Katherine Herman took part in the San Francisco Marathon and needed $200 to reach a $3,000 fundraising goal.

Udeze doesn’t like to call it charity work and takes pride in mentorships outside of what he does with non-profit organizations. One of his former players, Pittsburgh running back James Conner, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in December, and the two have grown closer. Conner, the 2014 ACC Player of the Year, hit the practice field this month, which is a good sign amid chemotherapy treatments.

“Who do you think I talk to on an every-day basis?” Udeze said. “I’m always sending scriptures to him…Just making sure his mindset is always where it needs to be. Because he’s getting all this great news, this is the time to be really humbled by everything going on in your life. You really see things differently. From the way you treat people to being appreciative.”

There’s a buffer between Udeze and his players now, seven years since his NFL retirement and 13 years since his Trojans won the 2003 national championship. The prospects he’s preparing to recruit, even if from California high schools, won’t necessarily know his backstory or his history with USC’s football program.

Udeze anticipates this, and said his seven-year buildup should have prepared him to earn the players’ respect through his coaching. Then he hopes to impart wisdom with his own examples of perseverance – on and off the football field.

“I think it resonates with people in the sport of football,” Robison said. “It comes down to the old adage, you never know when it’s going to be your last day in this game. Kenechi has been through that. He can relate to people and he can bring people down to earth who think they’re going to play this game forever. He was out of the league before it was his time, but he kept moving on and kept fighting forward.”

His long wait for a coaching job produced patience, Udeze says, and helped him pick up tidbits from around the college and professional industry. He credits coaches at every stop for polishing his leadership. Time also helped erode his own edges.

Like many former standout players, Udeze used to fight frustration when a young player wouldn’t initially grasp a lesson. “It’s one of those things as a coach, you have to find out who you are, how you relate to players and what’s really your method,” he said. “I used to get mad at the drop of a dime.”

In Buffalo last summer, he continued to craft his method with Dunbar, his old position coach now leading the Bills defensive line. Dunbar said Udeze “loves being around young people,” and has important stories to tell. “I think he’s going to be good for them,” Dunbar said. “The ability to relate to these young kids, and his personality.”

And to tell them persistence pays off.

“I was fortunate enough to play four years in the NFL and my whole life literally came crashing down,” Udeze said. “My whole mindset with these young men is to get them to be the best professionals. Because a lot of things you learn in football, you can attribute to your life and be successful.”

The post Ex-Viking Udeze’s winding road leads to ‘dream job’ as USC assistant appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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