If you're an NFL player, it may be the most important piece of paper you can sign before opening day. Just ask Kenechi Udeze.
In winter 2008, Udeze, a defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings, started feeling intense migraines. He'd had headaches before, but nothing like these. A trip to a Minnesota hospital the day after the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIII revealed the reason.
Cancer was raging through his blood and bones. Udeze had leukemia. The deeply religious then-25-year-old was petrified. "It really hit me when I couldn't go home from the hospital," he says. "You want to live life on your own terms. Not get blindsided by something like this." But he wasted no time starting twice-weekly chemotherapy treatments, followed by a painful bone-graft operation made possible by his brother. Two months later, the cancer was in remission.
That's only where this story starts.
After playing all 16 games of the 2007 season and tying the team lead for sacks, Udeze had hopes for a $10 million-a-year extension with the Vikings in 2008 -- the last year of his contract. Instead, he was forced to consider himself lucky that the Vikings decided to voluntarily pay his $807,500 salary after putting him on the injured list and giving away his roster spot.
Following a yearlong rehabilitation that sometimes involved four naps a day, Udeze, whose wife had recently given birth to a baby girl, climbed back into pads again in summer 2009.
Everyone in Minnesota wanted to see him make a comeback. He'd turned into a committed advocate for leukemia research and the National Marrow Donor Program, hosting charity soccer games and speaking at grade schools all around the city.
But as the Vikings' 2009 training camp got under way, there was no escaping that, at least on the field, Udeze wasn't his former self. All those cancer-fighting drugs had swelled him, causing his face to spread like putty. Worse, neuropathy, a side effect of the chemotherapy, gave him the kind of numbness in his feet that made it hard for him to plant and get any explosiveness off the line.
In the hardest decision he made, No. 95 announced his retirement from the NFL on July 30, 2009. Soon after, he filed a claim with the NFL's disability fund asking for help. A few months later, he received word that he'd been denied.
"I was shocked," he says. "I was playing with blood cancer, and they said I didn't have a disability. I had to be fully disabled. But that was never going to happen because of the person I am. I was never going to be a bump on a log. I was always going to fight."
Anyone who knows anything about the disability fund shouldn't be shocked by any of this. Brent Boyd, a former guard for the Vikings who is suing the NFL over its denial of his head-injury claim, formed a group called Dignity After Football because he got so angry at the fund's penny-pinching ways. "It's more about the process than the evidence," Boyd says caustically. The fund was also grist for a biting 2009 documentary called " Blood Equity ." As Mike Ditka says in the film, "It would be different if it was a bunch of guys trying to take advantage of the system. But that's not what this is about. This is about guys who need help."
All of which brings us back to the most important piece of paper Udeze signed as a player. Just before the 2007 season, his brother, Thomas Barnes, had placed this $2 million disability insurance policy from Lloyd's of London in front of him. At first, Udeze rolled his eyes. His wife was pregnant, and the premium -- $33,000 annually -- struck him as a lot of money. "I thought, 'Why do I need this? I'm invincible,'" he says. Says his insurance broker, Matthew Ferraro of International Specialty Insurance in Elkin, N.C.: "You take out insurance on your house. Why not protect your most valuable asset?"
At his brother's urging, Udeze finally cut the check. And in January, after the NFL Disability Fund denied his appeal of its decision, Lloyd's stepped up to pay the policy's entire $2 million benefit.
These days, Udeze's life is as complete as he could want. He just graduated from USC with a sociology degree and is working as a strength coach at the University of Washington with his former USC mentor, Steve Sarkisian. Best of all, he remains cancer-free. "I don't have any bad days anymore," he says. "I don't even know what a bad day is." On this Labor Day, his wish for all his former NFL colleagues is that they'll never have to go through what he did, but if they do, that they'll know the same peace.