Amobi Okoye: The Most Improbable Comeback in NFL History

In the Spring of 2013, the day Louisville Basketball was triumphant in their Elite 8 match-up versus Duke and Kevin Ware stole national attention in Indianapolis, Amobi Okoye was on his way to the Houston Airport for a vacation with friends and family in Miami.  A seizure struck.  The trip was cancelled. It was the 2nd of a series of seizures for Okoye, the 1st of which came after a workout with former Louisville Linebacker Malik Jackson.  Okoye was intent on getting into the best shape of his career following the 2012 season with the Chicago Bears and was a trim 285 pounds.

The 2nd seizure sent him to the hospital.  Disoriented, confused.  Amobi was a big man without control of his mind, a far cry from the youngest player to ever be Drafted and play in the NFL.  A brilliant mind who turned down Harvard &  medical school was now adrift.

He frightened his nurses.  Aggressive behavior followed by seizures rampaged through Okoye’s body, at one point medical staff came into Amobi’s hospital room to find him standing on his bed and he couldn’t tell them why.  This wasn’t Amobi Okoye, this was a reaction to an extremely rare condition known as anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis which causes seizures & memory issues.  Close friends and family kept the news about the condition private. When the decision came down to place Okoye in a medically induced coma to calm the symptoms, holding the news in became even worse.

Amobi’s brother Arinze took the phone calls.  There were rumors of all types of medical conditions that had befallen Amobi and even rumors of imminent death among former teammates.  NFL teams who hadn’t heard the rumors called too, inquiring about whether or not Amobi would consider coming to 2013 Training Camp.  Meanwhile, Okoye was fighting for his life.  And doctors struggled to diagnose the disease.  In the end we will never know what exactly caused the virus to enter Amobi Okoye’s body, but the extremely rare disease is the 1st to have ever affected a professional athlete, usually affecting young children and women.

In layman’s terms Anti-NMDA encephalitis affects the brain by unplugging all of a persons connections one by one and plugging them back into random outlets.  Left untreated, the brain overwhelms itself causing seizures and memory disorganization.

Throughout the course of Amobi’s recovery the question many asked was, “Will he ever play football again?”

Those close to the situation hoped for much less.  One of Amobi’s closest friends Chad Rimpsey (former Louisville Defensive End) visited Amobi in a Houston hospital shortly after he was brought out of his medically-induced coma in the summer of 2013.  During conversation Chad brought up how he used to work at Colgate (Jeffersonville, IN) while in college.  Amobi’s eyes lit up, “My homeboy Chad Rimpsey used to work at Colgate!”    Rimpsey sitting right in front of Amobi was unrecognizable to his good friend.  Disorganized.  Amobi knew he had a friend named Chad, but his facial recognition was scrambled.

But this wouldn’t last forever.  Slowly Amobi’s brain started to put things back into place.  He started to remember good friends, but he would lose his phone.   When he started to go out again socially in Houston there were some awkward moments with fringe people he knew before his illness.  For many, Amobi simply just disappeared.  Amobi was an athlete who cared so much about his mission trips to Africa and helping children through the Amobi Okoye Foundation, that it was nothing for Okoye to be out of the scene for months at a time.  Over time, Amobi kept making progress towards normal.

The physical recovery was easier.  But Okoye had to regain his weight lost from time spent in a coma when Okoye lost nearly 90 pounds.

The NFL?

Rob Marinelli never stopped believing in him, but this was a closely guarded secret.  When you say Football. Brain. Coma……….immediately media, fans,  and NFL front offices rush to judgement.  But Okoye’s condition was not caused by concussion or blunt trauma to the head.  This was a virus contracted through a variety of ways, none of which relate to football.

Still the NFL until late this winter was never the goal.  The goal until that point had always been a return to normalcy.

During a recent trip to Atlanta I spent some time with Amobi’s brother Arinze and several other close friends to Okoye.  Amobi is strong.  His brain is sharp.  He has been working out relentlessly and hopes to return to the football field.  What will happen once Okoye goes against his first double-team (as is his custom)?  Who knows.  Amobi hasn’t played football since 2012 and his recovery is much different than that of a player returning after a season with an ACL injury.  Amobi’s gift was always that he was bigger, stronger, and smarter than everyone on the field and that’s something he hopes to showcase once again.  However, a player can’t get into football shape without playing football.

On Thursday Boston doctors finally cleared him to return to the practice field  for the Dallas Cowboys and to join Amobi’s old Defensive Line Coach from the Chicago Bears Rob Marinelli, now defensive coordinator for the Cowboys. It is just another step in Amobi Okoye’s return to football, one many of us never expected or hoped for, but one that Amobi certainly deserves.

Whether or not Amobi Okoye makes the final 53-man roster for the Cowboys or not, friends of Okoye are just happy to have our friend back.  That’s enough for us, and it’s enough for Amobi too.  But for the student who chose Louisville over Harvard, and Bobby Petrino first put on the football field (before he could shave) at 16-years old and was drafted with the 10th pick in the 2007 NFL Draft at age 19, Okoye has always been one to blaze a trail.

Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis is one of the rarest brain diseases known to medicine, and thus far it is the only thing that has ever slowed Amobi Okoye down.  He went through hell and back to beat the disease and after defying all odds in college football and the NFL prior to his affliction, no one should doubt him again.  That’s the Amobi Okoye I know.  Anti-NMBDA didn’t take his laugh, it didn’t take his drive, and it added humility to an already humble person.  He’s back.

 

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