Consider the Pass Rusher
By Terry Horstman
2007 NFL Season – Week One – Atlanta at Minnesota – Vikings lead 24-3 – Falcons have the ball, 1st & 10 at the Vikings’ 23 with one second left in the 4th quarter
Consider the pass rusher. A pass rusher’s prowess is determined almost entirely by the one number that appears besides his name in the sack column. It’s a position with a plethora of responsibilities, yet is defined by a single statistic that wasn’t even an officially recorded statistic prior to 1982. No other position on the offensive or defensive side of the ball is as beholden to one number like a pass rusher is to sacks.
Now consider a pass rusher who hasn’t rushed nearly enough passes to justify his selection as a first-round draft pick. A pass rusher with a reputation as a great kid, with a smile that inspires a thousand cliches, a pass rusher with 52 teammates who love him, a history of injuries holding him back, and not a single sack in almost two calendar years.
Kenechi Udeze was once such a pass rusher. Kenechi lined up at his usual position of left defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings on the last play of the first game of the 2007 season. The Vikes were up by 21, one second on the clock, the outcome of the game had long been decided, but there’s no way in hell one could call the ensuing play meaningless.
This game is not remembered for this play. To most, this game is remembered as the NFL debut of Adrian Peterson. A young man who would rewrite the NFL rushing record books in multiple ways before the end of his rookie season. Peterson didn’t start the game for the Vikings, but he did his part to finish off the Falcons, eclipsing 100 yards on the ground, and adding another 60 on a screen pass from Tarvaris Jackson (RIP, T-Jack!) to score his first professional touchdown in a blaze of speed and power football fans hadn’t seen this side of Jim Brown.
Atlanta fans probably remember it for different reasons.
Consider the 2007 Falcons. The Dirty Birds were a team in utter disarray and were opening a new season without Michael Vick a few months after his dog fighting-induced NFL exile, a few months before their new head coach Bobby Petrino exiled himself back to the college ranks, where he would stay and continue to disgrace himself in new and creative ways, but never struggled to find another big-time program willing to give him another opportunity. Funny how that works.
Nothing about the situation of the 2007 Falcons was fair to the 2007 Falcons. Their new quarterback Joey Harrington, who was on his third and final team of his six-year career, had to have known as he lined up under center with just one second to go in the nightmare that was his final opening day as an NFL quarterback, he’d have no reason to remember this play when he looked back on his career. But to the man lined up a few yards to Harrington’s right and across the line of scrimmage; this play meant everything.
Consider Brad Childress. Brad Childress is one of the least popular head coaches in the history of the Minnesota Vikings. Childress, unaffectionately known as Chili, the coach who fined Troy Williamson for returning to the team a day late from his grandmother’s funeral, and the coach who cut Marcus Robinson on Christmas (he may have actually cut Robinson on December 23, but what’s the difference). Childress wore a perpetual look on his face that suggested he was the only one more pissed off than the fans were that he was the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.
But 2007 was just Chili’s second season at the helm and his fun police demeanor had not yet worn down the purple and gold clad people of Minnesota. As the wildly successful first game of his second season drew to a close, Chili kept his eyes glued to his defensive line and hoped for one more reason to celebrate.
As far as sacks go, this one wasn’t spectacular in its physicality. Kenechi did a good job pushing right tackle Todd Weiner up the field. When Joey bounced up into the pocket, Kenechi bounced off his man, and in a simple and swift movement chased down Joey, and threw him to the turf as time expired.
The play meant nothing and the play meant everything.
It was the Vikings’ sixth sack of the afternoon and it was Kenechi’s first sack in two years.
Everyone celebrated besides Kenechi.
While Kenechi gets up and walks away from the play, teammates Brian Robison, Chad Greenway, and Sidney Rice congratulate him immediately. Right as Kenechi looks like the weight of the world has been lifted off his shoulders, defensive line coach Karl Dunbar jumps on his back and smiles with every muscle in his face. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier runs up to Kenechi, slaps his shoulder pads and yells encouragement into his facemask. Finally, there’s Childress.
Childress broke the time-honored tradition of head coaches going straight to the 50-yard-line to share a handshake and mumble a few words of encouragement through hoarse voices so he could celebrate the moment with Kenechi. The camera holds on them for a few seconds. By now, Kenechi has stopped walking, and the Vikings’ all-time great defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who often lined up next to Kenechi, is slapping him on the back.
Childress grabs Kenechi’s shoulder pads with both hands. He looks into his eyes and says something I can’t make out. He has an uncomfortably natural smile on his face. A type of smile normally reserved for ordinary humans and not NFL head coaches who seem to get penalized for every drop of personality they reveal to the outside world. It’s by far the happiest Childress will look in his five-year tenure as the Vikings head coach.
He may always be the but of jokes in Minnesota. He may very well have been an arrogant bastard of a coach (like other NFL coaches aren’t). But for some reason, as I watch this play years later, it feels important to remember this moment when Chili was absolutely there for one of his guys.
The Vikings went 8-8 in 2007 and were eliminated from playoff contention on the season’s final day. It was seen as mild success considering where they were before, and considering the dynamic play of their phenomenal rookie running back who already seemed poised to run his way to a Hall of Fame career (and he has).
Kenechi recorded four more sacks in 2007. He got through the season mostly healthy and it felt like he had put all the pieces together and figured out how to be an effective professional pass rusher. Like the rest of the Vikings, his 2008 season held nothing but promise.
He never played football again.
Kenechi was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia on February 11, 2008. Instead of fighting offensive tackles, he spent the next year fighting through chemotherapy. When he returned to the Metrodome in November of 2008 to serve as an honorary team captain for the game against the hated Green Bay Packers, he vowed to return to his teammates in 2009. He was true to his word.
Kenechi beat the disease into remission and reported to Vikings minicamp in July. He intended to make a go of it, but his chemotherapy-induced neuropathy caused a numbness that prevented him from pushing offensive linemen up the field and exploding off of them like he used to.
Consider a pass rusher robbed by nature of all of his pass rushing ability.
Kenechi retired. He went back to USC and got his degree. He got into coaching and has worked his way up the college football coaching ladder. He helped the LSU Tigers to a national championship in 2019 as a defensive analyst, and was then hired for the job of linebackers coach at Vanderbilt University.
Consider the pass rusher. A pass rusher’s prowess is determined almost entirely by the one number that appears besides his name in the sack column.
Terry Horstman is a writer, an editor, a Vikings fan raised by Cheese Heads. His writing has been published by A Wolf Among Wolves, Taco Bell Quarterly, The Growler, among others, and he once Googled ‘submission guidelines for The New Yorker.’ He has an MFA from Hamline University, and is a co-founder of the Under Review, a literary magazine publishing sporty stuff. He lives and writes in Northeast Minneapolis.