Amobi Okoye entered the NFL as a wunderkind as a 19-year old with the Houston Texans in 2007. Now just two months after his 27th birthday and following a bout with a rare and potentially fatal disease, Okoye is seeking to continue his dream with the Dallas Cowboys.
Okoye first was identified to suffer from anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, an autoimmune syndrome that causes brain inflammation, in 2013 and it caused him to fall into a coma and suffer a 145-day memory gap that not only threatened to end his NFL dreams but also almost cost him his life, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Now Okoye has been cleared medically by the Cowboys, who signed him in May (with no guaranteed money or signing bonus) and hope to — amazingly — see him on the field in their third preseason game against the Miami Dolphins.
“It’s a blessing every day,” Okoye said. “You count your blessings. Your faith gets tested. I am happy to be back doing what I love to do.”
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A former first-round pick of the Houston Texans who showed signs of early dominance before his career tailed off, Okoye last played in an NFL game in 2012 with the Chicago Bears. A few months after that, at the start of free agency in 2013, he suffered from a series of seizures in his hometown of Houston. He had just finished a workout and was with his father, Augustine, when Okoye started to convulse.
“I thought he was having a heart attack,” Augustine said. “How can a young man be having a heart attack? It was frightening.”
Okoye continue to suffer from seizures in three different hospitals, losing his speech in the process, and eventually was placed in a medically indcued coma in an intensive-care unit. It was there that the results of a spinal tap revealed Okoye's rare disease, which Dr. Benjamin Greenberg, an associate professor of neurology and neurotherapeutics and pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center, describes as being "probably in the one-in-a-million range."
Although Okoye emerged from his coma in July of 2013, he had lost most of his ability to speak and had dropped 78 pounds. Okoye has no memory of anything from March 15 to Aug. 7 of that year. After being released from the hopsital last August, Okoye needed to relearn basic human functions.
"Walking, eating, all that stuff,” Okoye said.
But by December, Okoye knew he wanted to try to return to the NFL. Because of the severity of the illness, even though Okoye felt healthy, there was concern for his well-being — especially in a sport where concussions and brain injuries are so common. The Cowboys closely monitored his situation, signed him and, following a stretch on the non-football injury list, was cleared to take part in contact drills with the team on Thursday.
Realistically, Okoye faces long odds ever to make it back to the NFL during the regular season, even with a Cowboys defense that badly needs reinforcements and with a defensive coordinator in Rob Marinelli, who coached Okoye in Chicago, who believes in him.
But Okoye's biggest victory to date has been overcoming this frightening syndrome that almost cost him his life. Even if he doesn't make the Cowboys' roster this season, Okoye's survival and recovery to this point has been an achievement worth a lifetime of praise.
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