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145 Days

Nov 27 2017
Photo by
Greg Nelson /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Photo by
Greg Nelson /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Nov 27 2017

T he nurse is telling me it’s August 7, and I don’t believe her.

“What are you talking about? It’s like … March.”

We’re going back and forth — kind of arguing, but not really. I have a headache and I don’t know why. I also don’t know why this nurse is checking me out in the first place. I don’t even know what hospital I’m at, or how I got to here.

But I know what day it is.

It’s March 15. I had worked out that morning, then I went to my office in Houston and met up with my best friend, Malik, and my dad. We discussed our upcoming trip to Nigeria — a trip we take every summer for my nonprofit. And since we haven’t gone to Nigeria yet, I know for sure it’s not August.

I’m telling you: It’s March 15.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Okoye, but it’s actually August 7.”

I look around the room at my mom, my dad and my brother.

“C’mon, guys. It’s March 15. Tell her.”

Nobody says anything. They just turn and look at each other.

I don’t know why everybody is messing with me, but I decide to put a stop to it. So I reach over, grab my phone and click the button to turn on the lock screen. It lights up and I see the date.

August 7, 2013.

Shit.

My head hurts.

And I have no idea what’s happening.


One hundred and forty-five days.

That’s how long the gap in my memory is.

I was right about what happened on March 15. I worked out in the morning, and I was feeling great. I was coming off my sixth NFL season — my second with the Bears — and honestly, it hadn’t been my best year. I had dealt with a few different injuries … but there are no excuses. I didn’t produce. So I had dedicated myself to getting into the best shape of my life that off-season. I was working out like crazy.

After my workout, I went to my office to meet with my dad and Malik to discuss our upcoming trip to Nigeria.

That’s where everything goes dark.

I have no idea what happened next.

I mean, I know now because people have told me. But I don’t remember it actually happening. And what I’m told happened is that while I was sitting in my office chair talking to my dad and Malik, I had a seizure, and….

You know what? I think you should hear this next part from my older brother, Arinze.

Somebody who was … you know … there.

Arinze Okoye
Hello. I am Amobi’s brother, Arinze.

I actually wasn’t in the office when he had his first seizure. I had left to run some errands, and when I got home, I remember I was upstairs and I heard Malik come into the house screaming my name. So I went downstairs, and he told me that Amobi had had a seizure.

I thought he was joking at first because Amobi was in such great shape. He had been working out and he was so healthy.

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Amobi
And there were no symptoms.

Nothing.

It just happened out of the blue.

Arinze
Yes, there were no symptoms. It did not make any sense.

Malik just ran in and told me that Amobi had had a seizure in the office and had fallen out of his office chair. Our dad had gone to the hospital with him.

By the time I arrived at the hospital, Amobi had already had a second seizure. The doctors kept him overnight and examined him, but they couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary. Every test they did came out negative. To them, everything looked normal. So they discharged him the next day. The doctor basically told Amobi that if he had a headache, to take some Tylenol.

And that was it.

Later that night, we were sitting on the couch watching TV. It was getting late, and I think Amobi was already sleeping. As I was dozing off myself, I heard this groaning sound. Like … a kind of grunting. I thought maybe it was Amobi talking in his sleep.

Then I looked over at him.

His body was shaking.

I went over to him and jumped on top of him and tried to hold him in place so he wouldn’t fall off the couch.

Later on, when the ambulance arrived, the paramedics asked me how long the seizure had lasted, and I didn’t have an answer for them. It might have been only 30 seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. I just remember sitting on top of Amobi and holding him down while he was shaking. I was screaming for Malik, who was also in the house, and thinking inside my head — like, talking to God, and saying, “Please don’t take my brother!”

Finally, Amobi stopped shaking. He didn’t know what had happened. He just pushed me off of him and yelled, “Get up!”

And just like that, he was back to normal.

Malik called 911. The ambulance came and the paramedics took Amobi’s vitals and then took him back to the hospital.

Now the doctors were even more confused because everything still looked normal to them.

They couldn’t find anything wrong.

So we decided to call a family friend who is a doctor, and we told him what was happening with Amobi. He was surprised and very confused because he had just been with Amobi hitting golf balls at Top Golf a few weeks before, and he said had seemed fine. So the doctor asked that Amobi be transferred to his hospital downtown Houston.

He ran a spinal tap, and what they found was that Amobi had some kind of virus in his spinal fluid. They didn’t know what it was. They just knew there was something in there. They had to run many more tests, so they sent Amobi home while that process played out.

We were home for about a week, and it was a very strange week. Amobi had mood swings, hallucinations — random stuff that just wasn’t normal for him. We asked the doctor about it, and he said that the seizures had affected Amobi’s brain, and that it would take some time for him to get back to normal.

Two days later — this is about two weeks after his first seizure at the office — Amobi had another seizure at home. We went through the same routine: 911, ambulance, vitals, back to the hospital.

He was still at the hospital a couple of days later when he had two more seizures in rapid succession.

But this time, something was different.

The doctors ordered an EKG and a CAT scan, and when they laid him down to get scanned, they noticed that his breathing had slowed drastically. This was a new symptom, and the doctors appeared to be more confused than ever.

But a nurse who had been treating Amobi since he’d arrived said that she wasn’t confused. In fact, she told the doctors that she had once treated a patient who had some of the same symptoms as Amobi.

She had seen something like this before.


Amobi
Every time I hear Arinze — or my mom, or my dad, or the doctors — tell these stories, I feel like I learn something new about what I went through over the course of those 145 days. I mean, so much happened in just those two weeks that Arinze just told you about, and I don’t remember any of it.

There’s no distinct description or clear definition for what it feels like.

It’s just … abstract.

It’s just so crazy that everything before March 15, 2013, is so clear to me, like it happened yesterday.

I remember when I was 12 years old and my family moved to the United States from Africa.

A lot of times when people hear Africa, they think I grew up in the jungle or something. But that’s not the case. I grew up in a very urban area of Nigeria — the city of Lagos, which is like the New York City of Nigeria. It has skyscrapers and traffic and people are hustling and moving fast every day. It’s very busy. We lived in an apartment, and my dad was building a house for us a little bit outside the city — he was a contractor for the Nigerian government.

My parents were well off in Nigeria — we were probably something like upper middle class.

Then, in 1997, the economy crashed, and everything went south real quick.

Things got so bad so fast that we actually had to leave our apartment and move into our new house before it was even finished. As the economy got even worse, my parents eventually decided to move to the States. My dad had gone to college in Texas and had traveled to the States a lot for work. So in 1997 he moved to Huntsville, Alabama. Two years later, my mom, my brother and I joined him.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The transition for me was actually not that difficult. English had been my primary language in Nigeria. And in a lot of ways, Huntsville reminded me of Lagos — it has a busy, urban downtown surrounded by rural communities.

I think the biggest shock for me was when I first went to school and they wanted to put me in the seventh grade.

In Nigeria, I had started school when I was 2½ years old. When I was in fifth grade, I tested well and skipped to the seventh grade. By the time I was 12, I was already on a level equivalent to the ninth grade in the States.

So my family made a deal with the school: I would go to the ninth grade for two weeks, and if I performed well I could stay.

Well, they put me in two classes that I had already taken in Nigeria, so I performed very well. And they let me stay.

So I started high school in the States when I was 12 years old.

Another thing about me: I was a fat kid. I don’t remember how tall I was, but I was like 225 pounds — at 12 years old.

One day, we had a substitute teacher for homeroom. It was one of the football coaches. He noticed my size, and he asked me if I wanted to play football.

I didn’t know what football was. I mean, I had heard about it, and I had seen it on TV a couple of times. But I wasn’t interested in playing.

So I told him no.

My friend Bradley was sitting next to me. He was on the football team, and he basically said to me, “Yeah, you don’t want to play football. It’s hard. You’ll get broken.”

I took that as a challenge.

So I decided to play — just to prove him wrong.

People in Nigeria are very ambitious. They’re go-getters. I think that’s where I get it from. And I think that’s how I survived my first few months of football, too, because I wasn’t actually doing any football stuff. It was all strength and conditioning. And while the coaches worked with me to get my body in football shape, they suggested I go play some Madden to learn the game.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

So that’s what I did. I just played Madden with the fellas, and that was basically my Football 101.

As I learned the game and started playing, I began to play less to prove Bradley wrong and more because I fell in love with the game. I really enjoyed the challenge, the camaraderie and … the hitting.

I loved hitting folks.

I was pretty good at it, too. As a senior, I was first-team all-state in Alabama on both offense and defense. I was doing really well in the classroom, too. I was actually doing so well that when I graduated high school, I had a choice to make: I could accept a scholarship to Harvard, or I could attend Louisville to play football.

By that time, my love for football had taken over my entire life. It was the only thing I wanted to do.

Plus, I was only 15 years old when I graduated high school — remember, I started ninth grade when I was 12. So as insane as my dad thought I was at the time, I decided to play football at Louisville instead of going to Harvard.

My mom had bought into me playing football almost immediately. It took my dad a little longer to come around. But when my time at Louisville ended and the Texans took me with the 10th pick in the 2007 NFL draft, I don’t think anybody could argue that I hadn’t made the right choice by playing football.

I had come from Nigeria, gotten an education and now, at 19 years old, I was the youngest player in the NFL. My job was to play the game I loved.

I was living my American dream.


Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.

That’s what the nurse told the doctors she thought I had, based on what she had seen.

I’ll have to let Arinze explain.

Arinze
Yes, the nurse told the doctors that she thought Amobi had this condition. The doctors were not able to test for that at their hospital, so they did another spinal tap and sent it to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to get tested. It was going to take about two weeks for the results to come back. So during that time, the doctors wanted to try some new treatments, now that they had some idea of what they might be dealing with.

But Amobi’s breathing had become so sporadic that they could not effectively treat him.

So on April 2, they put him in a medically induced coma to stabilize him.

Two weeks later, the results came back from the Mayo Clinic.

The nurse was right.

Amobi had Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

The best way to explain it is that the virus the doctors initially found in Amobi’s spinal fluid was attacking the brain receptors that control everything from your judgement to your breathing. So that’s why Amobi was having seizures and generally not acting like himself.

Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis is a very rare condition that was discovered in 2007. So in terms of research and how it’s treated — of even how it’s generally understood — there isn’t a lot of information. So for three months, the doctors kept Amobi in a coma, and they tried everything they could think of in terms of treatment, including chemotherapy and various medications.

But everything was basically trial and error. They were trying to find something — anything — that could suppress the virus that was attacking his brain.

In July the doctors started to notice the levels of the virus in Amobi’s body decreasing. They’re still not quite sure why, but the levels got low enough that the doctors felt comfortable bringing him out of his coma.

But it’s not like he just woke up one day and saw everybody in the room with him. The doctors gradually weaned him off the medications that were keeping him comatose. Slowly his eyes began to open — a little more each day — until they were completely open and he was fully awake.

But even then, he still wasn’t himself, mentally or physically. He had lost somewhere around 80 pounds while he was in the coma. He had been on a liquid diet for almost three months. His upper body still had its normal size, but he had lost a lot of muscle mass in his legs.

Amobi
And this was all in July. I still have no recollection of any of this.

Arinze
Yes. This was all in July.

Once August arrived and he was finally able to remember things and retain information, he started doing therapy to relearn how to do basic things like read and write.

And through the entire process, he was slowly learning about what had happened to him.

Amobi
I think that was the hardest part — trying to understand what I had been through. I remember learning to read and write, how to walk, how to eat, all that stuff. But all that came back pretty quickly. It was just muscle memory.

It’s when somebody tells you it’s August 7, and you don’t believe them … that’s tough to wrap your head around. There were definitely times when I was in denial because, to me, it just felt like nothing had really happened. It felt like I had just woken up from a nap. It’s difficult to get emotional about memories that you don’t even have. So it took a while for it to sink in that I had been through some shit.

Arinze
It’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

I just thank God that my brother is alive.


Amobi
I started thinking about football pretty much as soon as I was coherent. I didn’t know what it was going to take for me to get back on the field, but I knew I was prepared to do it. I did everything my doctors told me to do, and slowly, I started working out as much as my body would allow me to.

I talked to my old defensive coach from Chicago, Rod Marinelli, who was now with the Cowboys. He told me to keep him updated on my recovery and what my doctors were saying.

In May 2014, nine months after I “woke up,” I signed a contract with the Cowboys — no guarantees, no bonus. I basically just signed up to work out with the team and see how I progressed. I wasn’t even cleared by doctors to officially start playing again until August, but for me just being around football … that was the first time since March 15, 2013, that I actually felt normal again.

I never played a game for the Cowboys. I spent the 2014 season on the reserve/non-football illness list. I was just never able to get to where I needed to be physically to play. So in April 2015, the Cowboys released me.

I kept on training, and then I signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL for the 2016 season. I basically spent the entire year on their injured reserve, so I never played for them, either. I was able to practice a couple of times, but they wanted me to be much lighter than I was used to being, and things just didn’t work out.

Now, it’s 2017, and I still believe I can come back and play in the NFL.

Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports

I agree with Arinze: What I’ve been through, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis is a very random condition. It chooses who it wants to attack.

I still wonder why it chose me.

There were no symptoms or warning signs before it hit me that day while I was sitting in my office. So I guess anything is possible.

But what I do know is that I can still play football. I am in the best shape of my life, and I still feel the disappointment of how I performed — or didn’t perform — the last time I played, back in 2012. Since then I’ve been through a lot. I fought this rare disease, and it appears as though I have beaten it. I mean … I’m here, and I’m alive.

I’m a walking miracle.

I plan on going back to school and finishing my MBA — which I had started working towards before my illness. I’m spending a lot of time working with my foundation. But more than anything else, I’m working as hard as I have in my life to get back to playing the game I love.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what the outcome will be. All I can do is give it my best shot.

I haven’t played in five years, but I’m only 30 years old, and I only have six NFL seasons under my belt. I’m far from being done. Despite everything I’ve been through, I believe I will play again. I understand that it’s a long shot, but that’s not going to stop me from trying to fight my way back.

I just need one team to join the fight with me.