MANKATO – The toughest member in this practice-ending scrum wasn’t Jared Allen, Kevin Williams or any other member of the Vikings defensive line.
Nope. That honor belonged to Cole Halbakken of little Lake Mills, Iowa.
Cole stands shorter than 5 feet. And he might go 80 pounds, assuming someone filled his shoes with rocks.
But he’s a survivor. A 10-year-old cancer survivor.
“Four years, 117 days since diagnosis,” said his mom, Kyra Reps. “Not that anyone is counting.”
Cole woke up Monday morning with no idea that his day would end in Mankato breaking down the Vikings defensive line huddle.
“I got to yell, ‘1, 2, 3!’ ” Cole said. “And then they yelled, ‘D-Line pride!’ It was pretty cool.”
Interview over. Slipping on the huge souvenir gloves he had just acquired, Cole sprinted for the nearby blocking pad he had been champing to take a whack at when a nosy reporter got in the way.
“It’s great to see him so full of energy and being just a kid,” said former Vikings first-round draft pick Kenechi Udeze, who has been with the team this summer as part of the NFL’s Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship. “He’s come a long way.”
Udeze already knew Cole. He also knows the path Cole has traveled. The 30-year-old Udeze started down his road to beating acute lymphoblastic leukemia about a year before Cole began his journey.
“I’m doing great,” said Udeze, the 20th overall draft pick in 2004. “I’m alive.”
He also just passed a critical five-year anniversary.
“July 16, 2008,” said Udeze, referring to the date that he received a bone-marrow transplant from his brother, Thomas Barnes. “They say that puts me into a better percentile of the leukemia coming back again. They say less than 1 percent. I feel blessed.”
A little over four years ago, Udeze traveled to Lewiston, Minn., to be the guest speaker for the Fools Five Road Race, a fundraiser for cancer research. Organizers wanted Udeze to meet this 6-year-old boy who had just been diagnosed.
“Cole had just come from getting a spinal tap and his chemo treatment,” Reps said. “He was in a wheelchair, so Kenechi said he’d push Cole in the race.”
Cole’s last treatment was June 25.
“Before he broke down the huddle, that little guy told us his story,” Williams said. “It’s good as NFL players when we get to bring a smile to his face like that. But he brought one to ours, too.”
The Vikings break the Mankato portion of camp Thursday morning. Players and coaches will travel to Winter Park and then board a flight to Buffalo for Friday’s preseason game.
Udeze is young enough that he could be on that flight as a player. He is also in good shape and appears to be a little lighter than his playing weight of 281.
But Udeze’s playing days ended in the summer of 2009, when he tried to make a comeback after a year off. His coaching fellowship also ends Thursday, so he will be saying goodbye again.
“I’d love to end up back here coaching one day, but even if it doesn’t happen, everything that I learned here, I got that forever because I’m always taking notes,” said Udeze, who spent three years as the strength coach at the University of Washington and last season helping coach the Seattle Seahawks defensive line.
“Plus, I got to see all the guys I used to play for, the coaches. I even got to see Matt Cassel, my former [Southern California] teammate and one of my best friends. When I was lying in the hospital and crying after I got diagnosed, Matt called me and asked me if there was anything he could do. Anything.”
Udeze had one request.
“I was in California at the time,” Cassel said. “And he said all he wanted was to eat some Slippery Shrimp from Yang Chow’s, our favorite place in L.A.”
“The next morning, I got a cooler with dry ice in it,” Udeze said. “I was eating Slippery Shrimp that morning.”
Udeze said there was a time when he cried every day for months because football had been taken from him. Not anymore.
“Of course, I wish I was breaking camp and going to Buffalo to play a preseason game,” Udeze said. “But my path was different. That’s OK. I like the path that I’m on. I want to have an impact on people’s lives.”
People like Cole Halbakken.