Israel Idonije: Giving Back
Thursday, 17 September 2009 04:35
Written by David Schmeichel
He’s seen his share of miracles on the gridiron, where he’s made a name for himself in football circles as one of the Chicago Bears’ most consistent linemen.
But off the field, Israel Idonije is a bit of a miracle-maker himself, changing lives by channeling his energy into a playbook’s worth of worthy causes.
The defensive tackle, 28, and founder of the Israel Idonije Foundation, has also made a name for himself in humanitarian circles, helping disadvantaged communities on both a local and global scale through a network of charitable works, outreach programs and spontaneous acts of compassion.
He’s raised funds for shooting victims, visited sick kids in the hospital, served as an inner city advocate, and generally embodied his personal mantra of “Helmet off, hands on,” recently going so far as to cough up the cash that saved the life of an ailing child in Africa.
“There was a young girl there who was dying—her heart was pumping blood into her lungs. Death was certain unless she had a certain surgery,” says Idonije from Chicago. “Her mother came up and said there was an organization that would give her the surgery, but they didn’t have the money to fly her to Texas to have it done.”
The former Winnipeg (by way of Brandon, by way of Lagos, Nigeria) resident was back in the latter country earlier this year as part of a goodwill mission that included teammates Adewale Ogunleye and Tommie Harris, plus four fellow NFL-ers, six doctors and seven nurses.
Idonije and Ogunleye agreed to pay the girl’s airfare after learning of her plight from Ogunleye’s sister, a congresswoman in the region.
“She got the surgery,” Idonije says of the girl, a four-year-old born with a hole in her heart. “She came down to Chicago in March, and she’s just a totally different kid. She has a
better shot at being whoever she wants to be.”
Idonije has long believed in taking full advantage of that shot, spinning his high school football career into a five-year-stint with the University of Manitoba Bisons, where he made waves and racked up an impressive list of honours.
And while he describes himself as something of an underachiever in the classroom, he had no trouble picking up the lessons in philanthropy imparted to him by his parents, founders of the Brandon-based Street Love Mission, a resource for homeless people that’s now one of the Idonije Foundation’s three pillars.
In addition, there’s Izzy’z Kidz First Down program (an attendance-based incentive for school students in Chicago and Winnipeg) and C.A.R.E. Africa (which provides safe drinking water and medical aid to Nigerians), though Idonije also funds scholarships, runs football and dance camps, and maintains a regular presence in all of his home communities.
“It’s easy for people to put money behind something by writing a cheque or sponsoring an event,” says Idonije, who’s about to kick off one of his first Canadian fundraising efforts, a partnership with Bisons Football and Boston Pizza that benefits Sister MacNamara School in Winnipeg. “That doesn’t go the same distance as being there.”
Idonije himself has come quite a distance since 2003, when he showed up uninvited to the NFL’s Scouting Combine, handing out videotapes of his highlight reel from a brown paper bag.
His perseverance eventually caught the attention of a scout from Cleveland—and later, Chicago (where he’d make Canadian university football history in 2007 as one of the first two former CIS players to square off in the Super Bowl)—and it’s that same sense of self-reliance he hopes to instill in the kids he serves as mentor to.
“Giving back is something I’ve done all my life,” says Idonije, whose efforts earned him induction into Manitoba’s Order of the Buffalo Hunt (for outstanding contributions to community and society) in 2007 and the NHL’s prestigious JB Award (for achievements in excellence off the field) in 2008.
“The goal was to really impact people’s lives and make them better. I wanted to open their eyes to make them understand that in life, if you want something, you have to go and get it.”
For more information about the Israel Idonije Foundation, check www.israelidonije.org.
Visit winnipegmen.com to watch Joe Aiello’s interview with Israel Idonije.