Izzy walks the walk

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:50 AM ET

So you think you'd like to be in Israel Idonije's shoes?

Which pair -- he's only got 1,200 of them.

Actually, that's how many pairs Idonije arranged to have shipped to Nigeria through his charitable foundation earlier this month.

It's just the latest accomplishment from a man who might be a bigger star off the football field than he is on it.

"We did a shoe drive in Chicago," the Bears veteran was saying Tuesday. "So that's pretty exciting."

Idonije, a native African who was raised in Brandon, was in Winnipeg Tuesday playing principal for a day at the inner city's Sister MacNamara School, where his First Down attendance program is in its second successful year.

Friday he leaves for Africa and the country where he was born, bringing a team of 11 doctors and nurses and a ton of supplies with him, providing free medical clinics. It's the third year of that program, and if Idonije has his way, it'll continue for many more.

"A lot of athletes, their non-profits, when they're done playing it dries up," he said. "My focus is to build something that's sustainable and effective beyond my career."

That's why he's hired an executive director to run his foundation more like a business.

As for football, Idonije will go into the 2010 NFL season, his seventh as a full-time player, as lean as ever -- and determined to earn the job he's always coveted.

"I'm going to take a shot at playing the end spot again," the 29-year-old said. "I'm going to come in at 260, ready to run, ready to play. Hopefully I can play a little more than three snaps at the end spot, find a permanent spot somewhere."

Idonije had similar designs last year, but quickly found himself back at defensive tackle, forcing him to bulk up to 285 pounds.

The 6-foot-6, former U of M Bison would love to play the opposite end from Julius Peppers, one of the Bears' big free-agent signings.

"He's a force," Idonije said. "He's going to cause some problems for offences."

Idonije is pumped about what the Bears have done for their own offence, landing running back Chester Taylor and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna in a rare attack on free agency.

Throw new offensive co-ordinator Mike Martz, the genius behind the St. Louis Rams juggernauts, into the mix and the Bears attack should improve on its No. 23 ranking from '09.

Idonije finished last season on a sour note, too, suffering a foot injury in the second-last game of the season. Although the cast he wore for six weeks is off, he still hasn't started running.

Wisely, he's stayed away from the buffet, and only has about 15 pounds to shed, or about a month's work, to get ready for the season.

With two years left on his contract, Idonije isn't sure if he'll sign another one. It'll depend on how he feels, what he has left in the tank. He doesn't want to be one of those who's so messed up, physically, that he can't play with his kids when he's older.

He sounds an ominous warning, though, about the potential for an NFL labour showdown following this season.

"The owners are prepared," he said. "The players need to prepare the same. In 2010 if you're an athlete in the NFL, you shouldn't spend a cent. You should take all your money and you should put it somewhere, just in case there is a lockout. You can't live like you're going to be making those previous cheques.

"I hope it doesn't go that far."

But that's a fight for next year.

More importantly, there are people back home who need his help.

"All the kids are basically barefoot, running on gravel," Idonije said, recalling his previous trips to Nigeria. "It's ridiculous."

So he did what he could to change it.

For Idonije, the shoe just fits.

paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca


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