Idonije proves us wrongBeats odds of making it in NFL
By PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun
I'll be the first to admit I didn't really give Israel Idonije much of a chance in the NFL.
I mean, it was a neat story to follow, and everything -- how this preacher's son from Brandon, who'd only begun playing football in Grade 12, became a star with the U of M Bisons, got drafted by the CFL, then received tryouts with the Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears.
But I'd have put $100 on Idonije settling for a career in Canada, not because he wasn't a good player, but simply because of the odds.
Canadian players in the NFL are rare enough. Those who aren't trained at football factories south of the border are nearly impossible to find.
And most have played football since they were old enough to remember.
Idonije first played as a high school senior, and even then it was only nine-man football on a rag-tag, start-up team at Brandon's Vincent Massey Collegiate.
First-year coach Kevin Grindey didn't really want any Grade 12ers on his team. It wasn't even going to be a full-fledged member of the Rural Manitoba Football League for another year, so the idea was to go with younger players.
Grindey, though, made an exception for a big, strong basketball player he knew from the local YMCA, where Idonije served as a youth leader.
That exception today is a member of the Chicago Bears, and, this Sunday, he'll become the first Manitoban to play in the modern-day NFL.
"It's so mind-boggling," Grindey, still the coach at Vincent Massey, was saying yesterday. "We, in a million years, would have never thought he'd make the steps he's made. We thought he was coming out to play football for fun, for one year."
That one year led to an invitation to the Bisons camp, where at first Idonije didn't know a two-deep zone from a no-parking zone.
Four years later, in 2002, he was named top university lineman in the country, which earned him a coveted spot in U.S. college's East-West Shrine Game.
That's where NFL scouts discovered this raw, 6-foot-7 defensive end with the relentless work ethic just might be able to play.
Still, the odds were astronomical, even after Cleveland signed him in 2003.
The football landscape is littered with Americans from major U.S. colleges who never suit up for a single game.
But after being released by the Browns, picked up by the Bears and game-tested in NFL Europe this past spring, Idonije is one of just 13 Canadians on opening-day rosters.
You can bet he's the only one who first pulled on a helmet six years ago.
Idonije, who's just 23, shrugs off questions about his lack of a pedigree like he used to shrug off would-be blockers in Brandon.
"It's based on your mindset," he told the Bears website. "If a guy's from Michigan and I'm from wherever I'm from, as soon as we get on the field, it's competition.
"A lot of people didn't know about us ... because the scouting isn't the same. They don't look into us as deeply as some of the guys down here."
And they don't take Canadian training very seriously.
Just look at what Bears GM Jerry Angelo had to say about Idonije.
"He's got some unique qualities, given the fact he really didn't have any college background to speak of," Angelo said.
You can almost hear Bisons coach Brian Dobie fall off his chair after that one.
Interestingly, it was Dobie who, two years ago, touted Idonije as a legitimate NFL prospect.
So perhaps it's time to recognize some people who recognized talent, and knew what to do with it.
"We lined him up at D-end," Grindey said. "And basically said, 'Line up, they snap the ball, and go get them.' "
That Idonije has certainly done.
And proven most of us wrong in the process.