Idonije makes debut at Lambeau

Israel Idonije (Sun Media photo)

Israel Idonije (Sun Media photo)

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:11 AM ET

Growing up in Brandon, Israel Idonije wouldn't have known George Halas from Vince Lombardi, he didn't really care about Da Bears and he was certainly no Cheesehead. In fact, Idonije was about as casual an NFL fan as you can be back then. He'd watch the Super Bowl, and that was about it.

This past Sunday, the former U of M Bison added his name to the most storied rivalry in football -- Bears vs Packers -- when he made his NFL debut before 70,688 rabid fans at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

It was midway through the first half when Idonije saw Chicago teammate Alfonso Boone go down with a knee injury.

Next thing he knew, he was told to go in at defensive tackle to help shut down quarterback Brett Favre, running back Ahman Green and the rest of the Packers offence.

"If I'm not ready now, I'll never be ready," Idonije recalled thinking. "Let's get it."

With that, Idonije, inactive in the Bears Week 1 loss to Detroit, became the first Manitoban to line up in the modern-day NFL.

A couple of hours later, he was celebrating a stunning 21-10 Bears victory, ending a seven-game Green Bay win streak in the NFL's longest-running grudge match.

"It was exciting," Idonije, a natural end, said. "It feels great to beat 'em. I never practised at tackle, but... I changed my mindset and went in. It went well. But it's still a learning process."

Idonije was in for 26 plays, all on defence, as he and Tank Johnson took turns at the position.

The afternoon capped an incredible ride for a guy whose first year of football was with a rag-tag, nine-man, high school team in Brandon.

Six years later, he's trying to track down one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

"I had Favre on one play," Idonije said. "But he got the ball off. We watched the film, and I had (another) opportunity to get a sack and I played my technique wrong."

He was on the field for the game-turning play, when teammate Mike Brown returned a fumble 95 yards for a touchdown, giving Chicago a 14-3 half-time lead. A few friends and family members called to tell him they saw him on the highlight package.

Overall, the 6-foot-7 Idonije says coaches told him he'd done a good job.

"I went against guys who'd played in the league for years, and I held my own," he said.

And now he knows what Bears-Packers is all about.

Actually, he got a good idea on Saturday, when he and his teammates watched video of the all-time greats from both franchises, including Halas, the former Chicago coach, and Lombardi, Green Bay's legendary field boss.

Sunday, he saw what it means to the fans.

"When our bus was pulling up, Green Bay fans were booing and going wild. And we had our little Chicago section in the stands. People are passionate about it. The fans are wild."

Those in Chicago will be talking about this game all year, especially since the Packers had won 20 of the previous 23 meetings.

First-year Bears coach Lovie Smith had made beating Green Bay his top priority, and he did it with the NFL's youngest team -- average age: 25.3 years.

The go-with-youth philosophy bodes well for Idonije, as does his ability to play both inside and outside positions.

"I prepare every week like I'm going to be on the field," he said. "I find out the day before. And if tackle is what it's going to be, I have no problem with that.

"Whatever shoe it's going to be, I'm going to wear it."

It may as well be a glass slipper. That's how far-fetched Idonije's story has been.

And it only keeps getting better.


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