For any aspiring players hoping to make it in the National Football League via a Canadian university, Chicago Bears defensive lineman Israel Idonije is proof it can happen.
The Nigeria native who grew up in Winnipeg, where he still has a residence, is a rising star with the Bears. In April he signed a four-year, $9-million US contract. It's not guaranteed, but he already has received a $1.6-million signing bonus.
Not bad for a guy who really didn't make a name for himself until his final year with the University of Manitoba in 2002. He received a free-agent contract with the Cleveland Browns, but was considered a long shot to make the team. An ankle injury limited his progress and led to his release a month in the season.
The Bears signed him six weeks later to the practice squad and sent him to NFL Europe in the off-season for development. In the past two seasons he has elevated himself to one of the team's group of defensive linemen.
The 25-year-old, who is listed at 6-foot-6, 275 pounds, has advice for Canadian university-trained players trying out in the NFL and future prospects: Stay hungry.
"There may be people who will tell (a prospect) he doesn't have the speed, the size, all that stuff to make it the NFL, but if it's something you want, you've got to make the sacrifices to help you get there," he said yesterday at an NFL-CFL symposium in Brampton. Idonije is making some appearances on behalf of NFL Canada.
Idonije described his route from university to where he is now in his career "an interesting trip," but is far from satisfied and said working hard is paramount.
"Every year there's a younger guy behind me that wants to get my spot," he said. "Especially for Canadians, you're behind the 8-ball. You're opportunities to make it in the NFL aren't as many. So that's the big thing, work hard."
Idonije has two objectives: To become a starter -- he currently is rotated in and out -- and win a Super Bowl ring.
"Chicago is a great situation for me," he said. "They have some great guys who play ahead of me and they've given me an opportunity to get better and develop. You can have all the potential in the world, but if you don't have a team that's willing to give you that opportunity to fashion that talent, it's going to be a hard road. Chicago has allowed me to take steps and keep growing and to keep me in the program."