Brandon to Baghdad

PAUL FRIESEN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

He's faced the pressure of making an NFL team and playing in a Super Bowl.

But there's probably nothing that could have prepared Izzy Idonije for what he experienced earlier this month.

Manitoba's only NFLer, a defensive lineman with the Chicago Bears, took a recent trip to Iraq to meet with American troops in the middle of war.

Needless to say, this was a little different than trying to dodge 300-pound offensive linemen.

"It was pretty crazy," Idonije told Sun Media from Chicago yesterday. "We were in Kuwait for the first couple of nights, went to some bases there.

Quite an experience

Then off to Iraq for seven days. It was quite an experience. What those guys do, day in and day out, is special."

Idonije's trip was part of the Gridiron Greats Tour, an annual goodwill visit by NFL players. Joining him were Bears teammate Chris Harris and Nick Harper of the Indianapolis Colts.

They'd never taken a road trip like this, though.

The security made the Super Bowl seem like a free-for-all.

"We had military guys, 24-7, stationed outside our tent," Idonije said.

"There's always bombs shooting. Every base shoots all night, so the first couple of nights it takes a little getting used to the bombs and stuff like that. They have specified targets they fire at every night, just to let whoever is out there shooting at them (know)."

Idonije says he always felt safe, except for one incident.

"It sounded like it was an incoming bomb, but it was a bomb they were shooting out," he said. "Everybody was running."

Flying over Saddaam's bombed-out palaces in Baghdad is one of the things that stands out for the Brandon product.

Meeting soldiers and hearing their stories is something he won't soon forget, either.

"The troops who flew the helicopters, shot the guns, we met with them, saw their vehicles that had been blown up, and just really got a chance to talk and hear the stories directly from the guys who go through it," he said.

Idonije's parents in Brandon were a little concerned when they first found out their son was going.

"It was with mixed emotions," is how his mom, Choice, described it. "There is so much happening over there, especially with suicide bombers. Someone could be standing beside you and they could blow up at anytime."

Offered advice

Choice says she didn't try to talk her son out of it, but did offer some advice.

She was in a unique position to do that, having lived through war in her home country of Nigeria.

"I just wanted him to prepare himself for the kinds of injuries he would see," she said. "He could see things he'd never seen before. Just the effects of war. I do have first-hand experience with civil war. It's a terrible thing.

"When we went through it, you had soldiers right in front of your home, shooting. When you're not there, it's difficult to understand."

What her son did though, makes her proud.

"To go and visit the young people and encourage them and give them some hope ... it was special he was able to go," Choice said. "We're proud he went."

Trying to be an inspiration to others is nothing new for Idonije.

Growing up, he'd help his father, a minister who operated a mission in Brandon. He also volunteered at the YMCA.

Since making the NFL, he's been known to make surprise visits to a Winnipeg daycare he volunteered at while with the University of Manitoba Bisons.

It seems as Idonije's world has grown, so has his desire to make a difference.

"It was overall a great experience," he said of his sojourn to the Middle East. "I wouldn't hesitate to go again."


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