Making a difference

PAUL FRIESEN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:09 AM ET

So it's a day off from the NFL grind, a day to put your feet up, lick the wounds from your first loss of the season and clear your head for another grueling week of practice.

That's what most of the Chicago Bears were doing yesterday.

Izzy Idonije wasn't one of them.

The defensive lineman, coming off a game in which he got his first sack of the season, instead hopped a plane to Winnipeg Monday night, then spent the better part of Tuesday with about 70 screaming, Grade 6 kids.

Apparently, that's how the 27-year-old from Brandon relaxes.

"I'm going to bowl, eat pizza, laugh with some kids -- it's going to be a lot of fun," the big man (6-foot-6, 297 pounds) was saying yesterday morning.

Idonije was in the gym at Sister MacNamara School, on Sargent Ave., where if the large sign and blue-and-orange balloons -- Bears colours -- didn't make him feel welcome, seeing all the kids wearing his No. 71 surely did.

"IZZYz KIDz," he calls them, and if every pro athlete put in the effort Idonije does, this world would be a better place.

Where many of his NFL counterparts make headlines by changing their names, dating celebrities or having run-ins with the law, Idonije prefers setting a good example, a novel concept if we've ever heard one.

His primary message to kids: go to school. Educate yourself, and anything's possible.

His "First Down" program, which rewards individual kids and their classes for attendance, has been wildly successful in Chicago.

Yesterday, he brought it to his "other" home, his latest effort in a long line of community work that began when he was growing up in Brandon, continued through his days at the University of Manitoba and shows no sign of letting up.

From quiet trips to the River Heights daycare where he used to work, to an NFL-sponsored goodwill mission to Iraq to sojourns to his native Nigeria, the guy's always up to something.

You might say his charitable arm is getting as big as the ones hanging at his sides.

"It's kind of where I come from," Idonije said. "My parents are ministers, and we grew up running a program called Street Love, feeding homeless and needy people on the first and 15th of every month. So that's just a part of who I am.

"So now that I've had some success, it's an easy path for me to follow."

Actually, the easy path would be doing the bare minimum.

Idonije, though, as gone so far as to set up his own charitable foundation, of which Winnipegger Don Kozun is a director.

"He's as genuine a person as I've ever met, that walks the talk," Kozun said. "When I was down in Chicago, it was him and I doing the running around and setting things up. As much as he can be hands-on, he is."

As opposed to, "Hands up!" -- the motto for far too many NFLers.

The only arrest you'll find Idonije involved in is when he talks to kids and handcuffs their attention.

"I saw 800 kids absolutely go quiet when he started talking, and were listening so intently to every word he said," Kozun said. "When you see that, you know the power this man brings, that he can relate with those kids. And it's all genuine."

Idonije tells them they can do anything they want in life, just like his parents told him.

"But it starts with education," he said. "With education, there's nothing you can't achieve."

Actually, there's been one thing Idonije hasn't been able to get his mitts on, through five-plus seasons in the NFL: a full-time, starting spot.

Not that it seems to faze him.

"When they call my number, I'm going to give it everything I have," Idonije said. "If they need me on special teams, blocking field goals, playing defence, end, tackle, nose, that's what I do -- just get in and go to work."

Just like on his day off, it turns out.


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