Izzy takes one for team

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:53 AM ET

Izzy Idonije knows the morbid statistics.

He's a football player, after all, a 6-foot-6 behemoth who plays one of the most hazardous positions in the most brutal league in the world.

Statistically, the Brandon product, a Chicago Bears defensive lineman, isn't expected to live much past 58, the average life expectancy of an NFL player, according to the NFL Players Association.

And if Idonije does beat the odds, he's a prime candidate for dementia and other post-concussion conditions brought on by years of slamming his head into other behemoths, to say nothing of the wear and tear on the rest of his body.

The physical toll on pro athletes, particularly football players, was spelled out in Sun Media's recent series, Fame's Dark Shadows -- but it wasn't news to this 28-year-old.

"You hear about that stuff all the time," Idonije, in Winnipeg for a series of appearances related to his charitable foundation, told the Sun yesterday. "It's a reality. Especially for the big men. It takes a toll on the body. The biggest issue is when you're done playing, you've got to get that weight down, which is what a lot of guys don't do. It's tough."

If Idonije didn't know exactly how tough it was to drop significant weight, he does now.

After finishing last season at a career high 306 pounds -- the Bears wanted him heavy to play inside, at the tackle position -- the team asked him to trim down to 270. His deadline: by the start of a mini-camp, in 10 days.

Idonije sounds happy about this change. Not only will he be switching back to defensive end, which he loves, he'll be healthier.

"It was heavy," he said. "You'd be a lot sorer after games, your knees hurt a lot more, your ankles hurt a lot more. I feel a world of difference right now at 280. I've got to drop this last 10 pounds.

"I'm sure (306) wasn't great for me. But that's what they asked me to do, so that's what I did."

Job hazard

The constant weight fluctuations, Idonije knows, come with the territory. A job hazard, you might say.

Putting it on is relatively easy.

"All you gotta do is eat," he said.

Shedding it takes some discipline.

As for the physical toll on his brain, he has plenty of experience with that, too.

"It's a violent game. You hit with your head. Guys get knocked out all the time. I've been buzzed, had stingers, all that stuff."

Once, he was even knocked cold.

It was on a kickoff return a few years ago.

"Both of us got knocked out," Idonije recalled. "The other guy didn't come back in the game. I was able to get up and get back in the game."

Helped to the bench, Idonije was sitting there, still dazed, when he was told he was needed, if he was OK. Insisting he was, he went out for another play.

A good idea?

"No," he admitted. "Of course not. But I'll tell you, tomorrow if I'm in a game and I'm dazed and they say we need you, I guarantee I'm going to get up and go back in the game. That's just the mentality.

"Last year my finger was barely hanging on. I went over, taped it up, they put a cast on it and I went back in the game. Now it still bends. That's the problem with football -- it's a tough man's game. Even guys that are really hurt -- as a football player you're conditioned to get up and keep playing."

For the team.

It's the cost, if you will, of an NFL salary.

Idonije tries to limit the long-term cost to his health by taking care of himself.

He now wears a neck collar to help limit the whiplash from collisions. He stretches religiously. Stays in shape, 12 months of the year.

"So that when I'm old I can walk," he said. "That my hips aren't all messed up. I do all the little things. It's your responsibility to do what you can to protect yourself."

It's a small price to pay now.

To, hopefully, avoid paying a larger one in the future.

Contact Paul at paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca or 632-2788.


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