Idonije a working-class hero

Chicago Bears defensive end Israel Idonije.  (QMI Agency files)

Chicago Bears defensive end Israel Idonije. (QMI Agency files)

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:04 PM ET

Israel Idonije may have had the perfect response to being named one of three finalists for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.

“It’s not really about me,” the Chicago Bears defensive end and product of Brandon, Man., said.

That, as much as anything, sums up why this massive 30-year-old with the even bigger heart is up for the only NFL award that recognizes both community service and excellence on the field.

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Eight different times Idonije sacked NFL quarterbacks this past season, but it’s the memory of a little boy lying on the ground that he’s talking about on this day.

It was on his last trip to his native Nigeria, in March, when Idonije came across a boy, no older than five.

“I picked him up, while all the other kids jumped back,” Idonije recalled in an interview with QMI Agency. “He had a gaping hole on the bottom of his foot, that was infected and brown and pus-y... he’d never worn shoes.”

And it struck Idonije, again, why he does what he does.

Particularly, why he helps organize an annual humanitarian mission to Africa, distributing medicine, care and, last year, 1,200 pairs of shoes donated by kids in Chicago and shipped to the impoverished country where he was born.

“That pair of shoes that was sent all the way to Africa is going to save a young child from going through something like that,” Idonije said. “That infection easily could have gone to a point where he could have had his leg amputated. What an incredible testimony to why we do this trip every year.”

Idonije says “we” a lot, making sure to point out he’s only part of a team, much like he’s just one cog in the Bears defence.

On this team, though, he’s the front man, the charitable foundation that bears his name the main reason he’s up for an award that’s gone to superstars like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Kurt Warner.

The stars of this team, though, Idonije says, are the doctors and nurses who volunteer their time, the educators who administer his First Down program, designed to keep kids in school, and the coaches that run his clinics.

“Sure, I can go to Africa, but I can’t save a baby’s life the way that was done last year,” he said. “I can’t make a warm water solution that is expressed into a woman’s ear who thinks she’s been deaf for years... and now allows her to hear — I can’t do any of those things.”

No, but he can use the platform he enjoys as an NFL player to launch and gain support for those efforts.

Four years ago, the Israel Idonije Foundation had very humble beginnings.

“Everything was jam-packed in my garage,” Idonije said, recalling the boxes of T-shirts and mini-footballs he was handing out to kids.

Today, the foundation has office space in downtown Chicago, a board of directors, a full-time executive director, medical advisers and hundreds of volunteers.

But Idonije still prefers the hands-on approach.

His “principal for a day” visits to schools are something to watch, the 6-foot-6, 270-pounder going from class to class, kids huddling around, hanging on his every word as he tells them how they can strive to be anything they want, without limits, and how it all starts with education.

Attendance has skyrocketed at the inner-city schools, four in Chicago, one in Winnipeg, he works with.

“It makes a difference,” he said. “I had a lot of people in my life preaching education. And some of these kids don’t have that.”

The rewards for Izzyz Kidz, as he calls them, range from mini golf outings to a trip to the White House to meet President Obama, which 15 Chicago children enjoyed in October.

“We all stood there with our mouths open,” a still-buzzing Idonije said. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime.”

This appears to be the calling of a lifetime, too.

Idonije has been community minded since his own childhood, thanks to parents who run a street ministry in Brandon and who passed on as much human compassion to their son as athletic ability.

“And those seeds planted so long ago are now growing and bearing fruit,” he said. “Everything definitely started in a small town of 60,000 people in the coldest place on earth.”

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Idonije is laughing now, the bitter memory of his team’s loss in the NFC Championship all but gone.

“After the game they had announced that we were the final nominees,” he said of the award. “So, yeah, you lose the game, but quickly you realize that at the end of the day, football is an amazing game that we all love, but there’s more to life. It’s just a game.”

Making a difference

Israel Idonije Foundation, By the numbers

— Assisted more than 8,000 disadvantaged children in Chicago, Winnipeg and Nigeria.

— “First Down” school attendance program in its fourth year in Chicago, third in Winnipeg.

— C.A.R.E. Africa program preparing for its fourth mission.

— All-Star Football and Cheer Camp: one-day camps in Chicago and Winnipeg.

— Idonije has donated nearly $400,000 to IIF.

Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award

Last five winners

2009 Brian Waters, K.C.

2008 Kurt Warner, Ariz.

2007 Jason Taylor, Mia.

2006 Drew Brees, N.O. and LaDainian Tomlinson

2005 Peyton Manning

2010 nominees:

Israel Idonije, Chi.

Madieu Williams, Minn.

Nnamdi Asomugha, Oak.


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