Israel Idonije turns 10 this year, and who can honestly say they saw that coming?
I remember when Idonije left the modest confines of the U of M Bisons to chase his NFL dream, signing a free agent contract with the Cleveland Browns.
Most Canadians eventually wind up in the CFL, and I’ll bet the Ottawa Renegades, who drafted Idonije at the time, were expecting him back.
Well, the Renegades are long gone, and Idonije’s not.
The product of Brandon has pulled off the seemingly impossible, earning multi-million-dollar contracts and entrenching himself as a starter with the Chicago Bears, a decade later.
“Only my mother and I believed that,” Idonije, on the phone from the City of Big Shoulders, was saying, Wednesday.
The 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive lineman was in the middle of Week 4 of voluntary workouts, which in the NFL means “Be there.”
He was also carrying a brand new contract, a one-year deal that he signed two days into free agency, back in March.
The deal follows the two-year arrangement he signed with the Bears in 2009 and the four-year contract he inked in ’06.
“You’ve got to understand the business” Idonije said. “I’m 31 years old. The business changes as you get older. But I’m real excited to have another year. And the team has all the potential and all the tools to make it a really special year.”
Lest you start thinking this is it for No. 71, he also said this: “I’ve got a lot of football left in me.”
Normally, NFL years are sort of like dog years. If you play five, it feels like 35.
But Idonije’s career includes one year on the practice roster and six more as a backup.
“I’ve only started two years. This will be my third year starting,” he said. “The wear and tear as far as football mileage is very low.”
Still, football wear and tear is a hot, and sobering, topic these days.
The shocking suicide of retired linebacker Junior Seau drove that point home in spades.
“Heartbreaking,” Idonije said. “A guy that’s so loved and such a leader, on and off the field. Just a tragedy. Your heart goes out to his family and his loved ones.
“It sheds a light on the other side of the game.”
A side that includes ever-increasing links to concussions and long-term brain damage in pro football players.
Idonije doesn’t shrug off the warnings, but reality dictates he can’t dwell on them, either.
“I’ve had plenty of concussions in my day. I played when I was 21 and all I did was tackle with my helmet. Now I don’t. We understand it’s part of the game. We play the game because it offers us a certain lifestyle and allows us to provide for our families.
“You try to get out of the game before you seriously injure yourself.”
Idonije’s been lucky.
And he hopes the nagging injuries that slowed him down last season, reducing his sack total from eight the year before to five, are gone for good, allowing him to have the big year he envisions.
“You have to get to 10 sacks as a defensive end in the NFL,” he said. “That’s priority No. 1. It’s ultimately what they gauge you by.”
Actually, we’ll gauge Izzy another way when he’s done.
The son of missionary parents, Idonije has used his window of opportunity to do more than make a mark on the field, his foundation’s charity work continuing to get recognition.
One of three finalists for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award after the 2010 season, he was recently featured on NBC’s Today.
In the TV piece, Vaida Williams, the principal of the Chicago school where he’s run his attendance program the last several years, was asked what she first thought of Izzy’s plan.
“Yeah, sure, right. And how long are you gonna stay?” Williams recalled thinking. “You’re gonna come here, say hi, get a nice picture for publicity, and disappear.”
Izzy fooled her, too.
Guess she should have asked his mom.