Brandon-raised, University of Manitoba graduate, Israel Idonije has been released by the Detroit Lions. Now, 34, the Lions might have been the veteran’s last stop in the National Football League.
The only Bisons grad ever to make it in the NFL, Idonije played nine seasons as a defensive end and defensive tackle with the Chicago Bears before signing a one-year free agent deal with Detroit last season. In 15 games with the Lions, mostly as a DE, Idonije came off the bench and had 11 tackles (seven solo) and a half a sack. After an outstanding season with the Bears in 2012 when he started 11 times and had 48 tackles and 7.5 sacks, Idonije was used sparingly by the Lions in 2013.
Although his 11-year NFL career is teetering on the edge, Idonije still has one of the most inspiring stories in pro football history.
The Nigerian-born Idonije was a Brandon teenager with a dream: He wanted to play in the NBA. Then, in his senior year of high school, he was coaxed into playing stand-up defensive end on a rural nine-man football team.
That summer, University of Manitoba head coach Brian Dobie — a guy Idonije calls, “as good a coach as any I’ve had in the NFL, just different” — convinced Idonije to play football, not basketball, for the Bisons and after four seasons as a backup, “Izzy” finally got a starting job in his fifth and final year. Amazingly, in 2002 he won the Metras Trophy as Canadian university football’s lineman of the year, played in the 2003 East-West Shrine Game and signed a free-agent contract with the Cleveland Browns.
Eventually, the Browns released him, but he signed with the Bears in 2004 and eventually signed a four year deal that paid him US $8.2 million. He also played for a Bears team that won an NFC championship and played in the Super Bowl.
In 2006, he founded the Israel Idonije Foundation to serve families and individuals in disadvantaged communities on both a local and global scale. The Foundation consists of three programs: Street Love, C.A.R.E. Africa and IZZYz KIDz. IZZYz KIDz has been incorporated into the curriculum of five grade schools in Chicago and Winnipeg and strives to provide lessons in leadership, taking initiative and working hard on the fundamentals of good scholarship and good sportsmanship. He’s built homes in Africa, visited schools all over North America, and provided underprivileged kids with the tools to succeed.
“I’m not just a football player,” Idonije said. “I have to give back to my community. I have been blessed and I will not ignore those who have not been blessed. I will give back. That’s how I was taught.”
As a guys who still has plenty of close friends in Winnipeg, he’d make a great Blue Bomber for a year or two. That is, if he still wanted to play football and could afford the gigantic pay cut and Canadian taxes.