Man on a mission

Posted Aug. 16, 2011 @ 12:24 p.m.
Posted By Dan Parr

A garage stuffed with boxes of back-to-school supplies, T-shirts and water bottles was one of the first images Natalie Boe had of her new job.

It's what she saw when Israel Idonije opened his garage door in June 2009. He was showing Boe, whom Idonije had just hired to be the executive director of his foundation, the way it had functioned since '07. Things were fairly well-organized. Boe was impressed.

Her first task would be moving the Israel Idonije Foundation from his home to an office in downtown Chicago.

Idonije thought he was being spread too thin, balancing the work of several people with his NFL career, and he decided to bring aboard Boe, who was familiar with the job, having worked as the executive director of former Buccaneers and Falcons RB Warrick Dunn's foundation.

"When I started, I literally moved everything out of his garage," Boe said. "He had been doing things pretty much on his own. He was setting up field trips for the kids, making bank deposits, returning voice mails. He had everything in his garage and his house.

"You name it. It was in a box in his garage."

Boe is still the only full-time employee at the IIF. The office houses Boe and two undergraduate students who serve as interns, but it continues to expand and already has an international reach.

Idonije's financial contribution to the foundation since its inception has surpassed $300,000, Boe said. The IIF has assisted more than 8,000 economically disadvantaged children and families in Chicago, Winnipeg and Nigeria.

His IZZYz KIDz programs, which began in '07, encourage and help sixth- and seventh-grade students maintain good school attendance, great achievement and good citizenship in Chicago, and the program expanded to Winnipeg in '08. More than 400 students participate each year.

The foundation developed the Caring, Advancing, Restoring and Educating (C.A.R.E.) Africa program in '08 to provide medical care, clean water and youth sports programs to the underprivileged in Africa.

There were humble beginnings for Idonije's NFL career and foundation, but his compassion, determination, positive attitude and ability to build a network of volunteers and corporate donors have led to tremendous growth, on and off the field.

He stays true to his foundation's mantra, "Together We Succeed," emphasizing the power of a team rather than the individual, and he constantly credits others for the success of the IIF.

It's why Idonije has received Pro Football Weekly's 2011 Arthur S. Arkush Humanitarian Award. He is the 13th player to receive the award, the first recipient from the Bears and one of three players to earn the honor without ever having made a Pro Bowl. He's not one of the league's higher-profile stars, but Idonije has used his platform efficiently to build a strong foundation.

He took an unlikely path to get to that point.

Idonije — born in Lagos, Nigeria, and raised in Manitoba  didn't start playing football until he was 17. He played in college at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. He was doing what he could to help kids even then  his job during his college days was to run an after-school program at a day care.

He wasn't invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in '03, so he stood outside it with VHS tapes of highlights from from his college games, passing them out to personnel evaluators with the hope that a team would notice him. He wasn't drafted, and the only team that showed up at his pro day in Manitoba, the Browns, signed him to the practice squad. They waived him after he suffered an injury, and Idonije landed in Chicago on the Bears' practice squad.

He had spent six seasons toiling as a reserve and special-teams standout for the Bears heading into '10, which he called a "validation" season. The 6-6, 275-pound eighth-year veteran became a full-time starter at defensive end last season, tying for the team lead in sacks with a career-high eight.

Along the way, he earned the admiration of his boss.

When Bears chairman George McCaskey met with a group of kids at a youth football camp in July, he took questions, and someone asked whom he considered his favorite current Bears player.

McCaskey told them it was Idonije.

"Israel gets it," McCaskey said. "He understands that his position as a player in the National Football League carries with it a responsibility to give back to the community. He takes that responsibility very seriously, and it's great to see that response.

"It's great to see him out in the community and see how people, especially kids, respond to him."

More and more people, some in positions of power, are noticing the impact that Idonije is making. His list of honors and achievements is long, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel took note of Idonije's foundation's work, naming him to the city's Public Library Board of Directors in late July. He also was one of three finalists for the NFL's 2010 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.

That seemed appropriate to McCaskey, who said Payton, one of the more beloved sports figures in Chicago history, and Idonije have quite a bit in common.

"In terms of his ability to draw people to him and to draw people out, the person I would compare (Idonije) to is Walter Payton," McCaskey said. "Walter, as great as he was, immediately made you feel at ease about being around him. Walter had a tremendous touch with kids. To make each kid that he talked to or impacted feel special. Izzy's got the same quality."

As much as he gives and inspires, Idonije said the reward he gets from helping isn't measured in dollars and cents or quantifiable in any clear way. But he said it's as great as any gift he gives.

When the NFL and the NFL Players' Association were putting the finishing touches on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement last month, Idonije said the IIF had a team in Lagos, running medical clinics in rural areas and focusing on teaching local medical practitioners.

It's one thing to go there and give them some medicine, Idonije said, but it's more valuable to leave them with something that's lasting, by teaching them and helping them develop the system.

"I look every year at the team we take overseas," he said. "They all say the same thing. They go (to Nigeria) and they're there 10 days, serving and working and sweating and pouring their hearts into trying to help and make the community better. But when we leave, we're the ones who walk away feeling like we received the help. You just walk away with such a sense of gratitude and fortune because of some of the things you see and lives you touch.

"When you walk into someone's house who has absolutely nothing, and their floor is made of dirt and they're sweeping the dirt floor and cleaning up. There's nothing in there, but these people are some of the happiest people you've ever seen in your life. It just puts things in perspective. When you have people in places in the world complaining about some outrageous things, and when you look at someone like that who has to walk a tremendous amount every day to fill a barrel of water, back and forth with the barrels full, and that's what they have for the day. Then you ask that person how are they doing, (and) they have nothing but joyous and the most positive, inspirational things to say.

"Sometimes it's the simple things in life that really are important."

The IIF partners with INTEGRIS Health, an Oklahoma-owned corporation that provides the doctors and health-care professionals to run the medical clinics in Africa.

"That's the team that I talk about," Idonije said. "Everybody doing the little bit that they can to allow what we do to be possible. For those people, they're the ones that deserve the awards and accolades. I can't do it alone. You can't do it alone. But when we come together and when we work together, we can do so much more."

With that, another of the phones on his desk in the IIF office begins to ring. As he works on one project, the phone is ringing about another project.

Idonije finds a way to deal with it all.

"Everything that we've been able to accomplish since 2007 is because of a lot of good people, with hearts that are in the right place, that have been involved," he said. "I'm just a part of that.

"I'm thankful that I'm able to play my role and do my part."

 

OTHER CANDIDATES

Lorenzo Alexander, Redskins

Jason Baker, Panthers

Matt Birk, Ravens

Chris Canty, Giants

Nick Collins, Packers

Vernon Davis, 49ers

Cortland Finnegan, Titans

Jacoby Ford, Raiders

Adam Hayward, Buccaneers

Bradie James, Cowboys

Malcolm Jenkins, Saints

James Laurinaitis, Rams

Mike Leach, Cardinals

Roy Lewis, Seahawks

Jake Long, Dolphins

Brad Meester, Jaguars

Amobi Okoye, ex-Texans

Chris Owens, Falcons

Troy Polamalu, Steelers

Tony Richardson, Jets

Philip Rivers, Chargers

Bryan Scott, Bills

Drew Stanton, Lions

Joe Thomas, Browns

Vince Wilfork, Patriots

Madieu Williams, ex-Vikings

Wesley Woodyard, Broncos

 

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