Israel Idonije: A Life of Charity, Superheroes and Football
Israel Idonije, who tormented NFL offensive linemen for 11 years as a defensive end, told the Winnipeg Free Press in an interview in April at Chicago’s C2E2 comic convention that he was “closing the football chapter of [his] life.”
However, Idonije, who goes by “Izzy,” will have no shortage of callings to keep him more than busy as the next NFL season rolls around.
Born in Nigeria, Izzy migrated with his parents to Brandon, Canada in Manitoba when he was four years old, where he grew up as the oldest of four siblings. Today, after 10 years with the Chicago Bears and having started the Israel Idonije Foundation based out of Chicago in 2007, Izzy splits his time between all of his past (and current) homes.
“I have multiple homes,” Izzy reiterated at C2E2 amidst the flow of comic fans and cosplayers. “Home doesn’t have to be singular. Home is about the people.”
At C2E2, Idonije is manning the booth for his own comic book company—Athlitacomics. His booth was promoting the release of his series “The Protectors” as a Madefire Motion Book, a new interactive way to enjoy comics. The series follows a group of professional athletes that have their inner superpowers triggered to help fight an evil, intergalactic threat.
This is the life of professional athlete Israel Idonije, whose own superpowers include his exhaustive work as a full-time community activist and entrepreneur. Fighting threats closer to home, Izzy has made it his mission to better the lives of those around him, especially children.
Since a young age, Izzy has been involved in community service, spurred in part by his parents’ dedication to helping those in need.
“We had people come to our house every day,” Izzy said with a broad smile. “I’d open the freezer, and we’d have one chicken in there. Our dad would say, ‘give that chicken to them’ and I’d say, ‘Dad, we have no food!”
The Idonijes collected food from local grocers to pass out soup and sandwiches to the homeless. They made sure their children were there with them, helping others and seeing firsthand the impact of their community efforts.
“At the end of the day, we’ll be alright. We have a roof over our heads,” Izzy remembers thinking. “I’d see that this person is sleeping in the street and the only thing they are eating is this sandwich I’m giving them. So at a young age, those things have an impact.”
Idonije led the NFL in blocked kicks and punts from 2005-07 and was a finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2010. He even had a day, December 17th in 2007, named “Izzy Day” in his honor by Alex Haley Academy in Chicago.
Idonije’s journey to the NFL started as a senior at Vincent Massey high school, when he was finally convinced to play football by coach Kevin Grindey. He then went on to play for the University of Manitoba Bison.
“I didn’t play a lot of football in Canada. I started when I was 17,” Izzy said. “I sat out my first three years basically [at the University of Manitoba], then played years four and five.”
After notching 16 sacks, fourth all-time in Bison’s school history, Izzy was drafted 17th overall by the CFL, but went undrafted by all 32 NFL teams. However, following his dream of playing in the NFL, Izzy distributed his tapes to NFL teams and was rewarded with a workout with the Cleveland Browns, which led to him being signed to their practice squad.
Idonije was waived midway through the season, and once again had to pack his bags. Izzy finally found his home in Chicago with the Bears, where he went on to play gunner, defensive end and defensive tackle.
Now that Izzy is no longer on an NFL team, he has built his own team to help him tackle his social and community agendas.
“Today, fortunately, I’ve got an incredible team,” Idonije said. “It’s all about building a team off the field to manage the things that you want to do.”
Idonije, like Nick Fury of the comics he read as a child, uses his Swiss Army knife of a team to help run programs from West Africa to Canada and Chicago.
In 2014, Idonije and his foundation’s annual trip through their Project Africa program partnered up with Free the Children’s “Adopt a Village” program to help out in Nyameyiekrom. The economy of this small village in Ghana is centered on collecting palm oil, valued for its high use in the commercial food industry, but the village is lacking in many basic structures and necessities.
“We built a school there, and we’ll continue and build a second school, a teacher’s quarters and a community garden,” Izzy said. “Education is critical to self-advancement and that’s the message to these kids here, in Canada, and Africa, regardless of the color of your skin or background. If you have the drive to educate yourself, to seek knowledge, to stay focused, to work hard…you can advance to a better place.”
Domestically, one of the many programs Idonije runs is “Shop with a Cop,” which has paired kids from Chicago’s South neighborhoods with local police officers since 2008, looking to help mend a relationship that’s become a nation-wide concern.
“There was a real disconnect with some of these kids—a lot of learned behavior and hate for police officers,” Idonije said. “A peripheral benefit [of the program] is building a relationship within this community, with these officers...let cops realize ‘there’s a life here. A kid here.’”
The kids are treated to bowling and famous Chicago deep-dish pizza from Gino’s East and are given a gift card to go shopping with an officer accorded for every four children.
“It’s always really touching because you’ll have kids come in there, and they’ll just buy necessities—food, clothes and this is a time of year when, you know, you should buy toys.”
While the Idonije Foundation realizes the struggles of all of the kids it serves throughout the year, Izzy was particularly taken aback by the living conditions he encountered during his foundation’s trips to Ghana and Nigeria.
“Here in Chicago, you have kids on the South side that are struggling—one hundred percent,” Izzy said. “But I go to a village in Africa and there’s a kid that lives in a four-wall mud hut. There’s no bathroom. And every single day he has to go to the river, fill jerry cans with water, and then walk back with the water on his head.”
With his experience growing up in different countries, Idonije stressed the importance, as a child, of being able to relate his own struggles with not only those around him, but around the world.
“[Children in West Africa] have a different struggle that a kid here couldn’t even conceptualize unless they saw it,” Izzy said. “I think to any young adult or kid, it’s important for them to be able to understand at a young age that the world is about more than j ust them—that regardless of what they are going through, there is a kid out there that is probably going through something worse.”
The foundation’s after-school program in Chicago allows underprivileged children to participate in multiple exercises and mentoring in order to develop emotional intelligence, or EQ (as opposed to IQ). The goal is for kids to be able to understand how to effectively communicate and acquire the tools - primarily education - they need to achieve their goals.
“Every kid that comes to our program knows themself. You, as a person, have a gift, you have abilities that make you a unique person,” Izzy said. “In order for you to be the best you. You need to have a plan.”
Looking around the sports world, many professional athletes today have created their own charitable foundations in addition to doing work with league and team-specific organizations.
“There’s a ridiculous amount of guys out there across all sports that are doing great things for the community,” Idonije praised. “I find there’s a lot of duplicate stuff going on. There’s got to be a better coalition of ‘Let’s work together.’ When you do that, it increases the impact.”
At the end of the day, whether he is focused on organizing a new program or launching a new comic series, Izzy really just wants to keep building on his relationships and spreading the enjoyment he’s found.
“I think the most I’ve learned about traveling is that we’re all the same. We’re all the same. People are people,” Izzy said. “Regardless of how much success you have or what you do, the journey is a lot more fun and everything is a lot more enjoyable when you’re connecting and enjoying the trip.”
So while Izzy may not be featured on the big screen on Sundays anymore, his presence will continue to be felt across the world in all the places he calls home. With athletes like Izzy, fans of all ages get more than just a player to cheer for—they get a true humanitarian.
Whether he is writing comics, building schools or spending his time playing with children, which he even did during his NFL career on the one day off players typically get a week, it’s clear that Izzy and his new team are ready to tackle whatever challenge they decide to face next.
All photos courtesy of the Israel Idonije Foundation