James Ihedigbo's journey from hometown walk-on to undrafted free agent to Super Bowl champion is the stuff of legend, a narrative often repeated around the campuses of his alma maters UMass and Amherst High School. After graduating from Amherst in 2002, the son of Nigerian immigrants walked-on at UMass just a short few miles down the road, earning Division 1-AA All-American honors at safety in 2006. After going undrafted in 2007, he hooked on with the Jets then played two seasons with the hometown New England Patriots, before landing with the Baltimore Ravens this past year and earning a Super Bowl ring.
For five hours Saturday stretching from morning into early afternoon, Ihedigbo ran drills, 7-on-7 competitions and spoke of his journey to area high school players as part of his second annual invitational camp at Amherst High. The camp was organized by UMass' Association for Diversity in Sport club, in conjunction with Ihedigbo's HOPE Africa Foundation.
Play was spirited in the 7-on-7 portion, with several Springfield Central athletes standing out, and Ihedigbo even jumped in at his familiar safety spot when players tired. Following the event, which concluded with a brief awards presentation to top performers, Ihedigbo talked to ESPNBoston.com about his journey in the NFL, the rising football talent in Springfield, and the value of walking-on at a Division 1 program.
Q: With everything that has happened this week in Boston, how has that affected you?
A: It’s heartbreaking. You think the city of Boston to be shut down, and for people to be going through what they’re going through, I know we captured the people that were involved, but the people that are still hurting in those hospital rooms, suffering dramatic life-changing events, my prayers truly go out to their families. I’m a firm believer that God is in control of every situation, and that all things work for good for those who love the Lord. I really just pray that they’re dealing with the situation, and that their families are supporting them in everything.
Q: Being here today, what memories come to mind?
A: Running touchdowns. I was saying to the kids today, I used to dominate this field (laughs). This was my stomping grounds. It’s awesome, it’s awesome to be able to come back here and share this with these guys. I can only imagine the affect it would have had on me if NFL players were to come to me when I was their age, and help me stay on the right path, teach me to be a competitor in the classroom as well as on the football field. It’s awesome, I love to be able to spend the time with them to do that, this is my second year doing it and I look forward to doing a third next year.
Q: You seemed to enjoy playing safety out there today.
A: I love the game, and I want to coach after I’m done playing, so I just have a burning passion and desire to help the youth and to play the game and coach it.
Q: The recruiting landscape was a lot different in your high school playing days than it is now. Springfield is perceived to be an area with talent on the rise. Why do you think that is, and do you think this area underrated?
A: It’s highly underrated. You got guys that are players, that are big time players in this area. All it is is the opportunity. My school [UMass] took a chance on me, and look at the career I’ve had so far. It’s all about taking the chance on kids. Springfield has had for years some talented players, from Mike Vaz to Julius Walker to Cedric Washington. The names go on, the great players that have gone through those programs. It’s really just about giving a kid an opportunity to prove himself.
Q: How closely have you followed Kieran Presley, the running back from Amherst who is considering several options, including walking-on at UMass?
A: I heard that he may walk on or go to prep school, but I heard he is a phenomenal player.
Q: What life lessons did you learn from your high school coach, Waxie Cullen, that you still hold with you today?
A: Never give up. He used to say, ‘Fight, fight no matter what, fight every single play’, and I’ve taken that with me throughout my whole career. No matter what, and that’s even what I told these kids today. Even though it’s 7-on-7, you fight. Be a competitor. It’s OK to want to win every single time. That’s OK. That’s life. You should want to be successful in everything you do. That was what was instilled in me, that now I want to instill in them.
Q: With the move to FBS, your alma mater has had an increased emphasis on establishing a walk-on tradition. As a former walk-on yourself who’s now in the NFL, what are your thoughts on that strategy?
A: I think it’s a great strategy, because you can find a diamond in the rough that way. I’m not going to say you shouldn’t be out there recruiting and trying to get the top-tier guys from high school to be a part of the program. But to build the final spots of your roster, I mean, the best way to do it is to have you walk on. I was a walk-on, and at the time I was playing they [UMass] had seven All-Americans on defense. Being able to take another guy’s spot –- an All-American’s spot -– to be able to play, that shows a lot. You always find your diamonds in the rough.
Q: Your coach at UMass, Don Brown, is now the defensive coordinator at Boston College. What are your thoughts on that?
A: Donny B, he’s like a father to me. We’re so close. I can only imagine the things he’s going to do with that program on defense. I wish him the best of luck in everything.
Q: For kids themselves trying to walk-on at a Division 1 program, what is the most important thing they can do to make the journey you’ve made?
A: Think big. Think really big. Do not sit there and say, ‘Oh, I’m a walk-on’, and put yourself in a bucket of what you think you are. Think highly of yourself, because then you’ll go out there and perform at a high level and other people will think highly of you. That would be my advice. Think big, and outwork everybody.
Q: Tell me about your foundation, HOPE Africa.
A: We have our big NFL Draft viewing party coming this Thursday in New York, at the Dream Hotel. HOPE Africa is an acronym for ‘Helping Our People Excel’. We provide last-dollar scholarships for students in the United States with African descent. This past year, we sent five kids to college from all over the country –- Ohio State, NYU, Arizona State, Oregon and one other. Being able to do that and help kids achieve their dream is really the most important thing. It stems from my parents doing the same thing, coming from Nigeria to the United States and earning their PhDs in education. At HOPE Africa, we want to give these students the same opportunities to do that.
Q: How proud are you to represent your Nigerian heritage?
A: Very proud, very proud. It’s an honor to be able to have this platform, and to exemplify the foundation with which I was raised on –- my family, my grandparents, the people who worked hard so I could be where I am. To represent that culture on the football field, it is a great honor.