After just four-and-half seasons in the NFL, Baltimore free safety James Ihedigbo (@JamesIhedigbo) has played in four straight AFC championship games and the past two Super Bowls. He earned a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens in February.
That’s not a bad track record for someone who went undrafted in 2007 out of UMass-Amherst. This week, draft night in New York will be a special one for Ihedigbo as he’ll be hosting a fund-raiser for HOPE Africa (hopeafricausa.org) just a short cab ride from Radio City Music Hall. Ihedigbo, a Massachusetts native whose parents emigrated from Nigeria to the United States, spoke to Playbook about his career, his experience on draft night, his commitment to helping others and offered his thoughts on the Boston Marathon bombings.
What was your reaction to the Boston Marathon attacks?
"It was tragic and heartbreaking to see. Growing up in Massachusetts, I know what a big deal that day is. You think it can't happen in my neighborhood, then it hits so close to home. I believe things need to change -- communities need to come to together."
Do you fear for your personal safety when you're playing -- or that of your family in the stands -- when you’re in front of large crowds. And do you expect last week’s terror attacks to change that?
"No. Playing on the field, that's where I'm most comfortable. The people come and pay to see us perform. It’s the furthest thing from my mind. I have confidence and faith in the protection provided by the government."
During the last Super Bowl, there was the blackout. What was it like from your perspective?
"How could this happen in the middle of a Super Bowl? The power in the stadium just goes out? This never happened to me. Never. Not in high school, anywhere, did I witness the power going out in the middle of a game in any facility."
How did playing with Ed Reed and Ray Lewis help your development as a player, and how will the Ravens rebound from their departure?
"They raised the standards of how to be a Baltimore Raven. If you didn't play on that high level -- you stuck out like a sore thumb. They had an amazing focus on details. Before Ed Reed was there -- there was a leader at that position. Now, it’s the ‘next man up’."
With the departure of Reed [and fellow safety Bernard Pollard], will that "next man up" be you?
"All you can ask for in this life is for an opportunity. I’ll be ready on opening day."
Tell us about your experience on draft day back in 2007. Did you expect to be drafted?
"Yes. The Falcons and Bengals were interested in me, but they opted to go with different players. [He signed as a free agent with the Jets but missed the 2007 season due to injury.] That put a chip on my shoulder. I wasn't viewed as that high a caliber of a player. Nobody wanted me. I use it as motivation every day."
You’ve been on all sides of the Boston-New York rivalry -- having played for the Jets and Patriots -- what's the best part about playing in each city?
"In New York, it’s the fans and, and atmosphere. The same things allowed me to fall in love with Baltimore. No matter what, they loved their Jets and their Ravens. I remember once playing as a Patriot (we had a winning record but were losing at halftime) and the fans were booing. You'd never get that in Baltimore. At the same time, you've got to love the Patriots, their tradition and everything that Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick have done with the organization."
Give us one word to describe each of your NFL coaches?
Coach Ryan: Relentless.
Coach Belichick: Phenomenal. One of a kind.
Coach Harbaugh: Passionate.
Were you surprised when the Patriots cut you just before the start of last season? You said after Baltimore beat New England in Week 3: "Anytime you get a chance to go against your former team, it's kind of personal." Was it?
"It was a shock. I felt I was better than the guys they were bringing in. You get a certain age, you demand a certain dollar value and they wanted to pay less. I just opened up another opportunity. It was amazing being on the winning side of the AFC championship game two years in a row. I could not have written anything close to that. This year, the team that was supposed to win, won."
What does HOPE Africa do?
"HOPE Africa provides scholarships for students of African descent in U.S. We want them to be able to go to school and be focused solely on academics. My parents were natives of Nigeria and they struggled when they came here to go to school [they both earned graduate degrees at UMass-Amherst], having to learn about life in a new country while working and going to school."
What’s your motivation in giving back?
"Someone said I was 'breaking the mold' by using my platform as an NFL player to do help people with their higher education. I say: 'Why doesn’t the negative stuff break the mold?' We’re not here to just play football. Last year we sent five students to college. We want to change that five to 15 and so on. How many lives can we touch? I can't imagine."