Idonije thriving in starting role

Israel Idonije can help his Bears teammates this Sunday when they play the Bills in Toronto. He can teach them about his nation's currency. He can give them a little history on Canadian football. He can explain Canadian customs, both the one in the airport and the whole "eh" thing.

Just as long as they don't attempt the Canadian national anthem.

"Oh man, nobody knows that," said the affable defensive end. "We tried that [for a TV bit] during Super Bowl [week] and it was a disaster. Everybody says, 'Oh Canada,' but they sing it to the 'O Christmas Tree' tune.' I don't know where that comes from but everybody did that."

Idonije's mixed-up teammates have the almost unenviable task of facing the winless Bills, a team due for a victory after losing four games by eight points or fewer to the Ravens, Patriots, Chiefs and Dolphins and dropping their past two in overtime to the Chiefs and Ravens.

For Idonije, who leads the Bears in sacks with 4½, it could be a big day if the Bills, as expected, send multiple blockers at Julius Peppers.

If not for his mother, Choice, however, Idonije could be looking at a career in curling. Well, maybe not curling, but certainly not football.

"I played a lot of hockey growing up, but it wasn't really my sport …" said the 6-foot-6, 270-pound native of Lagos, Nigeria, who idolized Michael Jordan growing up. "I wanted to play basketball. I played through high school. I was going to play with the Brandon [University] Bobcats with Jerry Hemmings, who is a great Canadian coach."

Instead, Idonije's one year of high school football was enough to impress his coach, who called his mother and told her that her son was "going to be something special on the football field."

"She said, 'This is a door that's open, and we're going to walk through it. If it works out, great. If it doesn't, nothing lost,'" Idonije recalled.

Choice Idonije made her reluctant son take the 2½-hour drive to the provincial tryouts.

"She's a woman of conviction," he explained.

So impressive was he at 17, that the head football coach at the University of Manitoba offered him a scholarship on the spot.

"She pushed me through the door and the rest is history," he said.
Serendipity struck again when a scout for the Cleveland Browns went to look at a kicker in Winnipeg and was sent him to see the "big kid" at Manitoba.

"He sat in his car freezing throughout the practice," Idonije said. "I ended up going to Cleveland for a little bit, and I met Jerry Angelo at the East-West Shrine Bowl. When I got injured in Cleveland, they brought me in here. November 17, my birthday, I flew into Chicago -- 2003. I've been here ever since. It's been quite a journey."

That East-West Shrine game was Idonije's first playing American rules football. When he went to his first NFL combine, it was with an armful of VHS tapes. He set up a pro day in Canada and invited eight NFL scouts but seven canceled because of the SARS scare. Only the Browns guy showed up.

To end up in the NFL rather than the CFL is amazing in itself, but the journey has not necessarily been an easy one.

Idonije signed with Cleveland as an undrafted free agent in 2003 and landed with the Bears after being waived injured that September.

He cut his teeth and has largely made his living on special teams, survival that is far from guaranteed and generally appreciated in the NFL, but it certainly wasn't the starting job he coveted.

In 2006, however, the Bills gave his career and his bank account a boost by signing the restricted free agent to a four-year, $8.2 million offer sheet that the Bears matched.

"I was very thankful," he said of the Bills. "Who knows how things would have worked out? But they definitely saw,'Hey, we think this kid can be a starter in the league. We want to bring him in, take a shot on him.' It's huge. And Chicago turned around and matched the offer. So Buffalo is definitely part of my story and the trip to where I am today."

Still, he did not become a starter. Not right away, anyway.

In May 2009, Idonije signed a two-year contract extension worth $7 million, including $3 million guaranteed. And he earned it, if for no other reason than he did everything he was asked. To a dizzying extent.

In the offseason before the 2008 season, Bears coach Lovie Smith asked Idonije to gain 30 pounds to about 305, thinking he would need the bulk to play inside at tackle. The next offseason, Idonije was told to lose 40 pounds to be quicker and more agile, presumably a better fit when he moved outside to end.

But with Mark Anderson playing well in camp last year and Tommie Harris still recovering from knee surgery, Idonije ended up seeing more time at tackle and spent the season as a swingman. But never a starter.

Until this season, when ends Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown departed and Anderson was cut.

Quite a journey, as Idonije said.

In some ways, the Bears seven-year veteran symbolizes to Bears fans what is wrong with the team. An undrafted free agent and special-teams guy is manning defensive end. But he has done everything the team has asked, always has.

Against Carolina in the fourth week of the season, Idonije was credited with 2½ of the team's five sacks, tied for the team lead in tackles with seven (one for loss), forced a fumble and had two quarterback pressures. He added another sack against the Redskins in the Bears' last game.

But the highlight might just be returning to Canada.

"It never happens," Idonije said. "It's big."

Bigger is Idonije's spirit. The NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award winner last year, Idonije has a foundation dedicated to encouraging kids to stay in school and achieve, and for the past three offseasons he has traveled on goodwill missions to Africa with teammates. Last year, Idonije and Ogunleye split the cost to transport a 4-year-old girl to Austin, Texas, where she received a life-saving heart operation.

Idonije was asked Wednesday if he wasn't named to the Canadian football hall of fame recently. But it was actually his Massey High School Hall of Fame and Idonije was unabashed.

"It's a great honor," he said. "That's where it all started from. So now to be in the Massey Hall of Fame and hopefully to be something a lot of young football players in that program look up to, that's awesome. And just to let them know there's no limits."

Or that even the limits don't really matter.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.