While quarterbacks in the National Football League have scrambled to escape his grasp, thousands of young people in Winnipeg, Chicago and West Africa have found comfort and hope in a hug from Israel “Izzy” Idonije. A feared defensive lineman, and a humble humanitarian, Mr. Idonije is an extraordinary study in contrast.
Mr. Idonije is the only Manitoban, and former Bison football player, to ever suit up in the NFL. His career spans more than a decade, and during that time the 33-year-old has experienced something few of his professional peers ever will: playing in football’s ultimate competition - the Super Bowl - in 2007.
He has debunked the myth that kids from Canada can’t crack the NFL, and it’s a message he shares with current Bison football players each time he returns home: “I don’t care where you’re from, you should set your goal for the highest possible achievement,” says Mr. Idonije.
Impressive as his on-field accomplishments are, Mr. Idonije has never let his career define him. He calls his status as a professional athlete his “platform”, and uses it as the foundation for what has been a lifelong endeavour: community service.
For his charitable work, Mr. Idonije has received numerous honours, including being recognized at the White House by President Barack Obama and former President George H.W. Bush as a Daily Points of Light Award recipient in 2013.
Since 2007, the primary vehicle for Mr. Idonije’s philanthropic activities has been the Israel Idonije Foundation. It focuses on kids in underserved communities in the three places Mr. Idonije considers home: West Africa, where the foundation delivers humanitarian aid; Winnipeg, where it hosts an annual All-Star Football Camp; and Chicago, where it leads a variety of after-school, mentorship and community-building activities.
In recent years, Mr. Idonije has branched out beyond the work of his foundation to reach kids in different ways – like starting a comic book series called The Protectors. As an entrepreneur, Mr. Idonije builds brands and opportunities reflective of his own diverse interests. The end result always has a positive impact.
Mr. Idonije’s childhood experiences helped forge his identity. His family immigrated to Brandon, Manitoba, from Lagos, Nigeria, when he was four. His father Henry and mother Choice, both Christian missionaries, didn’t have much money, but they exposed young Israel Idonije to the wealth one realizes through selfless acts of charity.
Inspired by those early experiences, Mr. Idonije’s personal investment in his foundation today goes far beyond lending his fortune or fame to the organization. His work with kids parallels his role on the football field. In both, he is an indomitable presence on the front line. To both, he commits himself 100 percent.
Mr. Idonije was traded from the Chicago Bears in 2013 but not only did he continue his work in Chicago, he also looked to get involved with youth in Detroit. After only being in Detroit for a few weeks, he teamed up with an alternative school and began an incentive-based program to help them make improvements in school.
He was re-signed to Chicago for the 2014 season and last summer he joined Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a bet with kids who are part of the Rahm’s Readers literacy program. The bet: If the kids collectively read more than two million books during the summer, the duo would take the traditional Polar Plunge the following spring.
The kids won the wager. This past March, Mr. Idonije made good on his promise, joining Emanuel and TV talk show host Jimmy Fallon for a frosty dip in Lake Michigan. The water hovered around the zero degree mark, but the smile on Mr. Idonije’s face told the cameras that there’s no place he’d rather be and nothing he wouldn’t do for the kids he loves.
The University of Manitoba is proud to award an Honorary Doctor of Laws to such an inspiring, selfless role model who is committed to achieving excellence in all his endeavours.