Don’t let a little violence get in the way of your faith

idonijeHow Canada’s Israel Idonije balances the NFL with his Christian faith.

| by Scott Taylor

Israel Idonije plays on the defensive line of the Chicago Bears, a team long known as the Monsters of the Midway.

In most defensive sets, Bears head coach Lovie Smith will have Idonije play tackle, coming up out of the three-point stance. On others the big Canadian will be placed outside as a stand-up rush end. On almost every special teams play, Idonije is the first tackler downfield. At 6-foot-6, 280 pounds, he’s not only huge, he’s fast.

For doing this—for violently chasing down quarterbacks, tailbacks and punt and kick returners—the 29-year-old from Brandon, Manitoba is paid handsomely. He signed a contract extension last year that keeps him on the Bears roster through 2011. He will make $2.5 Million this year and next, and he also pocketed a $2 million bonus for signing the extension last season.

It’s quite a dichotomy: A young man who was raised in the church and still, to this day, remains committed to his faith, playing a game that is based in emotion and violence with success the reward of the hardest and toughest.

“Football is a game and in some ways a business,” Idonije says. “It’s how I make my living. I’ve been doing it for so long now, I don’t notice the violence. I notice the speed and skills of my opponents and teammates and I enjoy the man-to-man competition. God gives us particular gifts and I’ve used mine to play a professional sport that I enjoy and that gives people a great amount of entertainment. I’m not out there to hurt people; I’m out there to get a job done. It’s always been that way with me.”

Reluctant hero

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, and raised on the Canadian prairies, Israel Idonije has always been a reluctant football hero. In high school, he wanted to be a basketball player. Michael Jordan was his favourite athlete and he emulated the Chicago Bulls star when he played at Brandon’s Vincent Massey Collegiate.

But one day, as he walked down the hallway past the gym, the coach of the tiny school’s new football team, Kevin Grindey, asked if he might have a minute of the big 17-year-old’s time. Grindey, who had just restarted Massey’s defunct football program, made Idonije an offer.

“Come out for the football team,” he pleaded. “All I’ll ask you to do is play standup rush end. You can go chase the quarterback.”

Idonije wasn’t sure at first, but his mom, who wanted him to play every sport he possibly could, was absolutely certain. “Play,” she said. And as a faithful and respectful son, play he did.

He starred at the University of Manitoba and was scouted by the Cleveland Browns at the East-West Shrine game. After spending time with the Browns in 2003, he was eventually released and signed as a free agent by the Bears. He has been a staple of their special teams and the defensive line ever since.

But how does a big man who was raised by his parents in Brandon’s Tabernacle of Love rationalize becoming a Monster of the Midway?

“I think being on a football team, working together with other men and being in a locker room atmosphere is no different than working anyplace else,” Idonije says. “You just have to have an understanding of who you are and what you represent.

“I want to be known as a man of good character and I think, or hope, that that’s how I’m perceived. Every day, I walk the walk. I don’t waiver from my foundation.”

Serve families

And that could be both “foundation,” and “Foundation.”

In 2006, he founded the Israel Idonije Foundation to serve families and individuals in disadvantaged communities on both a local and global scale. The foundation consists of three programs: Street Love, C.A.R.E. Africa and IZZYz KIDz.

IZZYz KIDz has been incorporated into the curriculum of five grade schools in Chicago and Winnipeg and strives to provide lessons in leadership, taking initiative and working hard on the fundamentals of good scholarship and good sportsmanship. Idonije has built homes in Africa, visited schools all over North America and provided underprivileged kids with the tools to succeed.

And yet, by his own admission, he’s “not preachy.”

“Just because you go to church doesn’t mean you’re a Christian,” he says. “Christianity isn’t about religion; it’s about your personal relationship with the Lord. It’s no different than football. Everyone can hope and wish the best for everyone, but ultimately your own actions will determine the result. You have to walk the walk every day. You have to live your life as a Christian, not just go to church once a week and assume you’re Christian.”

Off the field, Idonije not only runs his foundation, but also invested in a business that makes one-piece communion cups— with the cup, the juice and the wafer all in one package. He’s a regular at the Bears’ Bible study every Thursday and attends Pastor John Hannah’s New Life Covenant, an evangelical church in Chicago with more than 10,000 worshippers.

“[Teammate] Tommie Harris introduced me to Pastor Hannah,” Idonije recalls. “When you’re a pro athlete, worshipping in one place can be difficult. But we attend whenever we can. I’ve also gone to some of the churches of my really good friends. My father is now a minister in a program called Streets of Love in Brandon. Going to church and taking part in Bible study classes are things that have always been important to me.”

As the Bears get set for a season that already has Idonije excited (“With the acquisition of Julius Peppers, I think we’re going to be a great team, capable of going back to the Super Bowl,” he says), his new Christian business, his foundation and his commitment to the Lord keeps him focused on the Lord’s teachings every day.

“To me, church is pivotal,” says Idonije. “You must have your family to love and cherish and look to for support, but you also need a church family. And if you don’t have that church family, it will make your life more difficult in those times when you aren’t successful and aren’t doing well.”

The article above was featured in the September 2010 issue of SEVEN magazine.