Football was never something NFL veteran Israel Idonije aspired to play.
Idonije was in his senior year of high school when his boss at the YMCA program he worked at suggested he try the sport.
“He convinced my mother to drive me from Brandon, Manitoba to Winnipeg, two and a half hours,” Idonije said. “I remember I cried, I did not want to play football.”
Brian Dobie, head coach of the University of Manitoba Bisons, was at that practice, noticed Idonije’s potential and asked him to consider playing. Idonije admits he reluctantly agreed to try football out. Little did he know the sport would soon change his life.
“Although I didn’t love the game when I started, as I began to understand the game and grow a passion for the competition, for the preparation, for the, you know, you fall you get back up,” he said.
“The lessons that are learned through sport and football, they’re truly lessons that can carry you through life and a lot of things.”
Idonije was the first Manitoba Bison to sign with an NFL team.
In 2003, the Cleveland Browns signed him as an undrafted free agent. The Chicago Bears picked him up in 2004. Idonije worked his way up the roster and remained with that franchise for a decade.
“I didn’t love doing special teams, I didn’t love being a backup, I did that for almost five years before I worked into a starting role,” he said. “You sometimes have to do the things that you don’t love, towards working towards your vision or your goal.”
His story of persistence of perseverance is one he hopes young adults will think about when they’re trying to accomplish something in their lives.
“That’s the number one lesson… in this world we live in, of instant and quick, you know.”
“It’s the things that you truly want you’ve got to be willing to sacrifice and pay the price, and in doing that there’s true value on the other side of that finish line.”
If you’re starting out on a path that seems far away from your end goal, Idonije suggests you “find your value, find the good, find that thing that can help you to stay working in any field until you can get to that place where you want to be.”
He does not shy away from admitting football was a daily grind that he was able to get through by setting goals.
“Coming into the league I had a number of goals,” he said. “One of my goals that I wrote down, I wanted to provide myself a financial freedom and my family financial freedom… I wanted to make a million dollars before I was 25, and looking back, I could remember a million dollars was all the money in the world.”
Also on his list of goals: playing 10 years in the NFL and winning the Superbowl.
Every day, no matter how sore he was, Idonije said he would review his list, asking himself how he could prepare to check off one of his goals.
“Regardless of how sore I was, broken thumb, broken shoulder, you know, sprained ankles, it’s about looking back at my list… what did I do today to get an inch closer, to get a step closer to achieving that goal?”
Although he didn’t win the Superbowl, Idonije did play in one. He accomplished his career goal of 10 years in the NFL, and he was also able to reach his financial goals.
Idonije notes this mindset has been an important part of life after football, helping him build companies and people. He is now involved in a variety of businesses, from real estate to entertainment to children’s books.
“One of my coaches once told me be the standard, if you’re the standard with everything that you do, you’ll look around and you’ll be very happy with the success that you’ve had… that’s something I hold very dear.”
While he lives in Chicago now, Idonije wants Manitobans to know his home province will always hold a special place in his heart.
And the feeling is mutual. He was just inducted into the Manitoba Football Hall of Fame.
“My first sack, I remember all the messages, everybody that was calling… the city and the province was on the journey with me, so I’m just so thankful,” he said.
“I truly have felt since day one that I represent Canada, and more specifically, I represent Manitoba.”