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updated: 11/3/2010 9:28 PM

For Bears' Idonije, mother did know best

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  • Bears defensive end Israel Idonije puts pressure on Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb earlier this season.

      Bears defensive end Israel Idonije puts pressure on Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb earlier this season.
    Steve Lundy

 
 

When he was 17, Israel Idonije had to be pushed by his mother to try out for football.

It turned out to be a push in the right direction.

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Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Idonije immigrated to Brandon, Manitoba, where he played one season of Canadian football in high school and was more interested in continuing with his first love (basketball) than attending a football tryout.

But that was before his mother intervened.

"I didn't want to go," Idonije said. "I wanted to play basketball. (But) she's a woman of conviction. My high school coach had called her and (said), 'Hey, I think your son can play football. He's 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.' So she pushed me through the door and the rest is history."

At the tryout, Idonije showed enough raw talent to attract the attention of the Manitoba University coach, and by the time he was a senior he was team MVP and all-Canada.

Eight years later the 6-foot-6, 270-pound defensive end is a full-time starter for the first time and leads the Bears with a career-best 4 sacks.

Mom obviously knew what she was doing.

Idonije had played basketball throughout high school, idolized Michael Jordan and rooted for the Bulls and the Indiana Pacers. NFL football wasn't even a thought.

"No, not in my wildest dreams," Idonije said. "(But) this is a great week. I get to go home and play in front of my friends and some family."

It hasn't been an easy journey. Idonije played at Manitoba University based on his performance at the tryout his mother insisted he attend.

He dominated the competition but didn't even get an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. He went to Indy anyway, with a shopping bag of his highlight tapes and handed them out to any scouts and coaches who would take them.

But still he wasn't selected in the 2003 draft.

Idonije even scheduled a pro day for himself at Manitoba, and nine teams said they would attend.

Only one showed up, the Cleveland Browns, who signed him as an undrafted free agent. They cut him at the end of his first month.

The Bears picked Idonije up for their practice squad, having seen him play a few months earlier in the East-West Shrine Game, the first time he had ever played "American" football.

His only previous experience was in the Canadian game, where each team has 12 players on a 110-yard field and offenses have just three downs to move 10 yards for a first down.

"They brought me in here on Nov. 17, my birthday," Idonije said. "I flew into Chicago, in 2003, and I've been here ever since, so it's been quite a journey."

Even after he made the Bears' 53-man roster in 2004, Idonije had to work his way up through the ranks. For three years he was almost exclusively a backup and an impact special-teams player.

Idonije has blocked 6 kicks, 3 field goals and 3 extra points, including 2 last year. His total is fourth in NFL history since the league began keeping the statistic in 1992.

The Bears always have realized that Idonije is a rare athlete. So much so that he could run down and cover kicks even when the team asked him to bulk up to 300 pounds so he could play tackle instead of end, which they did more than once.

Amazingly, he maintained the same ripped physique even at 300 pounds.

Now he seems most comfortable, and his performance as a pass rusher and a run defender has made him perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the team. Not bad for a guy who didn't play football until he was 17.

"That's saying a lot," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "But the guy has been an unbelievable athlete. He can do a lot of things.

"Whenever you get a chance to go back home … hopefully he'll have one of those type games that he'll remember as much as going back to Canada. Anything he does doesn't necessarily surprise you."

&bul;Follow Bob LeGere's Bears reports via Twitter@BobLeGere. Check out his blog, Bear Essentials, at DailyHerald.com

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