Former Brandonite Israel Idonije’s inspirational story is well-known in these parts.
From a raw rookie who played just one season of high school football with the Vincent Massey Vikings and developed into a 10-year NFLer, Idonije has served as motivation for young football players all across Manitoba.
Next week, Idonije’s remarkable story will add another chapter when he is inducted into the Order of Manitoba, with the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall taking part in this year’s ceremony in Winnipeg.
The Order of Manitoba induction, which will be held on May 21 at the legislature, recognizes individuals in the province who have achieved success in any field. While he is proud of what he has done over his decade-long career in the NFL, Idonije has always balanced that with charity work off the field.
"It’s a great honour, but ultimately I am just thankful to be accepting it on behalf of all the people that make it possible to do the work that is done in the community," Idonije said via telephone.
"I am fortunate to be a part of this incredible platform of sports and I have made a commitment to use my platform to help those around me in the community. But what has been done would not be possible without the support of others and so for me it’s an incredible honour."
Idonije, one of 14 individuals who will be inducted into the Order of Manitoba, recently re-signed as a free agent to rejoin the Chicago Bears for a 10th season with the club after spending last year with the Detroit Lions. The 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive lineman suited up in 15 of 16 games last year, missing the final week of the season due to an injury that snapped a streak of playing in 63 straight games.
The 33-year-old Idonije, who has amassed 205 tackles and 29 sacks in 293 career NFL games, is a graduate of the University of Manitoba Bisons and will receive an honorary degree from the school during this spring’s convocation ceremonies.
Idonije has already had a busy off-season as he prepares for July’s training camp with the Bears, promoting his graphic novel series "The Protectors" and making his annual trip to Africa in April to build schools through his charity, the Israel Idonije Foundation.
"We were 11 days in West Africa in Ghana and the first three days we built a school in a small village ... so we did the base, the foundation and it was incredible," he said. "It was a lot of work, but ultimately just being there and building the foundation of the school ... was just a great experience.
"It’s been amazing and it’s been phenomenal being there and doing the work and we just look forward to it every year."
It’s that charity work and his youth clinics in Winnipeg and Chicago, rather than his athletic accomplishments as the first Vincent Massey and U of M graduate to play in the NFL, that Idonije wanted to focus on yesterday in advance of next week’s Order of Manitoba ceremony.
"I think it’s not about what you do on the field," he said. "Everything is about what you do off the field ... It’s not about sport, it’s about everyone, the lawyer, the reporter, the dentist, the teacher, everyone has a gift, everyone has a platform and the question is what do you do with it? ... And that’s what we’re trying to do is just use what we have and do what we can to impact the lives of those around us."