As was said in the movie Spiderman, "with great power comes great responsibility." In a city that is all about hockey, it’s ironic that one of the area’s most successful professional athletes does not play hockey at all. In fact, Israel Idonije will likely be remembered as one of the greatest football players to ever come out Canada, let alone the little prairie city of Brandon. But Idonije would often say, "If all I am remembered for is football, then I haven’t done my job."
This past Sunday, 50 Vincent Massey football players, coaches and parents boarded a bus bound for Minneapolis. The trip was a chance to bond with fellow players, watch the final game at the Metrodome, and for many, including me, it would be our first NFL experience. And of course it was a chance to watch Israel or "Izzy", play what could be the final NFL game of his career.
As we prepared to board the bus for the 10-hour journey to Minneapolis last Saturday, I looked at the sports update on my phone, only to read that "Izzy" would not be playing Sunday. He had injured his neck and the recovery was taking a bit longer than the team anticipated. An injury like this at the start of the season is not a big deal, but for Izzy, that could be the way he ends his career in the NFL.
But not one kid on our trip seemed disappointed that we couldn’t see Izzy in action that day. In fact, we did see him. We got a wave and a "hey guys, how’s it going" from the sidelines (and his big smile) and coach Kevin Grindey met with him prior to the game for a lengthy visit. You see, the story of Idonije and his rise to play in the biggest sports league in the world isn’t about the fame, or the money, or the chance to travel playing a game. The story of Idonije is about the choices we make, and what we do when we get what we wish for.
By now it’s no secret, that while attending Vincent Massey High School in Brandon, playing basketball at the time, and working with a YMCA Youth Program in Brandon, he worked closely with football coach Grindey.
Grindey, with help from Izzy’s mom Choice, helped convince Idonije to give football a try when he was in Grade 12, later moving onto the U of M Bisons. After being drafted to play the CFL, he wanted more, and his reluctance turned to determination. The Cleveland Browns discovered Idonije after he handed out what were essentially performance tapes from the U of M at the NFL combine. He was signed by the Browns and put on Cleveland’s practice squad. He then moved to the Chicago Bears as a practice squad player late in the 2003 season and made the final roster the following year. He played nine seasons in Chicago and in June of this year signed a one-year contract with the Detroit Lions. He has always said his goal is to play football as long as he can. But most players do four years in the NFL. This will be Izzy’s 10th season.
It’s always inspirational when kids have someone in the community that takes their talents straight to the top. It’s even more inspirational when the kids have the chance to see him in front of 70,000 screaming fans. But it was not to be for us this past Sunday. Instead, we watched the Vikings beat the Lions at the final game at Mall of America Field, and we briefly said hi to one of the city’s most famous sons. And although Izzy’s home is now more Chicago than Brandon, his success continues to have big impact in Brandon. And while he doesn’t always visit as much as he would like, and the Israel Idonije Foundation mainly works in Chicago and Winnipeg, make no mistake: his countless hours of charity work and selfless giving to the communities where he played football are legendary. The life he leads away from football is a shining example for young people who not just play football, but play any sport. In fact it’s an example to us all. That’s why it was ok we didn’t see him play on Sunday. It’s not all there is to Israel Idonije. And while many sports stars grace the cover of magazines, make millions of dollars with little regard for anyone but themselves, on internet tabloid sites, getting arrested or just generally behaving badly, Izzy chose a different path.
"With great power comes great responsibility." It’s amazing how one small step by a reluctant Grade 12 student in Brandon could turn into something so big. And what’s he’s turned it into is big indeed.
Mathew Stafford’s coach, Randy Allen watched the warm-up Sunday with Grindey on Sunday. He said in over 40 years of being involved in the football program in Highland Park Texas for one of the state’s best programs, and tens of thousands of students, just four of his kids play pro football in the NFL. Like playing NHL hockey for Canadian kids, millions of kids in the US hope to one day play in the NFL. Like many broken-hearted kids in Canada, most don’t get a shot. Then again, many American kids don’t get to visit the White House. Izzy did. Twice. And it wasn’t for his football. The charity work of Israel Idonije is almost unmatched in the NFL, and is inspirational to those in the world of pro sports.
So whatever it is you do, when you reach the top, how will YOU make a difference? When you become the best insurance broker, car salesman, administrative professional or soda pop delivery person — what will you do with your success? How will you give back?
It’s not just professional athletes that have the power to make a difference. It’s a power in all of us, just waiting for you to champion it. Izzy’s impact on our kids was amazing Sunday. And he didn’t even take the field.
JOKE THIS WEEK
An old married couple no sooner hit the pillows when the man passes gas and says, "Seven points!".
His wife rolls over and says, "What in the world was that?" The old man replied "It’s fart football." A few minutes later his wife lets one go and says, "Touchdown! Tie score."
After about five minutes the old man lets another one goes and says, "Aha, I’m ahead 14 to 7"
Not to be outdone the wife rips out another one and says, "Touchdown, tie score."
Five seconds go by and she lets out a little squeaker and says, "Field goal, I lead 17 to 14." Now the pressure is on for the old man.
He refuses to get beaten by a woman, so he strains real hard. Since defeat is totally unacceptable, he gives it everything he’s got, and has an accident in the bed.
The wife says, "What on earth was that?"
The old man says, "Half time, switch sides."
Darlene Wowryk Prevost
Terance Van Jaarsveld
Goldwin Touché Teskey
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 4, 2014