Nigerian-born Israel Idonije Readies Himself for Annual Africa Trip

Chicago Bears Defensive Lineman Working to Tackle Poverty; Working on Comic Book

Israel Idonije should be consumed with his free agency.

The 32-year-old Chicago Bears defensive lineman should also be thinking about who his new coach will be - should his contract get renewed - and what that new synergy might be like in the next season.

But the two thoughts concerning his professional football career are kind of at the back of his head right now.

Instead, the Nigerian-born athlete is thinking about March, and if his foundation will be able to get the job done this year. Born to Christian missionaries, Idonije moved to Canada when he was four-years old. And because of what his parents taught him in those formative years, Idonije's heart is perhaps stronger than his explosiveness on the line.

Every March he travels to Africa to donate medical supplies, medical treatment and to work on water resource planning. He also goes to Canada several times a year to conduct youth sports empowerment camps to underprivileged kids and visit schools. And in Chicago he reads to kids in the offseason, visits schools, sits on boards and feeds the homeless.

And when he has free time? Yes, he plays a little football.

I talked to Idonije about his foundation, football and why he's turning some of his favorite NFL players into a comic book.

What you do in Africa is amazing. Why was this important for you?

Service is something that I grew up in. My parents are ministers and missionaries and they committed their lives to services and to enriching the lives of those in need around us and in our family, so you know, I grew up in that and that was a part of who I was because of my parents and the culture that they built around our family. Being in the NFL I have this incredible platform and a voice that people would listen to because of the platform. I always wanted to get back to that and doing what I could with my platform, with what I have. And, you know, because you're young, you're trying to keep a job, it kind of was always was on the back burner until 2007 when we started the foundation, and then 2008 it was just myself, Adewele Agunleye, Osi Umenyura, Omobi Okoye, you know there's a score of Nigerian guys, African guys, in the league and we wanted to do something that would just enrich our home, our family, our roots, where we come from and that's where it all started. Since then I've been fortunate. We've put a great medical team of doctors and nurses together that have come to Nigeria with us every year. This year in March we'll be going to Ghana and just committed to service and improving the lives, physically, spiritually, mentally of the communities where we serve.

Is there a significance with March or is it because you guys are free and clear of football at that point?

Yeah, March is when, after the season, after everything has kind of slowed down, we're able to put the trip together and everybody can get down and then get back in time to get back into training and getting ready for another season.

You live a slice of life that most people in the states can't quite imagine, let alone the people back in Africa. That said, when you go back and you see some of the impoverished places that you do see, what does that do for you?

There are scores of impoverished struggling people here in the US, so for me, it's a parallel connection. When I'm home in Nigeria - you're in a village … a number of years ago I went into a village, I walked into someone's home and they literally had dirt floors; a very modest living. They had like a grass roof on it. They invited me into their home and they were just ecstatic that we were there and offered us everything that they had to welcome us into their small village, into their community. They had just such a sense of joy and a sense of appreciation for every little detail of life, even though they had so little.

Whenever I'm home, it's the same thing. I'm going to add value to the lives of those people, to add value to those communities. And then when we're working here in the Chicago area, in the inner cities and working with the kids and the families it's the same thing. I'm truly blessed -- as we all are - but it would be a shame for me.

I have such great resources at my fingertips and ultimately the goal is to touch the lives of those around me and to impact the lives of those around me. So whether it's in Africa or here in the US or in Canada, the connection is the same. Poverty is rich in all three countries and you try to do what you can with what you have.

Pardon the cliché, but are you trying to tackle poverty in the three places that you call home?

Our goal isn't to tackle poverty. Our focus is really to enrich the individual. If they have the ability to overcome whatever situation they're in because they've been empowered and they get it, the light's turned on for them. So our focus is inspiring children, families, individuals that are in these underserved areas through the platform of social and emotional development.

Philanthropy aside, you're also working on a comic book, right? Are you the hero?

No, I'm just the creator! It's a story I created in 2007. I was going through training camp, and I said rather than just the monotony of football, eating, meetings, eating, football, meetings, eating, just the constant grind of a training camp, during that three-week period I wanted to actually create something. So I looked up the formula to writing a story, and the sport world and the comic book world is a merger that had never been done correctly, in my opinion, so I took a shot at it. I created an origin story of these athletes who are these human beings with these superior abilities. Devin Hester 4.2 40, so, you know, lightning fast. Julius Peppers, extreme speed, just strength, cunning, all these abilities that make an athlete elite. But where does the gift come from? So I wrote the story behind that, that creates that I was fortunate to partner up with Ron Marz/Bart Sears, who are legends in the comic book world and have done scores of things for Marvel Comics, DC Comics. In February we'll have a free web comic for 20 days where it will be free for all our viewers, followed by the actual book, which we'll released at the C2/E2 Chicago convention.

Did you grow up being a big comic book fan?

At our church, my dad ran a program called Street Love, so we received a bunch of donations from all over the place and someone donated some comic books and the love was born.

You're a free agent. Are you hoping to stay in Chicago?

It's home. My roots are deep here, my connections are entrenched in this great city, the fans here in Chicago are unparalleled. If it's meant to be, if the situation is right and we'll know soon here when we hit free agency, hopefully we can come to a situation where it works for everybody and Chicago can be home for the next few years.

Back to your foundation: what's the goal? If you're not trying to wipe out poverty, what's your barometer for a job well done?

Every year I receive letters and emails from kids that have been in the program from day one, lives that we've touched, people that we have encountered and have interacted. And to hear someone say 'that the reason that I started coming to school every day was because of the Izzy's Kids program, was because of the relationship that we built with Izzy, the time that he took to come to the school every week to see us and take us to different events and open our eyes to a bigger, brighter world and the things that are around us. That's what it's all about. I want everybody … to take the time to say, 'what's something that I love doing? What's something that I have? What is my gift?' And then through that gift, use it to make our world better and to impact someone's life. I think that's the most important thing for me. And with that, at the end of the day, we make our world a better place.

Kelley L. Carter is an Emmy-winning entertainment and features journalist who has written for publications including USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, Vibe, Ebony and Essence magazines. She also regularly provides expert pop culture and entertainment commentary for outlets including CNN, HLN, E!, and the TV Guide Channel.