Israel Idonije believes that more university football players in the CIS should aim to play in the NFL, a goal that he sees as more attainable than most think.
Idonije is the starting left defensive end for the Chicago Bears but achieved his success via the road less travelled by playing football at the University of Manitoba.
With only five players currently on NFL rosters that played in the CIS, it is certainly not common for players to make the jump from Canadian university football to the NFL.
“One of the biggest hindrances for Canadian kids is that they don’t even consider that they can make it to the NFL,” said Idonije, while talking with the Toronto Observer. “When I played at the University of Manitoba there were some guys on my team that definitely could’ve played in the NFL.”
A major obstacle for players in the CIS, he believes, is that they aren’t being groomed for the NFL and there are significant differences between Canadian football and American football.
“When I attended the East-West Shrine game there was a noticeable difference in the calibre of players there, but also my technique was considered raw by the coaches there,” said Idonije. “It was my first time transitioning from three down football to four down football, so there was definitely a learning curve.”
While attending the that game Idonije caught the eye of a very influential NFL general manager, a contact that would eventually provide him with his greatest opportunity.
“Jerry Angelo, the general manager of the Chicago Bears at the time, was at the game and he saw potential in me,” said Idonije. “When I was cut from the [Cleveland] Browns practice roster Angelo decided to give me a shot with the Bears.”
Even after making the Bears 53-man roster, Idonije knew that he had been given a great opportunity but there was still work to be done.
“Making the Bears roster felt great and it was a great accomplishment but I wanted more and I was focused on improving and doing whatever I could to help the team,” said the 275 pound defensive end.
In his first season with the Bears (2004), Idonije was a backup who played a limited role in the defence and contributed on special teams. He knew that if he continued to train hard and stay focused he could become a bigger piece of the defense.
“I have always had some terrific players around me and I try and learn as much as I can from them,” said Idonije. “I wanted to improve and I was willing to listen to all the advice that I could get from the veterans.”
In 2010, the Bears paid a small ransom for seven-time pro bowler Julius Peppers, in hopes of taking their defence from good to great.
“First and foremost Julius is a great person and a terrific teammate,” said Idonije. “He is such a talented athlete and he combines that with being a very hard worker and a consummate pro, he is the total package as a lineman.”
The arrival of Peppers in 2010 led to Idonije’s best season as he recorded 49 tackles and 8 sacks. That year the Bears made a deep playoff run before losing in the NFC Championship game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
This year, the Bears have a very balanced team on both sides of the ball, but they are guarding against expectations.
“This year we know we have a solid team but we’re not getting ahead of ourselves,” said Idonije. “If we don’t look past any of our opponents we’ll have a good chance at the playoffs and then once you’re in the playoffs, you never know.”