O'Hara: Israel Idonije goes to Washington

Posted Aug 2, 2013

Idonije's good works have been well-documented, but the Lions signed him for his ability to play football

It's always a big deal when Israel is invited to the White House.

That includes a visit by Israel Idonije, who has been an honored invitee twice for his good works throughout his NFL career.

Israle IdonijeIsrael Idonije with Points of Light Chair Neil Bush

The world press does not chronicle Idonije's visits like when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets President Barack Obama in Washington, but Idonije wouldn't care if one cub reporter is on hand when he and members of his foundation are recognized by the leader of the free world.

Idonije was hosted by Obama in person in 2010, and he had a repeat visit to the White House last month to be honored in a Daily Point of Light ceremony. Obama was tied up with presidential business and could not attend. Neil Bush, the son of former President George H. W. Bush and chairman of the Points of Light board, presided.

The Lions signed Idonije as a free agent last month to score points with the pass rush, the way he did for nine seasons playing end and tackle on the Chicago Bears' defensive line.

As a souvenir of his first White House visit, Idonije has a pair of cuff links engraved with the Presidential seal. They're reserved for special occasions.

"I wore them for an event I went to -- the second inauguration," Idonije said.

Nothing in a White House visit is old hat, from being screened by the security detail to meeting the president.

"No, never," Idonije said. "Going through and seeing the whole operation, then the opportunity to meet a great leader like our President and spend time just talking with him. It's unparalleled."

Idonije has an international background. He was born in Lagos, Nigeria, grew up in Brandon, Winnipeg, and spent the last 10 years in Chicago. In 2007 he formed the Israel Idonije Foundation to benefit underprivileged kids in West Africa, Winnipeg and Chicago.

Idonije's good works have been well documented, but the Lions signed him for his ability to play football. His character and locker room presence are a bonus.

Idonije, who turns 33 in November, had his most productive seasons in Chicago the last three years. From 2010 through 2012 he had totals of 8, 5 and 7.5 sacks. At 6-6 and 275 pounds, he has the size and athleticism to play defensive end and move inside to tackle on passing downs.

The way the Lions rotate linemen, the versatility of players such as Idonije and starting left end Jason Jones should give them fresh players.

Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham remembered how Idonije pressured Matthew Stafford when the Lions played the Bears twice a year.

"He brings a lot of 'feel good' for me," said Cunningham. "I didn't like it very much when I saw him hit Stafford too many times. I told him that when he walked into the building.

"But he is a great pro. He's a bright young man, and high character and a tough guy. And he knows the game. His veteran leadership will really help us. He and Jason Jones are very much alike. They can play outside and inside. They don't blink about it. They just go and play."

Because of his background, Idonije took a longer route to the NFL than most players. He did not play football until the 12th grade. He had a stellar career at the University of Manitoba but attracted so little attention from NFL scouts that he attended the 2003 Combine on his own and handed out tapes of his college games.

The Browns signed him as an undrafted free agent. He was on their practice squad for part of the 2003 season and ended the season on the Bears' practice squad. He made the Bears' 53-player roster for good in 2004 and became a full-time starter in 2010.

As important as character and working in the community are, the priority in building a roster starts with what a player can produce on the field. In Idonije's case, he holds up both ends.

"We don't bring anybody here just to be a mentor," Coach Jim Schwartz said. "They have to be able to contribute on the football field. Even though they're veteran players, they'll still have the ability to contribute. After that, then it's certainly something you should look for.

"You want guys that come in and have a track record of working hard, that have been around the obstacles of the NFL, the ups and downs. I think that kind of leadership means an awful lot."