Lions have a playmaker and a leader in Israel Idonije

BY foxsports • July 31, 2013

One way or another, the Detroit Lions have had a knack for finding ways to lose games over the years.

Death, taxes and a Lions' blunder at the most inopportune moment.

A year ago, when they were losing their final eight games to finish 4-12, there were distractions going all the way back to the many off-season player arrests to an in-season emotional breakdown by young receiver Titus Young.

Not enough leaders, not enough character guys, not enough winners. That was the Detroit locker room. They had some but not enough.

Israel Idonije, one of the Lions' valuable off-season acquisitions, witnessed it all from afar as a member of the division rival Chicago Bears for the last nine seasons.

"We had some epic battles," Idonije, who is 6-foot-6, 275 pounds, said of the Lions-Bears rivalry, in which Chicago won nine of the last 10 meetings. "From an outsider looking in, some of those games have been some tough losses for Detroit. Like, man, I don't know how they lost that game.

"Outside looking in, it just seemed like it looks like they're going to win a game, but just keep watching, something is going to happen on that side. Sure enough, like they were fighting themselves. I've been in some of those games where like, man, it was our game to lose.

"I think coming into this year, the focus has been just excellence and really discipline, doing everything the right way every single snap. You see it."

When the Bears decided to go younger on the defensive line, Idonije, 32, became expendable and ended up signing a one-year deal in late June with the Lions.

Chicago's loss is Detroit's gain.

"I have a lot of respect for guys that have played 10 years in the NFL," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "We know Idonije very well. He was always a thorn in our side. Not only do we get him on our team, but we get him away from the Bears."

What's more, the Lions added one of the NFL's true class acts. This is a man who was honored by President Obama and former President George H.W. Bush with a prestigious Points of Light award, given to people for their special acts of community service.

Idonije was born in Nigeria, the son of Christian missionaries, and raised in the Canadian town of Brandon, Manitoba. He was a basketball fanatic who didn't start playing football until he was a senior in high school, went undrafted by NFL clubs coming out of the University of Manitoba in 2003 and thought his football dream had vanished when he got released by the Cleveland Browns midway through his rookie year.

Idonije learned the importance of giving back at a young age because his parents founded a charity that distributed food to families in need. He makes annual humanitarian trips to West Africa to provide medical aid, including treatments for kids with malaria.

His foundation features a holiday event in Chicago, Shop With a Cop, to try to foster better relationships between youth and law enforcement. The police officers take the kids on a shopping spree.

Idonije is a firm believer in not only trying to live out your dreams, but using that platform to "make our world better."

"I've been blessed," he said.

Idonije is the founder of Blessed Communion, which manufactures pre-filled communion cups. He's even created a comic book, "The Protectors," a story of super-power athletes who save the world that he started writing back in training camp in 2007.

He's much more than just a football player trying to wreck havoc on quarterbacks every Sunday. He's one of the real good guys and his personality can have a significant impact throughout this team.

The Lions had to replace Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, their starting defensive ends from last year, as well as top reserve Lawrence Jackson. The club has put together an interesting blend of youth and athleticism at the position in first-round draft pick Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah and fourth-round pick Devin Taylor, to go with the veteran leadership of free agents such as Idonije and Jason Jones.

"A guy like Devin, a guy like Ziggy, it's the job of the older guys to show them, hey, this is how you practice as a pro, this is how you conduct yourself on the field, off the field as professionals," Idonije said. "That's our job. It's their job to soak that in."

Idonije calls teammates Dominic Raiola, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh "the anchors" of the Lions' locker room, but he promises he won't hesitate to offer his wisdom when needed, particularly after he's been around for a while and become more comfortable.

"I didn't know what I was coming into," said Idonije, who made 7 1/2 sacks last season for Chicago. "Now that I'm here, it's a great group of guys. That's where it starts. It starts with the locker room. If you don't have a locker room that's together, it's hard to win.

"But when you have a locker room of guys with character, guys who are together, leaders who can bring guys together and lead through good times and through adversity, you position yourself to do the right things on the field."

The Lions needed more of those type of players, those type of people, and they got one in Idonije.