Recently, Israel Idonije visited my kid's school (Our Lady of Destiny) and did a phenomenal job. … I truly felt like he wanted to be there and not just some community service act he was required to do. If you have any connection to Israel, I just want him to know how appreciative I was. … Since he has a foundation, I wrote an article and submitted it to the local paper hoping to gain exposure for his foundation as my gratitude. — Antonette Taylor
This is a portion of a letter sent to the Tribune from a Des Plaines mother of two. If Idonije had such an immediate impact on her, just imagine what kind of lasting impression the Bears defensive end left on the deprived Chicago families he serves Thanksgiving dinner to annually, or the 4-year-old African girl with a hole in her heart whose life he helped save a few years back along with ex-teammate Adewale Ogunleye.
His actions over the years are why he is one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award, the NFL's highest honor for community service.
"Izzy … has the biggest heart in the NFL,'' Ogunleye said. "He gives without wanting recognition. He not only writes the check, but he gets his hands dirty. … He should have won the award four straight years by now
Idonije flew to Dallas on Thursday without any expectations, but he could become the fifth Bear to be so honored after Dave Duerson, Mike Singletary, Jim Flanigan and the late Payton. The award will be announced on Fox before Sunday's Super Bowl with the winner receiving the Gladiator statue, an original art creation by sculptor Daniel Schwartz, and $20,000 donation to a charity in his name.
"It's an opportunity to highlight the team of people from the Israel Idonije Foundation (IIF) that made me being nominated possible,'' Idonije said.
"People all know the tremendous asset Walter Payton was for Chicago, so just to be nominated for his award is a great honor.''
Idonije, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in Canada, is a finalist along with the Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and Vikings safety Madieu Williams. Asomugha also has Nigerian roots, while Williams was born in the west African nation of Sierra Leone.
"I think, for me, it's just a part of the culture you grew up in,'' Idonije said of his good works. "That affects your outlook on life. There are a lot of Americans who have the same outlook because they grew up with the same perspective. People do what they know to do.''
As a child, Idonije learned the importance of giving back while observing his parents' missionary work through a program called "Street Love.'' He put those lessons to use in establishing his foundation in 2007.
This year alone, IIF assisted economically disadvantaged children in Chicago, Winnipeg and Nigeria. On average, attendance increased by approximately 3 percent this year at the four Chicago elementary schools involved with Idonije's attendance initiative.
More than 1,050 patients were treated in Nigeria by the Integris Health medical team Idonije assembled for the annual C.A.R.E Africa mission. And, with the help of the Chicago-based non-profit Share Your Soles, 1,250 pairs of shoes were distributed to men, women and children in need.
Idonije has given $400,000 to the foundation through the years. Although he might downplay the significance of his overall contribution, his work hasn't gone unnoticed.
His image appears on an 8,600-square foot section of a building along the Kennedy Expressway near Ashland and Armitage. Teammate Brian Urlacher drove by the building the other day and marveled over the depiction.
"Izzy goes above and beyond,'' Urlacher said. "I'm sure all (the finalists) are deserving, but this guy really believes in what he's doing. What a great honor that would be.''
Vikings safety Madieu Williams wins the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. Bears DE Israel Idonije was one of three finalists along with Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
The award recognizes a player's off-the-field community service as well as play on the field. The winner's charity will receive a $20,000 grant.
Williams currently is in the Persian Gulf on a goodwill tour with U.S. service members. The announcement was made Sunday at Cowboys Stadium before the Super Bowl.
"It is a tremendous honor to win this award named after Walter Payton, one of the greatest men to ever play in the National Football League," said Williams, surrounded by service members in Iraq. "I'm sorry I couldn't be there to accept the award, but it's an even greater honor to be here with the 4th Infantry Division and Task Force Iron Horse."