For most Bears players, traveling to Toronto to play the 0-7 Bills is nothing more than another road trip. But not so for Israel Idonije.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Idonije emigrated to Brandon, Manitoba, where he played one season of Canadian football in high school and was more interested in continuing with his first love, basketball, than attending a football tryout. But that was before his mother intervened.
When he was 17, Idonije had to be pushed by his mother to try out for football, but it turned out to be a push in the right direction.
"I didn't want to go," Idonije recalled. "I wanted to play basketball. She's a woman of conviction. My high school coach had called her and [said], 'Hey, I think your son can play football. He's going to be something special on the football field.' She said, 'This is a door that's open, and we're going to walk through it. If it works out, great. If it doesn't, nothing lost.' So she pushed me through the door, and the rest is history."
At the tryout, Idonije showed enough raw talent to attract the attention of the Manitoba University coach, and by the time he was a senior was team MVP and all-Canada.
Eight years later the 6-6, 270-pound defensive end is a full-time starter for the first time and leads the 4-3 Bears with a career-best 4.5 sacks. He and Julius Peppers will be leading the charge against a Bills offense that is 22nd at preventing sacks.
Idonije had played basketball throughout high school, idolized Michael Jordan and rooted for the Bulls and the Indiana Pacers. NFL football wasn't even a consideration.
"No, not in my wildest dreams," Idonije said. "This is a great week. I get to go home and play in front of my friends and some family."
It hasn't been an easy journey. Idonije played at Manitoba based on his performance at the tryout his mom insisted he attend, and he dominated the competition, but he didn't even get an invitation to the NFL's Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. He went there anyway, with a shopping bag of his highlight tapes and handed them out to any scouts and coaches who would take them. But still he wasn't selected in the 2003 draft.
Idonije even scheduled a Pro Day for himself at Manitoba, and nine teams said they would attend. Only one showed up, the Cleveland Browns, who signed him, but only as an undrafted free agent. They cut him at the end of his first month.
The Bears picked him up for their practice squad, having seen him play a few months earlier in the East-West Shrine Game, the first time he had ever played American football. His only previous experience was in the Canadian game, where each team has 12 players on a 110-yard field and offenses have just three downs to move 10 yards for a first down.
"They brought me in here on Nov. 17, my birthday," Idonije said. "I flew into Chicago in 2003 and I've been here ever since, so it's been quite a journey."
Even after he made the Bears' 53-man roster in '04, Idonije had to work his way up through the ranks. For three years, he was almost exclusively a backup and an impact special-teams player. Idonije has blocked six kicks, three field goals and three extra points, including two last year. His total is fourth in NFL history since the league began keeping the statistic in 1992.
The Bears have always realized that Idonije is a rare athlete. So much so that he could run down and cover kicks even when the team asked him to bulk up to 300 pounds so he could play tackle instead of end, which they did more than once. Amazingly, he maintained the same ripped physique even at 300 pounds.
Now he seems most comfortable, and his performance as a pass rusher and a run defender has made him perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the team. Not bad for a guy who didn't play football until he was 17.
"That's saying a lot," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "But the guy has been an unbelievable athlete. He can do a lot of things. Whenever you get a chance to go back home, hopefully he'll have one of those type games that he'll remember as much as going back to Canada. Anything he does doesn't necessarily surprise you."
"I think everyone was shocked with him being waived," Cutler said. "I haven't been asked (about whether the Bears should sign him). I think it would be hard for anybody to come into the situation with our offense and learn it. But he is a very talented guy on the other hand. That is for those guys upstairs."What if those guys upstairs asked for Cutler's opinion?
"I don't think they will," he said. "It's tough right now. We're getting ready for Buffalo. We've got enough to worry about."
Since Cutler played for Mike Shanahan in Denver for three years, he was asked his reaction to the new Redskins coach benching starter Donovan McNabb in favor of Rex Grossman for the final two minutes of last week's loss to the Lions.
"It's surprising," Cutler said. Mike's been in it a long time. If he did it, he had his reasons. I'm sure we'll never find out what exactly those were. He's been a winning coach before, so he knows what he's doing."
Among other reasons, Shanahan has said that McNabb's "cardiovascular fitness" wasn't good enough to operate the team's hurry-up, two-minute drill.
"You have to ask Donovan [to find out] if they've changed it from whenever I had it," Cutler said. "When I had it, I didn't think it was the most physically exerting thing. Maybe it's changed." ...
According to Smith, the Bears thought about Moss, but not enough to put a waiver claim in on him.
"Every player that's available or becomes available, we consider," Smith said. "We've always said if someone's available, we will always look to see if there's a chance of them possibly helping our ballclub. But we feel pretty good about the guys we have here right now."
But Smith said it was no knock on Moss.
"I don't have to pump up Randy Moss," he said. "His name speaks for itself. He's one of the all-time great players to have played the game. He just plays with someone else. We're happy with our Bear receivers." ...
In his assessment of the Buffalo Bills defense, Smith made special mention of their secondary.
"On the back end, we keep hearing about this Byrd guy or somebody like that," Smith said. "We have a hard time getting his name right. One of our coaches continues to talk about him. So we have to be conscious of him back there, too."
As a rookie last year, Bills safety Jairus Byrd tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions. He is the son of Bears assistant defensive backs coach Gill Byrd, who played cornerback for the San Diego Chargers for 10 years, made the Pro Bowl twice, holds the team record with 42 career interceptions and led all NFL cornerbacks in interceptions for three straight seasons (1989-91). But the elder Byrd never had nine interceptions in a season. ...
Offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who has called roughly twice as many pass plays as run plays, promises to put more emphasis on a ground game that has virtually been ignored and is tied for 26th in yards per game.
"Absolutely. We do need to run the ball more," Martz said. "As that last game went on (a 17-14 loss to the Redskins, in which the Bears had 16 run plays and 44 pass plays), we were way more effective in the second half than we were earlier. So it'll force an opportunity to do that. And we will, absolutely."
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