NFL Player Israel Idonije Opens Up About Helping Chicago Youth Reach Success

Israel Idonije launched his 11-year NFL career with the Chicago Bears, and hasn't left the Windy City ever since. Yes, the Nigerian-born defensive lineman recently became a member of the Detroit Lions franchise, but it's in Chicago where you can still find his home and his heart: the Israel Idonije Foundation.

The foundation, which was born in the football player's garage, provides after-school programs, camps, and services to youth in underserved Chicago communities. The goal is to develop social and emotional life skills in young students to help them achieve academic, personal, and professional success.

"We didn’t have any offices, we housed everything in my garage," Idonije told The Huffington Post, "and that’s where it all started! And it’s just been an incredible transition."

In 2007, the foundation first focused on serving Chicago's Englewood and Roseland neighborhoods, as the areas had the lowest school attendance rate in the district at the time. Now, the foundation services students from 13 different schools across Chicago -- and has grown to providing after-school programs, community youth events and leadership programs.

"Last year we started our youth leadership internship program," Idonije said. Through the program, students were selected to participate in internships in various careers of their choice. "For me, that really brings everything full circle with what we’re trying to achieve."

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"It’s been a learning experience for me," Idonije said. "The only reason we’ve been able to be so successful and achieve all the things that we have over the years, is because of not one individual but people in the community of Chicago committed to being a part of what we’re doing and impacting the lives of these kids."

HuffPost recently asked Idonije to take on select questions about the Chicago community from our My Chicago questionnaire:

When you first moved here, what was your first quintessential "Chicago" experience?

I came in 2003 November mid-season, and I would say the first real true Chicago experience would be our fans. You’ve heard before, Chicago is a sports city, so when it comes to other franchises and teams, people will always mention Chicago and the fanbase. That was one of my first experiences, in Soldier Field, the fan interaction and walking on that field for the first time. That was my first Chicago “wow” experience.

Which Chicago "celebrity" -- living or dead, real or fictional -- would you have over for dinner?

That’s Michael Jordan -- without a question. I grew up a huge Bulls fan... We could do dinner at his restaurant on Michigan.

Where is your favorite place to start the evening?

My number one, my second kitchen, is Benny’s Chophouse. But if Italian, RPM. If you just want to “wow” somebody, I would do Gibsons.

Where is your favorite place to grab brunch?

A lowkey spot on Roosevelt, called Bongo Room. The food is phenomenal.

What are your go-to spots when you have visitors in town?

If they’ve never been to Chicago before, I always take them to stand in the long line at Garrett’s popcorn, then walk down Michigan and just experience the mile. Literally, go and enjoy Chicago’s restaurant scene.

If you had to have your last Chicago meal for some tragic reason, where and what would it be?

That’s not even a fair question.

Cubs or Sox?

The Cubs. I sang the seventh-inning stretch and it’s always been a lot of fun. What a great neighborhood it is in Wrigley.

Chicago-style hot dog, Chicago-style pizza or Chicago-style politics?

Pizza. Hands down.

What advice would you give to a new Chicago transplant?

Take time to enjoy the city, and make sure you get some good long johns for the winter, and a nice heavy jacket for the winter. Start making a list of all the things you want to do while you’re here, and start going down the list. Have your pizza, have a Chicago-style hot dog, go to a Cubs game, go to a Sox game and make your choice of which side of the fence you want to be on. It’s just such a rich city.

What do you miss the most when you're not in Chicago?

The energy. It’s just a vivacious city. There’s so much going on, and as you know, it’s such a unique city. Having the downtown area, where it's this incredible coming together of people from all over the world. It’s just a really rich collection of people culturally downtown.

If you could change just one thing about our fair city what would it be?

I would change the parking meter situation. It just doesn’t seem right to me. I shouldn't be paying for parking after like six o’clock or Saturdays or Sundays.

Describe Chicago in one word: Home. There's no place like home.

In 1951's "Chicago: City on the Make," Nelson Algren wrote: "Once you've come to be a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real." Through My Chicago, HuffPost is discussing what, to this day, makes the patch we call home so lovely and so broken with some of the city's most compelling characters.



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