Former NFL player Israel Idonije praises CFL partnership with GFL

By Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

Football in Germany provided Israel Idonije the opportunity he needed to make it in the NFL.

The six-foot-six, 275-pound defensive end played in the NFL with Cleveland (2003), Chicago (2003-12, 2014), Detroit (2013) and the New York Giants (2014). But the former Manitoba Bisons star credits the 2004 campaign with NFL Europe’s Berlin Thunder for providing the springboard to cracking the Bears’ 53-man roster after joining the franchise as a practice-roster player the year before.

For that reason, Idonije has nothing but praise for the CFL reaching a strategic partnership with the German Football League (GFL) designed to grow the game in both countries.

“This is really exciting, it really speaks to (CFL commissioner) Randy Ambrosie’s vision,” Idonije said via telephone from Chicago. “To me, it’s a tremendous opportunity.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to play in Germany, I’ve played in London and football is a sport these other countries truly love and enjoy. There’s a lot of talented kids, they just need an opportunity.”

Under terms of the partnership, select GFL players will participate in the CFL’s national combine in March, which annually showcases the best Canadian players eligible for the league draft. The two sides also discussed having Canadians play in Germany after their university or junior careers and there has been talk of Germans playing in the Canadian university system.

Idonije, who was born in Nigeria but grew up in Brandon, Man., said he’s living proof of just how important an opportunity can be for an athlete.

“I am that kid,” he said. “I just needed the opportunity to develop and that’s why the Bears sent me to NFL Europe for a year.

“I grew so much playing in Germany, I came back and made (Chicago’s) 53-man roster the following year and played 11 years.”

The GFL partnership follows a similar agreement the CFL reached in November with the Liga de Futbol Americano Profesional in Mexico. Last month, the CFL held a combine for 51 Mexican players in Mexico City before its nine teams took 27 players in a three-round draft.

Ambrosie isn’t stopping there. He’s in Europe this week to meet French and Austrian football officials as well as those in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark.

In 2004, the Thunder posted a 9-1 record to finish atop the six-team standings. Berlin then downed the Frankfurt Galaxy 30-24 in the World Bowl, its third league title in four seasons.

The Thunder’s average home attendance was 14,781 per game, The World Bowl attracted 35.413 spectators at Arena AufSchalke in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.

“They love football there,” Idonije said. “What I promise you is there are big, strong kids there who are doing other things.

“They’re playing hockey, they’re playing soccer, they’re playing rugby, they’re playing basketball. It’s really dependant upon the pipeline to get the best athletes to see football as an opportunity for them and getting those kids to come and test themselves against the best kids in Canada. There’s a lot of talented kids, they just need an opportunity.”

While Germany proved to be an invaluable experience for Idonije, he admits he wasn’t originally thrilled about going there.

“When the Bears asked me to go to Germany to develop, my initial instinct was no.” he said. “Players like Bryan Robinson, Keith Traylor and Phillip Daniels all said, ‘Hey, go to Germany and get better.’

“My experience there was a first-class experience. I think at the end of the day it’s important just to get reps. That’s what Germany did for me. I wasn’t even a starter when I got there. Sure enough, I worked my way up and made plays and in the World Bowl I got two sacks. It’s just getting the opportunity.”

Idonije said having a German player go through the process and making it in the CFL will only validate the partnership. He pointed to the success story that is David Onyemata, another Nigerian-born defensive lineman who took up football late, attended Manitoba and is now playing for the New Orleans Saints after being drafted in the fourth round in 2016.

“You need somebody to make it, you need to complete the loop in the narrative,” he said. “The Israel Idonije story was a part of the narrative.

“I worked hard, I made it to the NFL and then along came this kid named David Onyemata. He came to the University of Manitoba and said, ‘Hey, what Israel Idonije did, I can do that too,’ And you know what he did? He blew what I did out of the water. He got drafted in the first four rounds and is getting great reps. Hopefully he has a 15-year career with multiple Pro Bowls and Super Bowls. Then the next kid can come and say, ‘You know what David Onyemata did? I can do that.’ You need to find that string of successes.”

The Canadian Press, known in French as La Presse Canadienne, is a national news agency headquartered in Toronto. It was established in 1917 as a vehicle to permit Canadian newspapers of the day to exchange their news and information.