Commentary

Bears players help girl with heart defect

Updated: May 5, 2009, 1:58 AM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | ESPNChicago.com

"Shootings, drugs, all the bad stuff. That's what people think a lot about athletes today. You never hear about the good stuff."

Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye shook his head and looked slightly disgusted after uttering those words. You can't blame him if he feels that way about some of his troublesome pro athlete brethren.

Idonije and Ogunleye
Tom ThomsonIsrael Idonije and Adewale Ogunleye (background, left and right) -- surrounded by kids in Nigeria.
But Ogunleye and teammate and fellow defensive end Israel Idonije don't fall in the bad athlete category. They recently did something that speaks volumes about them not only as athletes, but also as human beings.

On their second humanitarian trip to Nigeria in late March and early April, Ogunleye and Idonije heard of the plight of a little 4-year-old girl, Segun Asman, who was in desperate need of a heart procedure to save her life.

But there was one catch: While the Austin, Texas-based HeartGift Foundation was ready to perform the surgery, there was no money available to fly Segun and her mother, Funmi, from Nigeria to Texas.

Ogunleye offered to pay for the flights himself, only to have Idonije -- who already has his own children's foundation called "Izzie's Kids" -- step up to split the cost with his teammate.

"I looked at her and said, 'Let's do it,' and then Israel said, 'I want to be part of it, too. I'll go in half with you,'" Ogunleye said. "I appreciated him for doing that. I could have easily taken care of it by myself, but the fact it was this little girl, he said he just had to."

For a player that makes a reported $4.7 million a season, Ogunleye said the cost of the trip never once was a concern to him or Idonije.

"This surgery saved her life, so there's no price on that," Ogunleye said.

Looking at little Segun, it's easy to understand how the two players' hearts melted, both at how cute she is, but also because she had a heart defect. An extra artery was leaking massive amounts of blood between her heart and lungs -- which would have killed her by the time she reached adulthood.

"It touches your heart," Idonije said. "When you look at her, a 4-year-old girl, that her life was in serious jeopardy, it just warms your heart to know that her life is on the right track. For us to be a part of something so big, so positive and life changing -- it's just a feeling of fulfillment and warmth. It's hard to explain the gratification you get."

Segun and her mother flew to the U.S. nearly three weeks ago. The surgery was performed April 14 and she's as active as any 4-year-old could be.

"She's a totally different kid from the first time we saw her," Idonije said. "You can't get her to sit still. It's just a great experience. We're officially her uncles now. She'll forever be part of our lives and we'll constantly check up with her and make sure she's doing well."

Segun and her mother spent a few days in Chicago last week promoting the efforts of the HeartGift Foundation, which to date has helped more than 80 children from impoverished countries live long and healthy lives.

Libertyville High School graduate and pediatric cardiologist Dr. Karen Wright, who volunteers for HeartGift, performed the two-hour operation on Segun in Austin.

"If it's a small artery, it doesn't cause too much trouble," Wright said. "But Segun's was really quite large, and when it's like that, you get this torrential amount of excessive blood flow going into the lungs and then coming back to the heart, causing the heart to really distend and eventually causes heart failure."

Adewale Ogunleye
Tom ThomsonAdewale Ogunleye having fun with kids in Nigeria.
Now, after the successful surgery, Segun, an only child, is running around like a normal, mischievous little girl.

"She should have a perfectly normal life now," Dr. Wright said.

Residents of Kaduna State in northern Nigeria, Segun's mother, Funmi, said she spent the past 1½ years lamenting about whether she'd ever see her daughter live that normal life. The heart defect was discovered when Segun was 2½ years old, and with limited financial means, Funmi said there would have been no way she could have paid for her daughter's surgery.

"I know how expensive medical care is in America," Funmi said. "HeartGift enables people from Third World countries and those that are underprivileged and cannot afford these surgeries. People like 'Wale who have great minds, to want to save children and see them live, not just watch them die, I'm so grateful for that today.

"I feel very fortunate, awesome, very grateful. It's an unbelievable story, one I'll tell for years to come. I've never be able to say thank you enough to a group of people who saved your daughter."

Funmi called Ogunleye and Idonije "my heroes," but the two Bears demurred at that description.

"It kind of just brings you back to the perspective that we're all still human beings at the end of the day," Ogunleye said. "People look at what I do [as a football player] as some glorious thing, and to some people it is. I am providing a service, getting their minds away from their 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday grind. But the thing I've learned is there's so much more than just playing football. It's about touching people's hearts and trying to do something with the platform that we have. This trip was amazing for me for that."

The pair spent their first trip to Nigeria last year building three wells to provide much-needed water for several villages, as well as donating several thousands of dollars worth of soccer equipment.

This year, they brought a team of doctors and nurses to provide medical care for several hundred children and adults in the region, as well as introduced the nuances of American football to some residents.

But as big and bad as these Bears are on the football field, they're not ashamed to admit cases like Segun's brought tears to their eyes.

"The trip itself was very emotional," Idonije said. "The last day we were leaving, there were a lot of tears shed, just because you're giving a lot of yourself. We look forward to continuing to work and going back next year and seeing what more help we can be."

Ogunleye's aunt, a Nigerian congresswoman, first brought Segun's plight to his and Israel's attention during their eight-day trip there.

"I've done a lot of things and have had a lot of success on the football field and continue to [do so], but being able to touch someone's life like this -- and when the doctor tells me if she doesn't have the surgery, it's 100 percent fatal -- it has to be the most satisfying thing I've ever done," Ogunleye said.

Jerry Bonkowski is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.

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