Commentary

Idonije's loss could be Bears' gain

Defensive end dropped 40 pounds in offseason

Originally Published: August 12, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- They praise Israel Idonije's versatility.

Elasticity is more like it.

When the six-year veteran talks about his 40-pound weight loss this past offseason after putting on more than 30 the year before, Idonije makes it sound as simple as changing jersey numbers.

"Just discipline," he said.

Jenny Craig herself should be so disciplined.

"He should be a nutritionist when he retires," said Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye.

The affable Bears defensive lineman and special-teams standout has gone up and down the scale more often than most people change the oil in their car, and we're not talking about dropping a few pounds to get into that new pair of pants.

[+] EnlargeIsrael Idonije
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesBears' defensive end Israel Idonije is getting a lot of reps at the under tackle spot this training camp.
"They told me to get to about 305, 306 [for the 2008 season]," said Idonije, who, at 6-foot-6, weighed 275 pounds the year before. "Then I had to lose it again."

The thought was that Idonije, who needed the bulk playing mostly inside last season, would be quicker and more agile this year and a better fit to back up defensive end.

So now Idonije is back down to 266 pounds, but with Mark Anderson having a good camp at end and Tommie Harris still recovering from knee surgery, he is seeing the most action in camp at the under tackle.

"Size doesn't matter as much as your technique," Harris said of Idonije. "He's come a long way with his technique. He plays well with his hands. I feel the sky's the limit for him. He's equally talented at both tackle and end.

But clearly the Bears may have yo-yoed the versatile Idonije once too often.

He said on Tuesday that he didn't lose much lean muscle mass and feels strong enough to play defensive tackle. But it depends on what the Bears need from him inside.

"If I want to play inside, I have to be bigger, no question about it unless I want to just be in on passing downs on the inside, then I can be light," he said. "Fast is good but at 266, it's a long day taking up a double-team from two 315- to 340-pound guys. It just wears on you. If you're on the field for an hour, it wears on a light body. You need that weight."

After observing Idonije in practice, his teammates insist he can handle it.

"He's very aggressive, he's very strong and he plays like a tackle plays, with his hands, pushing and pulling, so he can do it," Ogunleye said. "Because of his size, I don't know about every down, getting pounded out."

All things considered, Idonije preferred getting fatter.

"It was fun just eating a lot and not really watching anything," he said. "I just ate, worked out and always had appetizers. I was just as big [in muscle mass] but I was rounder. At 306, I was at 19.8 percent body fat."

Bears teammate Alex Brown begged to differ.

"He tried to make it sound good," Brown teased, "but it was 20 percent."

Down at 266 pounds, Idonije's body fat is now at 9.4 percent.

"It's just a lot of running, working out to drop that 10.4 percent," he said. "Cut out all the garbage, no juices, no simple sugars, lot of water, lot of spinach, vegetables, brown rice, potatoes with no butter."

Ogunleye marveled at Idonije's present body fat percentage. "He overtook my title," he said. "But he worked hard and he got rewarded."

That came last May in the form of a two-year contract extension worth $7 million, including $3 million guaranteed.

Still, being a starter has eluded him.

In 2006, Idonije was a restricted free agent when Buffalo signed him to a four-year, $8.2 million offer sheet that the Bears matched. Before signing the new contract this year, he was set to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career after the '09 season, when he would have likely enjoyed a bigger payoff.

But Idonije took the security and has no regrets about missing out on a chance to possibly start elsewhere.

"You can't think like that," he said. "You never know and Chicago's been great. I love the city and it's a great situation for me. I have a role here and that's the key in the NFL -- if you can have a role and carve yourself a niche and be in a position where you can still build, which I think I am." Last season, Idonije had just 28 tackles, 3½ sacks, five quarterback hits and six pass deflections.

"I'm still striving to just get better," he said. "Last year I played the most I ever had on just defense. But my numbers aren't good enough. The reason I play this game is I love to make plays. I need more tackles, more production, more sacks."

With his weight gain, Idonije was unable to get up and down the field as quickly on special teams and his time there was cut back dramatically. This season, when he's not starting, he'll be back with Coach Dave Toub's unit, where he was once one of the better extra-point and field goal blockers in the league, blocking a kick in three consecutive games during the '07 season.

"The fact that he dropped [the weight], that's only going to make him more valuable to me," said Toub. "The value he brings to us is special." How much Idonije will play on special teams, no one knows, but he is nothing if not flexible.

"I hope that's something I'll always be a part of," he said. "It's a huge part of the game. I take pride in it. Special teams is the reason I'm here today. In 2004, when I came back from Europe, the guy who was going to dress on the 53-man roster was the guy who was going to be able to play special teams. It was between me and Michael Haynes and that was it.

"I love it. I love going down and just knocking somebody out and making plays and destructing on special teams. It's a great part of the game but ultimately, I want to play defense. I want to sack the quarterback and make tackles and make plays on defense."

There are players on every team for whom teammates root, no matter the competition. Idonije is one of those guys, even as he nudges them out of reps. Brown, who recalled the difficulty he had in losing 25 pounds from the Dick Jauron to Lovie Smith eras, said he admires Idonije even as he teases him.

"He's fat when he's up, but when you see him like this, he's flying out there, he's great," he said. "He's a heck of an athlete. You just look at him. He's huge and very strong, fast and he's a great guy. He does it all. He can do both end and tackle, which gives him a lot of value and we definitely need him."

"He's the iron man," said Harris.

Or maybe the Amazing Shrinking Man.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.