NFL players Adewale Ogunleye and Israel Idonije travel to Nigeria to give a young girl a gift from the heart.
NFL players don’t always have the best reputation.Â They are often known as rich men with big egos and serial daters.Â It is always nice to her about players with big hearts giving back to their communities.
People in Adewale Ogunleye’s home country of Nigeria have bowed at his feet before during previous visits home, given the Bears defensive end’s status as a prince in the region, but never like this.
Never as demonstrably as the African woman who dropped to her hands and knees last month to thank Ogunleye for helping pay for a flight to America for a life-saving operation on her 4-year-old daughter. The girl was born with a hole in her heart.
“I had to ask this kind lady to please get up, I was getting embarrassed,” Ogunleye recalled Thursday. “She was so grateful.”
Ogunleye and teammate Israel Idonije offered assistance during their recent goodwill trip to Nigeria after Ogunleye read a newspaper story detailing the plight of the woman and her afflicted daughter. An organization in Austin, Texas, called Heart Gift had agreed to perform life-saving heart surgery on the girl scheduled for April 13 and would pay for everything except the flight.
The surgery nearly had to be canceled when the woman was unable to raise enough money for airfare. A round-trip plane ticket between Lagos, Nigeria, and Austin, Texas, this month ranges between $2,500 and $5,000 per person.
After local publicity brought the story to light through African media reports, Ogunleye asked his sister, a congresswoman in Nigeria, to help get in touch with the woman.
Once that happened, Ogunleye and Idonije decided to split the flight costs for the woman and her daughter, the kind of humanitarian assist common during the NFL players’ 10-day journey into disadvantaged areas of Africa. He plans to visit the girl in Texas during her recovery.
“We both wanted to be a part of helping them,” Ogunleye said. “We checked out the organization [in Texas] to make sure it was legit and just took one look at her little girl and it was a no-brainer. We did what anybody in our position would do.”
Bears Ogunleye, Idonije and Tommie Harris joined four other NFL players â€” Nigerian-born Amobi Okoye, a defensive tackle for the Houston Texans, Osi Umenyiora of the Giants, Nnamdi Asomugha of the Raiders and Xavier Adibi of the Texans â€” for a mission trip at the end of March that mixed free medical clinics with football camps. There were 20 players of Nigerian descent on NFL rosters last year, according to NFL.com.
The traveling party included six doctors and seven nurses.
“I saw two persons’ lives saved just because they came to the clinics and, in one case, someone discovered a blood-sugar level that was near-death,” Ogunleye said. “We’d see women whose pre-natal care was out of control and gave them medicine. You wouldn’t believe some of the stories or what it’s like there.”
Other outreach projects involved the players helping to drill new wells to provide cleaner drinking water in remote areas of Africa, teaching young, curious African boys the sport of American football and awarding 20 scholarships to 10 Nigerian boys and 10 girls through CATE, Okoye’s foundation Changing Africa Through Education.
“[Eventually] we want to build an academy,” Okoye told the Houston Chronicle.
Their ambition made for a busy 10 days.
“We hit the ground running,” Ogunleye said. “It sure wasn’t a vacation. The whole trip was like a grass-roots effort to do something, in my case, to find a way to show appreciation for what I have and for what my parents put into my mind about being blessed.”
The natives in Ogunleye’s homeland appreciated the gesture and, he said, treated him and his fellow NFL players like rock stars. American football isn’t popular in Nigeria so nobody in the villages surrounding Lagos, for example, knew Ogunleye or Harris for their NFL stardom but simply knew they had achieved some sort of status abroad.
“They knew we might have had some celebrity status [back home in our NFL cities] but maybe weren’t sure why,” Ogunleye said. “It didn’t matter.” All that mattered to Ogunleye was getting a chance to go home and give back to those whose lives haven’t been as privileged as his.Hugbacker caught up with Izzy this weekend for a quick chat. â€œThey were having difficulty raising the funds to buy the two tickets,â€ he told us. â€œDuring our second medical clinic the mother and the young girl were there and the situation was brought to [Wale’s and my] attention. Doing the little we could was a no-brainer.â€
The humanitarian trip had a profound effect on Idonije, who himself was born in Nigeria and emigrated to Canada with his family as a young boy. â€œThe overall trip was life changing. We took 12 doctors from Oklahoma and ran four free medical clinics in rural areas, and introduced American football in two camps. Everyone on the trip walked away with a fresh perspective on life.â€