Gazette Features UMass Alum, Jet James Ihedigbo
Jan. 22, 2011
By Matt Vautour
James Ihedigbo is only in his fourth NFL season and on Sunday he'll play in his second AFC Championship game as he and the New York Jets will face the Pittsburgh Steelers at 6:30 p.m.
But the 27-year-old defensive back needs only to look across the locker room to realize that opportunities like this aren't necessarily abundant.
"Look at Jason Taylor and LaDainian Tomlinson. They're two of the best players to ever play this game. They haven't been to this point," said Ihedigbo about his two star teammates who joined the Jets this year. "In my fourth year in the league, I'm blessed to have my second run at this. But this may be my last chance to ever be at this point. I have to seize the opportunity."
Seizing opportunities has been a constant throughout Ihedigbo's football career. After a good career at Amherst Regional High School, his best college offer was a chance to walk on at the University of Massachusetts.
In four years he went from walk-on to All-American. He became a leader and a standout safety while helping to lead UMass to the 2006 Championship Subdivision title game. But despite his success, NFL interest was minimal.
He didn't even get the standard free agent contract given to many undrafted players. The Cincinnati Bengals and Jets each offered him a tryout contract, basically a chance to come to mini-camp and earn an invitation in training camp.
Few players turn tryout contracts into roster spots. Many don't even make it to August camp. But Ihedigbo, as always, was confident.
"It's a situation I'm familiar with," he said in April 2007 shortly after choosing the Jets. "I'm looking to do the same thing at the next level. Come in as a walk-on, excel and maybe three of four years down the road I'm a Pro Bowler."
It sounded like bravado at the time. But he backed it up. While he hasn't earned an all-star trip to Hawaii just yet, Ihedigbo has become a regular. He's a fixture on Jets' special teams and his playing time and tackle totals on defense have increased every year.
"I was just looked at as 'he's not good enough' or 'we don't know if he can play here,'" Ihedigbo said. "Time and time again I've proved that I can and I continue to."
Ihedigbo's talk-loud, hit-hard approach is so in step with demonstrative coach Rex Ryan that it's easy to forget that Ihedigbo originally made the team under coach Eric Mangini. But he knew right away he was going to like playing for Ryan.
"I knew it from the very first press conference that he was here," Ihedigbo said. "It was surreal. He's for real and his approach is very similar to mine and similar to (former UMass) Coach (Don) Brown's. I knew I would fit in and be accepted by him almost immediately."
Ryan praised the former Minuteman in last week's Boston Herald.
"Tough as nails guy," Ryan said. "I know he's respected through the league with the kind of special teams performer he is for sure, and he's always a guy that's excited. He's a tough, physical-type player. He dishes out big hits almost every game, so we're proud that he's on our team."
While coaches at every level have publicly discouraged players from thinking too far ahead, Ihedigbo has embraced Ryan's willingness to dream big.
"You have to. You have to picture yourself winning the game and being in the Super Bowl. If you don't, you're setting yourself up for failure," Ihedigbo said. "Rex brought us in and said 'Picture Sunday after the victory, the green and white confetti. Picture putting on those AFC Championship hats and the T-shirts and celebrating on the flight home. And most importantly picture yourself coming in Monday morning and getting fitted for your Super Bowl rings.'
"You have to have that mind set to know where you're headed," Ihedigbo said. " Our goal is to win a Super Bowl. We want to win football games and our ultimate goal is to be world champs."
While he can envision the success, he's too familiar with what failure felt like.
"It's still fresh in our mind, coming up short last year and having that feeling for the ultimate sickness and helplessness and failure. All those negative feelings, we're in a position where we can rectify that," he said. "We're in a position where we can change history. Every thing we want to do is here at our fingertips. Everything we've worked so hard for, we just have to go get it and finish it."
He's glad to have the chance.
"Bart Scott said this is going to be his third AFC championship and he hasn't won one yet. He said he's sick and tired of feeling that," Ihedigbo said. "I feel for him. I lost one and I felt sick. I don't want to feel that way again."
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