Alum Ihedigbo Named NHF Humanitarian Of The Year
April 10, 2011
NEWARK, N.J. - UMass alum and Amherst native James Ihedigbo of the New York Jets was honored on Saturday night. The 2007 grad was named the Nigerian Healthcare Foundation (NHF) Faces Of Hope Humanitarian Of The Year in Newark, N.J. Ihedigbo is involved in numerous philanthropic efforts to benefit the land of his ancestors, Nigeria.
Ihedigbo has made an impact on and off the field with the Jets in his four seasons. He recently travelled to Nigeria. He is the founder of Hope Africa Foundation, a charity which focuses on helping young people from Nigeria and the rest of Africa improve through higher education. He is also involved in the Nigerian Agricultural Technical Community College (NATAC), a college founded by his parents.
Ihedigbo established the HOPE Africa Foundation in 2008. The organization strives to improve the educational landscape of underserved communities in Africa by providing educational resources and assistance to students. The word HOPE serves as an acronym of the foundation's mission: Help Our People Excel. The foundation directly impacts the public welfare of Africans through a variety of initiatives including scholarships to top-ranked universities in the United States; direct funding in education, agriculture and community development projects; as well as tutoring and mentoring programs.
Hope Africa's core principle of leadership development is exemplified through its international student exchange program that allows American students to receive hands-on experience abroad in African community service and development projects during their college tenure.
This story from the Newark Star-Ledger from the 2010 Jets season also sums up Ihedigbo's interests.
In the Jets' defensive backfield, James Ihedigbo is known as the "hype man."
"He's like Lil Jon," secondary coach Dennis Thurman said, referencing the crunk rapper known for getting crowds fired up. "He's that guy for us."
The fourth-year safety has a contagious energy on game days, delivering inspirational speeches and inciting his teammates in a way that makes his coaches grin. He thrives on the hunt for big plays, and celebrates with his trademark digging act afterward, as he did on a key punt recovery against the Bengals on Thanksgiving night.
Ihedigbo's passion is unmistakable, but just as important has been learning how to harness it: in football, as a core special-teams player and versatile defensive sub, and in life, as he works to carry on his late father's commitment to educational opportunities, particularly for those of African descent.
"It comes with maturity," Ihedigbo said. "Understanding the player I need to be on the field, and who I am off the field."
Getting there on the field was admittedly a process for Ihedigbo, an undrafted free agent out of the University of Massachusetts in 2007. He brought an aggressive instinct for the ball, but it sometimes betrayed him. Thurman said he was a "prime candidate" to bite on play-action fakes, and would bookend positive plays with negative ones.
When Thurman arrived in 2009 with coach Rex Ryan, he identified Ihedigbo's man-to-man coverage and deep safety skills as target areas of improvement. Now Ihedigbo is a versatile defender schooled to play an array of positions: both safety spots, the dime package, weak-side linebacker in the base defense and the "X" position, a hybrid player who roves.
He is sometimes in on the goal-line defense and has a "Dig" defensive package named after him. He is an excellent blitzer, with two sacks this season.
While his snaps are limited, he has made some signature plays, particularly Thursday night: He pounced on Steve Weatherford's punt deep in Cincinnati territory, when he noticed it bounced off the leg of a Bengals receiver first. He also helped spring teammate Brad Smith's 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown with a key block on cornerback Leon Hall. Both masked an earlier roughing-the-passer call on Ihedigbo that was questionable.
In between snaps, his coaches always see Ihedigbo prowling the sideline with his helmet on, anticipating his next chance to get back on the field.
"Those are the type of players you want on your team," Thurman said "You'd rather have to pull a guy off the pile, than push him onto it."
Ihedigbo's drive reminds his mother and four older siblings of his father, Apollos Ihedigbo, who died of kidney failure when Ihedigbo was a senior at Amherst Regional High School in Massachusetts. His father had been on sabbatical in his native Nigeria at the time, continuing work on the Nigerian-American Technological and Agricultural College he and his wife, Rose, founded.
Apollos' loss was devastating but also unifying for the family, who resolved to continue his life's devotion to education. Apollos and Rose emigrated to the United States three decades ago for educational opportunities, each earning a doctorate in education from UMass.
Rose has continued to run the agricultural school. Ihedigbo's foundation, HOPE Africa, was established in 2008 with the acronym "Help Our People Excel." Co-run by Rose and his sister, Onyii Brown, it will host a fundraiser in conjunction with the Make-a-Wish Foundation Dec. 13, and in the spring plans to award four students scholarships to study at UMass.
"I always wanted to continue on that legacy, but now I have the platform as an NFL player," Ihedigbo said. "What do people hope for? People that are less fortunate hope to achieve whatever dreams they have. We want to inspire them and help them."
Apollos Ihedigbo's dream started with furthering his education, though he had obstacles in his way. He was narcoleptic, Brown said, and from a small village in Abia State in southeastern Nigeria. In lieu of electricity, there were kerosene lamps, and fetching water for the household was among his morning chores.
Educational opportunities were tied to money, and he was from humble origins. When he met Rose, through a Christian youth organization, he didn't have enough funds for the bride price. So he headed to northern Nigeria to save up by working several jobs, including as a clothes washer.
US PresswireJames Ihedigbo is carrying on his father's legacy. His opportunity to come to the United States came through the Sudan Interior Mission. The family arrived in western New York then settled in Massachusetts, where Ihedigbo was born. Apollos and Rose alternated attending school and working days and nights, finding ways to support their children. Apollos worked as a janitor and pizza delivery man, and the family gathered cans to collect the 5-cent deposit.
Eventually, Apollos became an academic adviser at UMass, and Rose was an administrator at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. School came first for their own children, and the parents would meticulously go through their homework with them every night.
At age 6, Ihedigbo began playing football and came home one day concerned, telling his mother the coach told him to hit someone. "If that's what the coach wants you to do," Rose responded, "you have to hit someone." Twenty years later, he seeks out contact as a hard-hitting professional safety.
"I cry tears when I think about how the Jets gave my son a chance to be where he is today," Rose Ihedigbo said. "But it saddens me his father is not alive today to see him in his success."
Apollos' ideals, though, are alive through HOPE Africa, which Ihedigbo hopes to expand in the coming years. He will travel to Nigeria in March, and said teammate Dwight Lowery has asked to come along. Last spring, Ihedigbo traveled with teammates to Haiti after the devastating earthquake.
Ihedigbo understands the impact actions can make in the NFL, positively or negatively. In a loss to Buffalo last season, he was ejected for throwing punches at an opposing player and benched by the Jets the following week -- an incident of which he is not proud.
"Certain situations may define your character in this league, and your reputation, and I felt like that was completely not who I am," Ihedigbo said. "You let your hotness get ahead of you."
That's part of maturation, too. With each big play and scholarship awarded, Ihedigbo knows he's still defining who he is.