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Nov29FriNFL safety James Ihedigbo has always risen to challenges, and now he helps others achieve their dreams. November 29, 2013 by Jayne Thurber-Smith
On the night of February 3, 2013, after a hard-fought Super Bowl XLVII, Baltimore Ravens safety James Ihedigbo knelt at the 50-yard line with many of his teammates amid thousands of cheering fans. As he had after every game that season, he bowed his head and prayed to God. He had many things to be thankful for, not the least of which was the Ravens' 34-31 win over the San Francisco 49ers. Looking back at his life, though, James knew there was so much more as well.
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- Faith & Friends
Out of uniform, the impeccably attired James bears no resemblance to James as a youngster, growing up in donated clothing from support services such as The Salvation Army in Amherst, Massachusetts. To this day, he remains grateful that the Army was there to help provide clothing and food for him and his four siblings. His parents, Rose and Apollos, had immigrated to the United States from Nigeria and even though both parents worked, they also had to collect and sell cans to try to make ends meet.
“Coming from a Third World country was tough for my parents,” James comments. “My dad was both a janitor and a pizza-delivery man, and Mom was a tutor. The Salvation Army helped close the gap for us in terms of what we needed and what we had. It was awesome that that was available to see us through.”
James had been a Christian since the age of 12. However, his faith faced a serious crisis in his final year of high school when his father died of kidney failure. The youngster couldn't handle such a painful loss. His grades slipped and he was wasting his first year of college.
“For spring break, I went with three friends to Florida,” he remembers. “All we had planned to do was party, but when we arrived we saw there was a church having a special Saturday service. For whatever reason, we decided to go to that first.
“The pastor called me out during the service and wanted to pray for me,” James goes on to say. “He said God had a special plan for me. I realized then that He wanted me to grow up and be a man now, not later.”
That wake-up call helped James get his grades back up and kept him from throwing away his Godgiven athletic talent. He had already glimpsed God's special plan for him the year before, when he was looking into college football scholarships. Weighing in at 150 pounds at five feet seven inches, he kept hearing, “You're too small.”
“My high-school advisor said to look at Division 2 or 3 colleges, which are not as competitive and would have left me with little hope of ever making the NFL,” he remembers. “I always step up when people doubt me, and I walked on at the University of Massachusetts to play football and made the team.”
During his freshman year at that Division 1 school, he not only worked hard but also grew three inches and put on 35 pounds. He was granted a scholarship and was UMass' team MVP for 2006, his final year.
“Now, I'm six one and weigh 215 pounds,” he smiles. “A late growth spurt is fine by me. It's all in God's timing.” He earned a contract with the New York Jets in 2007 but an injured hand made him miss his rookie year.
“It was a freak injury but it was the hand of God,” James asserts. “I was only one of six safeties, so if I hadn't hurt my hand I may have gotten cut from the roster. Being placed on the injured list allowed me to learn from the sidelines as I healed. I successfully stepped into my second year, making the active roster.”
In 2009 and 2010, the Jets missed getting to the Super Bowl by one game. In 2011, James went to the New England Patriots, who unfortunately lost in the Super Bowl that season.
“No matter what happens,” he says, “my faith is my cornerstone. Getting that close and then losing made me work all the harder in the offseason. I wouldn't want to have missed those feelings of seeing the other team celebrating their win, with the confetti falling on them. All of that makes it worth it when I finally get there.”
And he did get there eventually. James was cut from the Patriots at the end of the 2012 training season. The Baltimore Ravens then signed him, who just so happened to be the team to keep the Patriots out of the 2013 Super Bowl. The Ravens went on to become the champions.
“That was poetic justice,” James smiles. “I couldn't have written it any better. The Patriots wanted to go in a different direction the beginning of the season, which didn't include me. That was OK because the Ravens are the perfect fit for me.”
Since he has been blessed so abundantly, James wants to bless others. That's why he founded HOPE (Helping Our People Excel) Africa. Through this foundation, he helps children in Nigeria have the opportunity to achieve higher education and reach their dreams as he has. James is also involved in the Nigerian Agricultural Technical Community College, founded by his parents.
“As I was growing up, Dad often repeated the Bible verse that says 'to whom much is given much is required,' ” (Luke 12:48) James remembers. “I understand that now, as a man and as a professional athlete. It's a joy to give to others, as my parents and others sacrificed to give to me.”