There are certain basic elements common to any great sports story, from the heroes and villains, to a compelling storyline capped by a dramatic, pull-you-to-the-front-of-your-seat conclusion.
Izzy Idonije understands all this as well as anyone, for his own story – a kid born in Nigeria and raised in Brandon who then went from nine-man football to the University of Manitoba to the National Football League – has the makings for a Hollywood script.
And now there’s another chapter to his own remarkable tale, and it loops in the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in a starring role.
Idonije is the founder of Athlitacomics, the Chicago-based company that created the comic book line ‘The Protectors’ and has since grown the business into an association with the National Football League Players Association and the creation of the Chicago Bears’ award-winning marketing campaign ‘The Monsters of the Midway.’
That concept – athletes as superheroes – will be the feature theme as the Blue Bombers celebrate their 90th season.
“It’s interesting, when I retired from the NFL Wade (Miller, Bombers President & CEO) called me and said, ‘Izzy, come home. Come play with us,’” began Idonije in a conversation with Bluebombers.com from his office in Chicago.
“I wasn’t prepared to come and play a season in Winnipeg, but I sure didn’t think these years later I’d be joining the team in this capacity and working on a project like this. It’s special to be a part of the franchise in this new way. It truly is incredible how life works sometimes.”
The details of the Bombers’ marketing concept can be found here, but the original idea comes from Idonije. Back in the summer of 2007, Idonije was heading into the fourth of what would be a 10-year NFL career with the Bears and Detroit Lions.
Looking for a way to break up the monotony of training camp – two-a-day practices followed by meetings, treatment and working out – Idonije was determined to take a concept rolling around in his head and begin putting it into reality with his own sketches during his tiny windows of free time.
That’s when the idea for ‘The Protectors’ first began, although the inspiration even predates that moment.
“As a child, comics were my thing,” Idonije explained. “I did not love reading books, but my parents made us read for an hour a day, so I read comic books. I was a paperboy and used to deliver papers on 1st Street in Brandon and I’d take my paper money and go to the local comic book shop and buy comics.
“During that training camp in ’07, I was resolute that I was going to tell the story of the athlete. What makes them special? What is the source behind their gift? The origin of that story took me from where all these athletes like Michael Jordan to Wayne Gretzky find that their ability in sport is actually a byproduct of this greater gift that they were given that they didn’t know they have.”
‘The Protectors’ series came as Idonije collaborated with writer Ron Marz and artist Bart Sears, who had done work for ‘The Green Lantern’ and ‘Silver Surfer’, with the first volume published in 2013.
Idonije first approached the Bears about working on a marketing concept with them in 2010, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the idea became reality. The comic-book themed approach didn’t just appeal to the Bears younger demographic, but covered all age groups.
“The campaign was off the charts. We won four national awards,” said Idonije. “The Bears had an incredible season, which obviously was a big part of it, and the fan engagement was at an all-time high.
“I’m just thankful they believed in it and executed it. Now to have the opportunity to execute a similar strategy with my own hometown team, the Bombers, means I couldn’t be more excited to do that. Coming off a Grey Cup, it’s just such beautiful timing. When you look at the legacy of that franchise and what they’ve done all these years, it’s going to be really special.”
The success of the Bears campaign, and now working with the Bombers, will only help grow his business. But getting his foot wedged into the proverbial door wasn’t simple at first.
“Sports and comics and heroes, to me, seemed like a no brainer. But there was a lot of pushback,” said Idonije. “There was a lot of ‘Why?’ ‘What’s the benefit?’ ‘Why is there going to be more engagement with comics instead of just regular pictures?’ But to me it was so clear. Sports fans and comic book fans are the same fans in a lot of ways. They care about their heroes and they care about what their heroes have done, their stories and the journey they’ve been on. It seemed like a no brainer to see if we could strategically bring them together.
“The only unknown variable in this was the heroes have to win, right? Your team has to win. That Bears’ season was phenomenal. The energy around that team that year paralleled what the campaign was all about. Look at the Bombers now coming off their season. Any heroic story, the up and down and just when you think victory is out of hand, the heroes win. That’s an important part of the execution. That combination of winning and the story being laid out the right way… the potential is off the charts.
“I’m thankful that groups like the Bears, like the Bombers are ‘Yeah, we love it. We’re in’ and they understand how this can engage not just younger fans, but fans of all ages. You need a marketing team that is willing to explore, to get their toes wet and think outside of the box.”
Even with all the success of the Bears’ campaign, ‘The Protector’ series and the work with the NFLPA, Idonije believes the sports figures portrayed as comic book heroes is really in its infancy.
“We’re just getting started. We’re excited,” he said. “We’re thankful for our partners like the Bombers, the Bears, the NFL Players Association. At the end of the day we want to put the players out front and showcase them as role models and people our kids and future heroes can look up to.”