Commentary

Sweet James aims to please

Former 'runt' and UMass walk-on is now a QB's nightmare -- and a mom's pride and joy

Updated: March 14, 2012, 9:21 AM ET
By Marty Dobrow | Special to ESPNBoston.com

The game is slipping away, and with it, everything else. The season. The sweet story. The chance -- for James Ihedigbo and all he represents -- of a lifetime.

It's the third quarter of the AFC Championship Game and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has seemingly become Tom Brady. On the Ravens' first possession after halftime, Flacco converts three straight third-down passes into the teeth of the New England Patriots' secondary. The last of the three goes for 29 yards and a touchdown to Torrey Smith. When Billy Cundiff tacks on the extra point, Baltimore leads for the first time, 17-16.

On the ensuing kickoff, bad downshifts to worse when Danny Woodhead fumbles on the return. Deep in the Patriots' territory, Flacco goes to work. On a second-and-7, he runs for 14 yards. Now, two plays later, he faces a third-and-8 from the Patriots' 9-yard line. As Flacco barks out the signals, Ihedigbo hovers just behind the defensive line, leaning forward, sizzling with anticipation.

"If it slides my way, then I read out. If it opens up, then I go."

***

Up in the family section, heart hammering, Rose Ihedigbo is on her feet. She is here at Gillette Stadium, of course. She's always on hand when James plays football.

Ihedigbo
Courtesy of Emeka IhedigboRose Ihedigbo has always been her son's biggest fan, attending most of his games from Pop Warner to the pros.

It doesn't seem all that many years ago when she watched him play Pop Warner ball in Amherst, Mass. -- giving him permission to, in the context of football, hit his opponents. And wasn't it just yesterday when she was working the concession stands at the high school games? Or boarding a plane for Montana in December to see James and his UMass teammates win a critical playoff game? This is just part of the code for the woman her friends call "Dr. Rose": Be there for your kids.

Just a few days earlier, on a whim, from her home in Abingdon, Md., she had sent a text message to her son.

"I have a special request, James," she wrote.

"What is it?" replied the youngest of her five children.

"Could you sack Flacco for me?"

In a tense week of preparation for a championship game, this was a LOL moment. "He texted me back in capital letters, Rose recalled several days later. "I PROMISE."

***

Watching the game in his living room in Milford, Tom Cullen would love to see that sack -- but in the tense seconds before the ball is snapped, he doesn't dare to dream it.

Cullen had basked in Ihedigbo's blitzes back when he coached him at Amherst Regional High School. He gloried in Ihedigbo's full-throttle, ravenous, hell-bent pursuit of the quarterback while watching his college games at UMass. He swelled with pride from the couch when he saw Ihedigbo occasionally bursting into the backfield in his New York Jets' uniform.

But here with the Patriots, New England's team, that just wasn't part of the plan. Cullen had reveled in the fact that Ihedigbo had become a starter for the Patriots. How cool was that? But the Pats' defense almost always called for the strong safety to stay home, to keep the play in front of him. Cullen had seen just a handful of safety blitzes all year, and no sacks for Ihedigbo.

Cullen had been coaching in Massachusetts for 29 years, and if he were at the helm of the Patriots at this desperate moment, he might just roll the dice. But who was he to second-guess the master, Bill Belichick?

***

As Joe Flacco drops back to pass, the whole situation seems rather absurd. How did it ever come to this in the first place?

[+] EnlargeIhedigbo Family
Courtesy of Rose IhedigboJames (center) is the youngest of five Ihedigbo children -- (left-right) Emeka, Nathaniel, David and Onyii. "James has always been about giving back and remembering where you came from," says Emeka.

More than three decades ago, Rose Ihedigbo stepped onto an airplane for the first time in her life. Toting three children younger than 5 years old -- her daughter, Onyii, and sons Emeka and Nathaniel -- she said goodbye to her native Nigeria. Not goodbye forever, mind you. She and her husband, Apollos, were determined to remember, to give back, to help children in their native land. The path to paying that debt was education. That was the way to lift up their family so they could ultimately lift up others.

So on faith, she got on board and flew across the impossibly huge ocean, the long way to America, where Apollos was waiting. He had left months earlier to begin his studies at Houghton College, a small Christian school in western New York that boldly proclaims its mission as "transforming people, transforming the world."

How could Rose ever envision what life would become? How could she predict two more boys in the family, David and James? How could she plan for the shocking loss of her husband? How could she even fathom the idea of something called a text message, or the meaning of the words "sack Flacco"?

When the Ihedigbos left the snowy confines of Houghton for Amherst, where both Apollos and Rose would earn doctorates in education, this whole football thing was foreign territory. When James, at age 6, signed up for Pop Warner, Rose remembers that he used to stand on the sidelines and observe, reluctant to plunge into the contact of the sport.

In one sense, it went completely against the grain of family values. "We had trained him as a Christian," Rose said. "One of our values is you can't hurt your brother, don't hurt anyone. Live at peace with everyone. James took that to the field. He would stand and watch, instead of tackling and hitting."

Sweet Baby James wanted to please his family. He saw them scrapping and clawing. On weekends, he would join his parents and four siblings trolling the UMass campus, picking up recyclable cans that were tossed blithely away after Friday night parties and Saturday football games. The Ihedigbos would cart them home, wash them out, and bring them to Stop & Shop for redemption. James saw his father, a man who seemed larger than life, working all kinds of jobs with his eyes on the prize. Apollos was a janitor in the campus center. He delivered pizza for Antonio's. He was an ordained minister. He was an assistant director at UMass for a program that focused on the education of students of color. Work, work, work for the common good. How would a game as violent as football fit into that?

James' Pop Warner coach, Bryant Lewis, tried to explain that it was a physical game, that being aggressive on the field did not mean that you were a bad person. When James reported this to Rose, she smiled and said, 'If that's what your coach told you and that's how you play the game, then hit someone.' "

***

Even for Tom Cullen, concentrating mightily at the television set, the whole scene would seem -- if he were to step back from it -- kind of preposterous.

[+] EnlargeJames Ihedigbo and Coach Cullen
Courtesy of Rose IhedigboTom Cullen coached Ihedigbo back at Amherst Regional High School -- "He was a runt," Cullen says of James -- and has followed his football career closely.

The Amherst that Cullen arrived in as the head coach in 1990 was a town with all kinds of notable history and virtues, but toughness on the football field wasn't one of them. Amherst was famous fundamentally for Emily Dickinson, alone in a room, writing poetry. It was a town that had made national news for the annual ritual of guiding salamanders to their spawning ponds -- earnest townspeople with flashlights helping the yellow-spotted critters in the first spring rain, making sure they weren't squashed on the road by Volvos. The regional high school also included kids from small towns like Shutesbury (with its Quaker-inspired retreat center, Temenos) and Leverett (where monks had built the first Peace Pagoda in North America). It was, in short, a gentle place.

Cullen served as head coach through 1996, then left to coach college ball. In 1999, he returned to Amherst Regional as the athletic director and the football team's defensive coordinator. Waiting for him was a scrawny sophomore wearing No. 1.

"He was a runt," Cullen recalled. "He couldn't have been more than 5-7 or 5-8, 140 pounds."

It would have been easy to underestimate Ihedigbo. That is what people tended to do, before and since. But Cullen saw things in the kid that he could hardly believe. One was an extraordinary hunger for the game: "He just absorbs everything you have to say." The other was an intense level of on-field aggressiveness: "The thing that always amazed me about him was his toughness. He tried to hit you like he was 240 [pounds]."

That was a magical season in Amherst. Ihedigbo joined forces with a group of close friends -- Marcus Williams, Ikenna Ezeh and Michael Ononibaku (all of whom would go on to play college football). For the first time in 24 years, Amherst ended its season with a victory in a championship game. Granted, with 19 title games in a relatively small state, the bragging rights are limited, but no matter. Each of those games in Massachusetts is called, simply, the Super Bowl.

***

By his senior year, James Ihedigbo had grown up, not all the way to his current stature of 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, but enough to be a force on the field. That year was, in so many ways, an odd time.

There was the terror of Sept. 11 -- made personally more frightening by the fact that his father, Apollos, was thousands of miles away, back in his native land, in the second year of a two-year leave to help create the Nigerian American Technological and Agricultural College.

In fact, the house in Amherst had largely emptied. The four eldest Ihedigbo kids were off at college and the world of work. Much of the time it was just James and Rose, who was then working as a regional program director for the Massachusetts Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

[+] EnlargeJames Ihedigbo
AP Photo/Lisa PooleThe undrafted Ihedigbo was a walk-on at UMass but quickly worked his way up, earning a scholarship, a starting role and becoming a defensive captain and All-American.

Ihedigbo's excellence in the small pond of Amherst did not register with college coaches. The absence of scholarship offers felt like a slap. Deep down, he knew that the experts didn't always judge what was true internally. (Tom Brady, becoming a starter for the Patriots that fall, had -- as even some toddlers in New England now know -- not been picked in the draft until No. 199.)

In December, Apollos flew home, and the family then traveled to Austin, Texas, for the wedding of James' older sister, Onyii. Apollos then stayed around through Christmas with the family gathered tight once again in Amherst. "It was a great opportunity," James recalled this week from Indianapolis. "It was great … being around him."

So it came as an utter shock two weeks later when Apollos died shortly after his return to Nigeria of reported kidney failure at age 55. The community around Amherst descended on the Ihedigbo home. One of the first ones there was Tom Cullen ("He's always there for me," says James).

The trip back to Nigeria to lay Apollos to rest was a journey of anguish, but also one of resolve. It would provide the impetus, years later, for HOPE Africa, a foundation dedicated to education that would be started by James and Rose -- a foundation with which all the Ihedigbos are now involved.

***

Everyone in the family had gone to UMass, and James followed suit. He was a walk-on at an Football Championship Subdivision school, a crystal ball that doesn't usually portend the NFL. But Ihedigbo would work his way up through the ranks, to a scholarship, to a starting role, to becoming a defensive captain and an All-American. He was a hard-hitting safety with a relentless motor.

Before every game, James got on the phone with Rose and they prayed together, a ritual that he maintains to this day. On the field before the Senior Day game in 2006, James hoisted his mom and twirled her around.

***

No NFL team thought he was worth the 199th pick in the draft -- or any pick, for that matter. Like UMass teammate Victor Cruz a few years later, James Ihedigbo would have to fight his way onto a team's roster as a free agent. Cullen's advice was simple: "Get on every special team you can. Then keep playing your ass off."

[+] EnlargeJames Ihedigbo
Ed Mulholland/US PresswireIhedigbo fought his way onto the Jets' roster in 2007 and played there until 2010, but wasn't re-signed after the NFL lockout.

Ihedigbo impressed the New York Jets enough for them to keep him in 2007, though he was on injured reserve with a broken arm. In 2008, he began to play special teams, and then under Rex Ryan in 2009 and 2010 he got some time at safety as well. Both times he made it to the AFC Championship Game, only to be turned away. Every game, Rose was in the house.

In the offseason, he would often come back to work at the football camp of Tom Cullen, who had moved to Milford, Mass., where he is the head coach at his alma mater, Milford High.

When the NFL lockout began in March 2011, Ihedigbo traveled back to Nigeria with Rose, bringing books, medical supplies and sporting equipment. HOPE Africa ("Help Our People Excel" is the acronym) had expanded as James realized more and more that his role as an NFL player gave him a platform for helping to deliver on the promise his parents had made so many years ago.

"James has always been about giving back and remembering where you came from," says his eldest brother, Emeka. "Because you cannot be successful in your ultimate journey if you don't remember your origin."

***

When the lockout finally ended in late July, Ihedigbo was in for a rude surprise. The Jets did not re-sign him. For weeks afterward, no team came forward with an offer. It appeared quite possible that at age 27, James Ihedigbo was done as an NFL player.

The season opener was less than a month away when Cullen stepped away from the reception at a wedding to call up his old protégé.

"James, what are you doing?"

"Coach -- you're never going to believe it. I just signed with the Patriots."

"That's awesome! How are you celebrating?"

"Well, I'm just studying the playbook."

Realistically, the odds didn't seem great to make the 53-man roster. There was such little time to get ready. The Patriots had already acquired some well-established talent at strong safety, two-time Pro Bowler Brandon Meriweather.

But Bill Belichick saw enough in a short time to make the hard call before the season, cutting Meriweather and giving Ihedigbo a roster spot with his hometown team.

Several weeks later, Belichick would succinctly define the appeal: "He's a tough guy that's smart."

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco and James Ihedigbo
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliA few days before the AFC Championship Game, Rose Ihedigbo texted her son: "I have a special request, James. Could you sack Flacco for me?" He didn't disappoint her.

And so the routine began this fall. On Saturdays, Rose Ihedigbo would put down the family memoir she was writing and start driving north from Maryland (where she had relocated years before when she remarried). She would stop in New Jersey to pick up her sons Emeka and David. They would continue on up to New England, spend the night at a hotel, then head out to Gillette to cheer on the little guy.

In week 5, Oct. 9, the rooting contingent swelled. The Patriots were playing their old friends, the Jets. To celebrate, James also got a ticket for his brother Nathaniel, who flew in from Texas (sister Onyii, far along in her pregnancy, couldn't make it). Then there were three of his teammates from long ago at Amherst Regional High School: Marcus Williams, Michael Ononibaku and Ikenna Ezeh.

"I wanted to make sure the people were there who were part of it from the beginning," Ihedigbo said.

That, of course, also included Tom Cullen. He had not seen the rest of the Ihedigbo family for years.

"Guess what, Coach?" said David. "Belichick told James this morning that he was starting."

Cullen sat down next to Rose and they began to catch up. "It was so emotional to have him there," she said. "I almost broke down."

Before the game began, Cullen could not believe his eyes. Leading the Patriots out of the tunnel that day was not Tom Brady, not Vince Wilfork, but No. 44 -- James Ihedigbo.

After the Patriots' 30-21 victory, the Amherst contingent got to visit with Ihedigbo in the locker room, glory days once again.

***

Late in the third quarter, third-and-8, Cullen sees James Ihedigbo surging past Michael Oher, of "Blind Side" fame, and tossing Joe Flacco to the turf.

"I leaped right out of my chair," Cullen recalled, "even with two hip replacements."

At Gillette, the moment was electric. "It was like fire," Rose said. "It was amazing. It was unbelievable. We were jumping. We were shouting. We were waving our flags."

For most Patriots fans, that play -- and the ensuing 39-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff to make it 20-16 Ravens -- would be trumped in memory by others that followed in the fourth quarter:

• The soaring sneak by Brady on fourth down to take the lead.

• The slap away by Sterling Moore that saved what would have been the winning touchdown for the Ravens.

• The mystically curving field goal attempt by Cundiff from 32 yards away that punched the Patriots' ticket to the Super Bowl.

No one knows if any of those plays would have been enough had Flacco had just a bit more time to throw at the end of the third quarter, if Ihedigbo hadn't stemmed all that Ravens' momentum. By any definition, though, the sack was a huge play.

"I guess it was," Ihedigbo said the other day. "But whatever you can do to help your team be successful, that was really my focus."

Members of Ihedigbo's team, some of whom wear Patriots uniforms, were feeling quite successful indeed.

"James, I'm crying for you I'm so happy," Cullen said on his cellphone, surprised to hear James pick up in the locker room.

"Coach, I'm on cloud nine. I can't believe it."

Not long after, James wrapped up his mother in a hug.

"Thank you, James," Rose said, choking up. "You sacked Flacco for me."

"Mom," he said, "I promised."

Marty Dobrow is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. A professor of communications at Springfield College, he is the author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream" (2010, University of Massachusetts Press).

Marty Dobrow

ESPNBoston.com

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