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Safety help

Patriots’ Ihedigbo follows parents’ example with his education foundation

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / October 16, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - Growing up in the Ihedigbo family meant participating in a few traditions.

There were homemade pizzas on Fridays, gathering bottles and cans for extra money on Saturdays, and rooting for the Dallas Cowboys on Sundays. But every day was dedicated to education and faith.

The routines and goals cemented a bond for a family from Nigeria that relocated to Amherst in the 1980s and lived on the bare minimum, all to pursue higher education. Apollos and Rose Ihedigbo raised five children and eventually graduated with doctorates from the University of Massachusetts.

The youngest of those children is Patriots safety James Ihedigbo. Football doesn’t require a degree, but Ihedigbo’s career is helping him create opportunities for others back in Africa. Watching his parents dedicate their lives to education encouraged Ihedigbo to establish a foundation to promote education.

“That’s something that is my heart and soul,’’ Ihedigbo said. “I’ve been given a platform to play football at the highest level and I can help other people.

“I look at it this way: My parents excelled to where they are without the help of others. It was just determination and hard work. I’m in a position where I can help other people get to the level my parents did and even higher.’’

In 2008, Ihedigbo established the HOPE Africa Foundation as an extension of the work his father did in Nigeria, where he and his wife started the Nigerian American Technological and Agricultural College. During a trip to work with the college in 2002, Apollos Ihedigbo died of kidney failure, just before Ihedigbo graduated from Amherst Regional High.

Ihedigbo is using his foundation to carry on the dreams of his father to educate underprivileged children. The foundation is expanding its efforts and is teaming up with UMass to provide scholarships to children from Africa who want to pursue higher education and return to their countries to make an impact.

“One of the goals of why we left Nigeria for the United States was to study and achieve and go back to Nigeria to establish a school that will support the children or families who could not do it on their own,’’ Rose Ihedigbo said. “So education became very important to us.

“We wanted all of our children to achieve some form of education. My commitment to them - including James - was I would support them, but you have to graduate.’’

Childhood lessons

Apollos and Rose Ihedigbo left Nigeria for New York in the late 1970s with their three children so Apollos could complete his bachelor’s degree. He received a scholarship to UMass, and he and his family would settle in Amherst in the early 1980s.

It was there that their youngest sons David and James would be born.

Apollos Ihedigbo, who also was a pastor, attended school during the day while he pursued a doctorate in administrative education. Rose Ihedigbo went to school at night, taking classes toward a doctorate in early childhood education.

Money was tight, which forced the family to find ways to supplement their income. Living near a college campus meant lots of bottles and cans left over from college students. The family would collect them, rinse them out, and recycle them for money.

Apollos Ihedigbo delivered pizzas as a part-time job and learned how to make them. He would bring home dough on Fridays and everyone would gather to make personalized pizzas.

The pizzas became so popular that the children invited their friends to participate, said Onyii Brown, the oldest of the Ihedigbo children. While making pizzas, they told stories and learned lessons.

“My father’s story is so amazing to come from where he did, we have to be the way that we are because [otherwise] it would be disrespectful to everything he has done and worked for to both of my parents,’’ Brown said.

In their spare time, the Ihedigbos came up with ways to educate their children about Nigeria. They were taught their native language of Igbo and saved money for trips back.

“The first time, it was definitely like a culture shock,’’ Ihedigbo said. “I was younger and didn’t know what to expect. It has different smells, a different environment, different people, and a whole different culture, so at first, it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m out of my element.’

“But then you grow to love it. It’s part of who you are. And the person I am. You just embrace it and enjoy it.’’

But they also wanted their children to have different experiences. Rose Ihedigbo was walking home with her four boys one day when she saw a Pop Warner football game. She didn’t know much about football but was struck by the uniforms.

“I was so thrilled to see the puffy shoulders and the big helmets the kids were wearing,’’ Rose Ihedigbo said. “When I inquired, they said it was Pop Warner football and I signed all four boys up.’’

After the practices, the boys would come home and break down their plays to their parents to help teach them the game. Apollos Ihedigbo grew to love football around the time his boys began playing and watched the Cowboys, who were frequently on television. Soon, the rest of the family became fans.

Ihedigbo played football, basketball, and lacrosse but he didn’t get far before he was reminded about his priorities.

“[My father] always instilled the fundamentals of our faith and yet always excelling in education to be the best,’’ Ihedigbo said. “I mean, it was education, education, education. I couldn’t even go to basketball practice without homework and everything being done.’’

That approach carried on when Ihedigbo walked on at UMass to play football. All of his siblings were educated at UMass, and he would be the last. After his first season, he became a three-year starter for former coach Don Brown, who is now defensive coordinator at the University of Connecticut.

Under Brown, Ihedigbo discovered how to take his ability to pick up things quickly and apply it to football.

“He taught me how to understand defensive schemes,’’ Ihedigbo said. “He used to say you don’t know it until you can teach it - teach it to other teammates and lead film study for all the other guys.’’

Many contributions

Ihedigbo is in his fifth NFL season, after playing four years with the New York Jets, and he has emerged from special teams to secure the first start of his career last week against his former team at safety.

Nick Caserio, the Patriots director of player personnel, said Ihedigbo is a complete player.

“He’s a smart player, he’s an instinctive player, he’s tough, and shows up in the kicking game,’’ Caserio said. “He’s come in and worked hard and made the most of his opportunities.’’

In the first team meetings, Ihedigbo’s awareness and ability to process information was obvious to Patriots safety Patrick Chung.

“He’s very smart,’’ Chung said. “He communicates with us and was able to come in and picked up the playbook pretty fast, so I mean that’s good.’’

Ihedigbo said he doesn’t mind being described as smart, but to play in the NFL everyone has to have some level of intelligence. What is most important is seizing opportunities and recognizing the blessings.

“I’m just truly, truly blessed,’’ he said. “Opportunity is the key to life. A lot of times people worry and say, ‘I’m never going to get an opportunity,’ and as they’re saying that, their opportunity is passing them by.

“I just put my head down and work every day and when my opportunity comes, God willing, I’ll be ready to take it on.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @monwalker.

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