James Ihedigbo's key to success is preparedness
Wearing their yellow-and-black-striped throwback uniforms, the Pittsburgh Steelers and quarterback Byron Leftwich, who was filling in for injured starter Ben Roethlisberger, faced the Baltimore Ravens.
Poised to pass after a snap, Leftwich never saw James Ihedigbo coming.
The Ravens safety flew in from the left side and squashed the quarterback like a bee. When he leaped up, Ihedigbo was a ball of energy, pumping his fist and raising his muscular arms in celebration.
"We often say you don't choose to be a Raven; somehow the Raven chooses you," Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said. "Even though [Ihedigbo's] played for two other teams, he's always played like a Raven."
Ihedigbo's intensity on the field is in stark contrast to his calm and reassuring demeanor off the field. The son of two education professors who were Nigerian immigrants, Ihedigbo has the bearing of a scholar even though he plays a game in which violent collisions are valued over a probing dialectic.
"My parents worked their tails off to come to a new country, a new environment, and earn a Ph.D.," Ihedigbo said. "That set the standard for what success looks like."
While it was hard to get their matching doctorates at the University of Massachusetts with five young children -- Ihedigbo's father, Apollos, delivered pizza and his mother, Rose, washed and redeemed discarded cans and bottles to make ends meet -- it was worth it in many ways.
"There was a determination and commitment to do it," Rose said. "The kids were young, and we wanted to set an example -- and also because it was a good thing to do."
Ihedigbo, the youngest child, was an undrafted free agent out of Massachusetts in 2007. Not many players make it to the NFL from an FCS school. Still fewer in the past six seasons. Ihedigbo initially signed with the New York Jets and played with them for four seasons. He signed with the New England Patriots as a free agent in 2011 and started the Super Bowl, which they lost to the New York Giants. Ihedigbo was in the Patriots' camp but was released at the end of the 2012 preseason. The Ravens signed him in September.
Ihedigbo has a reputation as a solid locker room presence and hard worker who knows how to prepare for any role from the backfield to special teams. That kind of versatility can be more demanding than being a starter at the same position game in and game out, because there is more to remember with each additional possibility.
So what is the key to making it in an insecure environment?
"People say working hard, and it is," Ihedigbo said. "But it's the little things, sacrifice, studying, knowing your job, because opportunity is the key to staying in the game. A lot of times people say, 'I can't wait to get my opportunity,' and that opportunity is passing them by."
He has seen a lot of million-dollar draft picks come and go since he entered the NFL. His work ethic, well ingrained by his upbringing, has allowed him to stay in the league and thrive.
"Guys say, 'I'm not playing this week, so why should I be prepared to play?' and then they pull you up Saturday," Ihedigbo said. "Guys may have excelled in college and not had to work very hard to do that."
Once in the league, Ihedigbo didn't wait to use the platform. In 2008, he started the HOPE Africa charity. He has arranged offseason relief missions to places like Haiti, which suffered the devastating earthquake in 2010. Ihedigbo was part of a group of NFL players who lifted debris, distributed food and clothing and erected tents for the displaced inhabitants of the island nation.
Since his parents, Apollos and Rose, emigrated from Umuahia, a small village in Nigeria, Ihedigbo's foundation also offers scholarships to children of African descent. The five scholarship recipients this year will attend schools ranging from the University of Virginia to the University of Oregon.
Ihedigbo's mother said the family has always wanted to give back. Three years before Apollos died, the couple founded the Nigerian-American Technological and Agricultural College in 1999. She sees a bright future for her son even after his football career is over.
"He's an achiever, and I believe he's going to continue to achieve," Rose said. "Not just for him but for others."