It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a... Chicago Bear with Manitoba roots who has created a graphic-novel series about superhero professional athletes saving the world?
That's right. And Israel Idonije is inviting everyone to Join the Fight.
Idonije, the NFL defensive end and former member of the University of Manitoba Bisons (2000-2002), is the driving force behind The Protectors, a series of graphic novels -- or comic books -- about a group of five superior professional athletes who find out they have superpowers in addition to their athletic gifts and become devoted to protecting humanity.
The Protectors issue No. 1 was released last month at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo. It followed issue No. 0 that came out in April 2013.
"They think they are serving their true life's purpose as athletes and entertainers, but at the core of the story, the lone elder coming in helps them find their true gifts are beyond what they think," said Idonije, 33, who was born in Nigeria but immigrated to Canada with his family at age four and grew up in Brandon.
Idonije said The Protectors' motto Join the Fight carries a universal message about everyone's ability to create some level of positive change in the world.
"Your true gift is beyond what you think. There's more to you than what you think is in you. That is the true message that connects with all of us," he said.
At 6-6 and 275 pounds, Idonije has been one of the biggest comic geeks in the room at numerous ComicCon events over the years, so he knew how to build a winning team. He joined forces with veteran comic-book writer Ron Marz (Silver Surfer, Green Lantern, Witchblade) and artist Bart Sears (Marvel Comics, DC Comics, action figures such as WWE, G.I. Joe and X-Men). The Protectors are in the team-book genre in the tradition of The Avengers and The Uncanny X-Men.
Idonije said comics drew him into reading when he was about 13 years old.
He started with the Green Lantern when he read one that was donated to the StreetLove program, the charity started by his parents Henry and Choice.
"My parents made us read an hour a day and made reading very important. Comics were that thing that I loved and really enjoyed," said Idonije, the eldest of four children. "That's the beautiful thing about comics. It's a great tool for reading. For young boys and girls that may not be avid readers, comics as a platform engages in the actual reading of the text but also the images help with the reading comprehension. It's one thing to read something, but it's another thing to understand it and be able to take the educational piece to the next level."
The Protectors' characters are football defensive end Isaac Chike (say Chee' kay), basketball player Douglass Larter, women's soccer player Danielle Peters, baseball third baseman Miguel Monteiro and hockey goaltender Gerard Rioux.
The Chike character is a bearded, bald defensive end who immigrated from Africa. Sound familiar?
"It's not me," Idonije said with a laugh, admitting he gets that a lot. "He's just the main character."
The first two books are available at www.athlitacomics.com, the website of Idonije's company that self-published the first two issues. He expects to finalize a new publisher in the coming weeks that will provide global distribution of the next five issues, which are already completed. Additional characters will be added in the next story arc.
Idonije's storylines in The Protectors are heartwarming, reaffirming and idealistic -- qualities that mirror his life and personality.
Though he makes his home in Chicago where he has played nine of the past 10 NFL seasons and signed a one-year deal for 2014 as a Bears defensive stalwart, Idonije has former U of M teammates who count him as a friend for life. Community service was a cornerstone of his childhood and is a driving force in his adulthood. Some of the proceeds of The Protectors will be directed to charity through his Israel Idonije Foundation charity, started in 2007.
Last month, he and a group of IIF directors and members went to Ghana in West Africa, where they provided physical labour to build a school in partnership with Free The Children. Idonije delivered letters written by children from Chicago's Francis W. Parker School to children at their partner Tuskegee school in Ghana.