BOSTON (CBS) – Growing up in Amherst, Massachusetts, James Ihedigbo has plenty of memories of the New England Patriots.
“It’s amazing. I remember one of my Birthday presents from a friend in high school was tickets to a Patriots game,” the Patriots safety told WBZ-TV’s Steve Burton for Saturday’s Patriots GameDay.
“Coming to old Foxboro Stadium; it was old,” he recalled, remembering the old benches that used to line the upper tier.
But now Gillette Stadium stands in Foxboro, and Ihedigbo has a much closer seat.
“Watching games there, now having the privilege to be part of a great organization and being able to play in front of family and friends, it’s awesome,” said the four-year vet who found himself starting for the Patriots after the preseason release of Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders, along with a rash of injuries to the New England secondary.
Ihedigbo played high school ball at Amherst Regional High School where he thrived on both defense and offense. He helped his team to a Super Bowl his sophomore year and was named a team captain for his senior season. He then followed his parent’s footsteps to UMass, where they both received PhDs in Education.
Their route to the Amherst campus was much different though. Apollos and Rose Ihedigbo emigrated from Nigeria, wanting what was best for their growing family.
“They both came with the typical American dream so to speak. They knew they couldn’t provide the life for my siblings, three older siblings at the time, in Nigeria, so they came to the United States,” said the youngest of the Ihedigbo family. “They went to UMass and both of them worked diligently and got their PHD in education.”
Idedigbo enjoyed a great career as a Minuteman, playing free safety his first three years and switching to strong safety his senior season. He was named a team captain and was considered one of the top defensive players in the A-10 during his senior year.
Ihedigbo went undrafted, but was signed by the Patriots’ rival New York Jets. He spent three seasons in New York, seeing action in 37 games registering five sacks and a forced fumble.
Now he gets to play in front of his family and friends every Sunday with a New England Patriots uniform on.
“I still have the same exact friends from when I was three years old that I hang out with today,” said Ihedigbo. “We sit around the table and say ‘Wow, this is a reality. It’s not a dream.’ Everything we talked about being younger kids, we’re doing now which is powerful. It’s powerful speaking things into existence and executing your life goals.”
For the 28-year-old Ihedigbo, family comes first. He remains very close with his mother, who has not missed a of his games since Pop Warner, even road games. His father passed away in 2002 from Kidney failure, right before James’ senior year of high school. Losing his father was tough, but something James said made him stronger.
“It was definitely something that was tough to deal with and tough to swallow in the midst of everything that was going on; trying to figure out where you were going to school and where to play football at the next level. It made me stronger. It made me the individual I am today.”
Appolos is a tough act to follow, founding the Nigerian Agricultural Technical Community College. His goal was to make sure his fellow Nigerians have the chance at getting an education he did in the US.
“His number one thing was to establish himself here but to go back and give other Nigerians the opportunity he never had,” said Ihedigbo. “It’s amazing that he did that and it’s an honor to be a part of it.”
James is doing his part, founding an organization of his own in 2008 to help provide educational services for underprivileged communities in Africa.
“HOPE Africa. It’s an acronym for ‘Helping Our People Excel.’ It’s really a testament to my dad and him going back and wanting help other Nigerians. I didn’t want his legacy to be all for nothing once he passed away. Me and my mother, as well as other board members, we started HOPE Africa which gives scholarships to students across Africa to come to the United States to get a higher education, and then go back to their countries and give back.”
Ihedigbo On HOPE Africa
Ihedigbo says the sky is the limit, both on and off the football field. He visited Africa last March, and wants to continue his work after football.
But his focus this week is on the Saturday’s opponent: the Miami Dolphins.
Read: Pats-Dolphins Preview
“This is a team we know very well; they’re in our division, we played them earlier in the year,” he said. “This is a team that has playmakers in Brandon Marshall and Reggie Bush, and they do a great job getting them the ball. We’re up for the task in the secondary. We’re excited for it and studied hard and are ready to go.”
In a secondary that ranks last in the NFL and seems to have a different offensive player filling in each week, Ihedigbo is confident his team can reach their ultimate goal this season.
“It’s resilience. Right now it’s playing for each other because we have a lot of injuries across the board. Even though I’m banged up myself, my teammates need me. I’m going to do everything in my power to play each week and give everything I have. It’s that time of year, we’re chasing the big dream so we have to prepare like it each week and stick together.”
“I think if we work hard enough and continue to believe in each other, yeah it’s definitely possible.”
For more information on HOPE Africa, log on to the organization’s website at www.hopeafricausa.org