Matt Vautour: Former UMass standout James Ihedigbo leaves NFL proud of his career

  • Baltimore Ravens strong safety James Ihedigbo celebrates after the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, in New Orleans. The Ravens won 34-31. AP file

  • Baltimore Ravens strong safety James Ihedigbo tips the ball into the air sending it into the hands of Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green for a touchdown during the second half of a NFL football game in Baltimore, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013. AP

  • Buffalo Bills safety James Ihedigbo, top, tackles Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, in Orchard Park, N.Y. AP

  • James Ihedigbo coaches the white team during a UMass scrimmage Friday at McGuirk Stadium. GAZETTE PHOTO / JERREY ROBERTS

  • Detroit Lions safety James Ihedigbo speaks with reporters after an NFL football organized team activity in Allen Park, Mich., Wednesday, May 27, 2015. AP

@MattVautourDHG
Published: 3/19/2018 9:52:24 PM

I expected him to say Super Bowl XLVII.

When I asked James Ihedigbo, who officially announced he was retiring from football Monday, if he could relive one game in his career just to experience it again, I assumed being a part of that championship-winning Baltimore Ravens team that day would be the answer.

But the answer the former Amherst Regional standout and UMass All-American gave was better and much more indicative of who he is.

The year after the Super Bowl, the Ravens led division rival Cincinnati late in the fourth quarter, and Ihedigbo leapt for Andy Dalton’s Hail Mary attempt.

Had he caught it, the interception would have been his third of the day, and the game would have been sealed. But it bounced off his fingertips into the hands of A.J. Green in the end zone, allowing the Bengals to force overtime.

The moments that followed are why this game was special to him.

“In a stadium packed with fans, making a mistake like that, I could have been down on myself, he said. “I was proud of the way I bounced back. It was the pinnacle of what my career was about.”

The Bengals got the ball first in overtime and marched to the Baltimore 33. Rather than attempt the 50-yard field goal, Cincinnati went for it on fourth and two.

Ihedigbo beat his blocker on the blitz but couldn’t wrap up running back Giovanni Bernard and slipped to the ground as the Bengal reversed field.

Ihedigbo got up, sprinted across the field and, this time, left nothing to chance. As Bernard tried to slip a teammate’s tackle, Ihedigbo dove through the air to take him down. The Ravens kicked a game winning field goal shortly after.

“It doesn’t matter how you start, it’s how you finish,” Ihedigbo said.

In football, he never started from much. A pro career was never a given.

Ihedigbo was a hard guy to draft or sign after a workout. He wasn’t that big or that fast and didn’t have a particular measurable skill that distinguished himself.

But Ihedigbo was a hard guy to cut once he was in a camp. The intensity, leadership and love of not only football, but of doing the little things the hard things that made a difference, endeared him to coaches and coached.

It’s how a kid from Amherst Regional went from a walk-on to a scholarship to a starter to an All-American at UMass.

It’s how a player from a I-AA school went from a tryout just to attend rookie camp to a practice squad player to special teams regular, to a starter at safety to a respected veteran leader over his 10-year career.

That career officially ended Monday when he announced his retirement on multiple social media platforms.

“I’m making it official. I’m stepping away from the game I love and have had the honor of playing since I was 6 years old!! I truly thank the Lord Jesus Christ for the opportunity, but more than anything, for having his hand on my life every step of the way,” he wrote. “An Undrafted free agent from Amherst, Massachusetts to a 10 year career and Super Bowl Champion....I swear I need to write a book!!”

Ihedigbo thanked his family each of his six head coaches and athletic trainers but made a special point to single out Jets special teams coach Mike Westoff for pointing him down the right path:

“I want to give a special thank you to Mike Westoff, my special teams coach with the New York Jets, who told me in 2007 if I wanted to make the 53 man roster that I better be a terror on Special Teams, and that’s exactly what you developed me to be!!.”

Ihedigbo played his final game for the Buffalo Bills in 2016 before an injury cut his season short at four games. He didn’t play at all in 2017 after a four-game suspension for what he called a “tainted substance” that cause him to fail a drug test.

After his UMass career, Ihedigbo made the most of that tryout to attend New York Jets 2007 rookie camp. He did well enough to earn an invitation to fall camp.

He suffered a season-ending injury during a preseason game and was released by the Jets, but they liked him enough to sign him to a futures contract, allowing him to rehab and learn at their facility.

He made a practice squad during the preseason a year later and was elevated to the active roster in October. He spent three years as a regular for Rex Ryan, played one season for the Patriots (2011), two in Baltimore (2012-13) and two in Detroit (2014-15) before finishing his career in Buffalo.

“I was able to play with some amazing players,” he said. “Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Chad Johnson, Ty Law. I don’t take any of that lightly.”

From 2011 to the end of his career, he started most of his team’s games. He played in the playoffs in five seasons, started two Super Bowls and won a ring with the 2012 Ravens.

Ihedigbo, who now lives in Houston, has been active in charitable causes in that city as well as ones which provide aid to Africa.

He and his wife Brittany have two children and own a Kiddie Academy franchise. He’s took part in the NFL’s broadcasting boot camp and is interested in becoming a broadcaster. Someday coaching high school football also appeals.

Mostly the chance to leave the game healthy and have more time for his children made him realize the time was right.

“It’s been a heckuva run, 10 years,” he said. “I’m blessed to have been able to do it consistently at a high level for as long as I was able to do it.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.



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