Alan Veingrad, who played for the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, at the Chabad House in Los Angeles.
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February 6, 2010 - On Religion
An Offensive Tackle Named Shlomo
By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN
LOS ANGELES — After practice one late-summer day in 1986, Alan Veingrad strode into the Green Bay Packers’ locker room, feeling both spent and satisfied. An undrafted player from an obscure college, he had made the team and then some. On the next Sunday, opening day of the N.F.L. season, he would be starting at offensive tackle.
In his locker, Mr. Veingrad found the usual stuff, his street clothes and sweatsuit and playbook. On a small bench, though, lay a note from the Packers’ receptionist. It carried a name that Mr. Veingrad did not recognize, Lou Weinstein, and a local phone number.
Alone in a new town, too naïve to be wary, Mr. Veingrad called. This Lou Weinstein, it turned out, ran a shoe store in Green Bay, Wis. He had just read an article in the paper about a Jewish player on the Packers, and he wanted to meet and welcome that rarity.
A few days later, Mr. Veingrad joined Mr. Weinstein for lunch at the businessman’s golf club. There Mr. Weinstein invited the player to accompany his family to Rosh Hashana services at Cnesses Israel, a synagogue near the site of the Packers’ original home field, at City Stadium.
It had been a long time since Mr. Veingrad had spent much time in shul, nearly a decade since his bar mitzvah. He knew the date of the Packers’ Monday night game against the Chicago Bears better than he did Yom Kippur. “But when I heard the Hebrew,” he recently recalled of that service in Green Bay, “I felt a pull.”
Maybe it was a presentiment, maybe it was the sort of destiny that Yiddish calls “goyrl.” Whatever the word for it, something stirred into motion. And that something brought Mr. Veingrad into the Chabad House — a Jewish center run by the Lubavitcher Hasidic movement — near the University of Southern California campus here five nights before the 2010 Super Bowl.
A promotional flier announced the evening’s subject as “Super Bowl to Super Jew.” There was truth in that advertising. Mr. Veingrad goes these days by his Hebrew name Shlomo. He wore a black skullcap and the ritual fringes called tzitzit; he wore the Super Bowl ring he won in 1992 with the Dallas Cowboys and the Rolex watch that was a gift from Emmitt Smith, the team’s star running back.
Within his 6-foot-5 frame, Mr. Veingrad embodies two Jewish archtypes that do not often meet. He is the ba’al guf, the Jewish strongman, and the ba’al teshuva, the returnee to the faith. While two Jewish boxers on the scene now — Yuri Foreman and Dimitriy Salita — also are prominently observant, Mr. Veingrad may well be the only Orthodox athlete from America’s hugely popular team sports.
“I believe I played in the N.F.L. and have that ring so I can share my story with other Jews,” Mr. Veingrad, 46, said shortly before the U.S.C. event. During it, he told a spellbound capacity audience, “The Torah is a playbook for how someone can live their life.”
Were Mr. Veingrad a Christian, like virtually all his teammates over the years, such God-talk would be as ordinary as an extra-point kick. With prayer circles at midfield and Bible verses on their eye-black, Christian football players have routinely used their fame for evangelism and witness. One of the major subplots of this year’s Super Bowl is the anti-abortion commercial featuring the college star Tim Tebow.
For Jews, abundant as fans but uncommon as top players, the visibility of a Shlomo Veingrad serves both reassuring and cathartic roles. Having a Jew to root for — whether Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax or the Israeli N.B.A. rookie Omri Casspi — “has a lot to do with our desire to define ourselves as Americans in the most American way, which is sports,” said Jeffrey S. Gurock, a history professor at Yeshiva University and the author of “Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports.”
At a deeper and more anxious level, American Jews continue to grapple with the stereotypical view of the Jew as egghead, nerd, weakling. That dismissive portrayal was a staple not only of anti-Semites, but also of early Zionists, who envisioned their “new man” with his plow and rifle as the antidote to the “golus Yid,” the exilic Jew unable even to defend himself.
“I don’t think those feelings are as conscious as in prior generations, but they still have some resonance,” Professor Gurock said in a telephone interview. “So there’s a residual pride of someone achieving in this very secular world of sports.”
The story Mr. Veingrad tells in about 40 speeches a year attests to a ferociously competitive spirit. He started playing high school football as a teenage beanpole in Miami, could only get a scholarship from a Division II school, East Texas State, and was cut by his first two N.F.L. teams.
A full year later, he caught on with the Packers, beginning a six-year career with Green Bay and Dallas. From high school through the pros, he defied the odds with a rigorous program of weight training and a relentless study of technique.
“He was a storybook player,” recalled Rich Moran, a Packers teammate, “the undrafted guy who proves he can play.”
In retirement, Mr. Veingrad brought a comparable focus and intensity to his emerging religious life, which was nurtured by Moshe Gruenstein, an Orthodox rabbi in South Florida, with whom he studied the Torah for eight years, and then by several Chabad rabbis.
Among those who came to hear this saga at Southern California was Spencer Kassimir, a 26-year-old graduate student in East Asian studies.
“I drove all the way to Orange County to get this,” he said, showing Mr. Veingrad an official N.F.L. football. Mr. Veingrad obligingly signed with his name, his uniform number, and his message: “Jewish Pride!”
Mr. Veingrad as a tackle with the Green Bay Packers in 1989.
Alan Shlomo Veingrad, with beard, showing his Super Bowl ring Tuesday to students at the Chabad House in Los Angeles.