Monday, November 29, 2010

A Former NFLer's Journey to Orthodox Judaism

By: Sammy Hudes

“There’s certainly a connection between football and Orthodox Jewry, believe it or not,” says former NFLer Alan Veingrad. “You get to shul in the morning and you have to put on the uniform − the tallis and the tefillin – and you start to clear your mind in order to have success in your prayers. It’s the same thing with getting to the locker room and putting on your uniform and clearing your mind so you can go out and have a successful practice.”

The year was 1972, when his family relocated from New York to Miami. Inspired by the Miami Dolphins’ undefeated 1972 season that ended in a Super Bowl championship, it was there in Southern Florida where Veingrad, who was just nine, discovered his passion for football. Intrigued by the sport, Veingrad and his brother began attending plenty of games and practices, as their father had purchased Dolphins season tickets.

“At that time of my life, I was growing up your typical American kid. I liked to go fishing, and boating and snorkeling,” says Veingrad of his childhood. Raised in a secular Jewish environment, his religion naturally took a backseat to his interest in sports. “I recall my parents were, not forcing me, but taking me to Hebrew school to learn about the history of the Jewish people and how to speak Hebrew to prepare for Bar Mitzvah.”

As Veingrad grew older, his passion for football began reaching new heights. After playing high school football, Veingrad received a scholarship to play at East Texas State University. He credits his five year college career for the physical and mental preparation he needed to advance his game. An offensive lineman, Veingrad went undrafted in the National Football League, but signed as a walk-on free agent with the Green Bay Packers in 1986. He made the team that same year, and started every game as a rookie.

After five years with the Packers, Veingrad spent two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. With Dallas, he was able to win the Super Bowl following the 1992 season. “It was definitely one of my proudest moments,” says Veingrad of one of the greatest professional sports achievements that there is. “It takes a buy in from everybody. You don’t have any naysayers on the squad. You have everybody that’s pulling in the same direction. Everybody expects everybody to give it their all and if there’s somebody that’s not, the players will approach him and let him know that that’s not acceptable to us, for the benefit of this team.”

Following the championship season, Veingrad retired from the NFL. He was satisfied with his career, and his life for that matter. “During my five years in college and my seven years in the NFL, if you had asked me what religion I am, I’d say I’m Jewish. If you had asked me what day it is, I’d say it’s Wednesday. Many times I didn’t know what Jewish holiday it was. I didn’t really care what Jewish holiday it was. I was playing football.”

Soon after retirement, Veingrad was a happily married man with a newborn child. One day, his family was invited over for a Friday night Shabbat dinner at his cousin Jonathan’s. “His family is Orthodox, which I knew. They lived here in South Florida so I went to the Friday night meal, and I didn’t know anything [about Orthodox Judaism] and I didn’t really care. It was after the meal that he asked ‘would you go to a

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When Is It Time to Change?

By Alan Veingrad

When you are constantly feeling that your current path no longer makes sense, it is time to change.

I know today that I don’t look much like I used to – an offensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers and later the Dallas Cowboys. Today, I sport a long flowing beard, yarmulke and tzitzis. But I did not roll out of the NFL and into the synagogue – that change came later. Just as dramatic for me was the change I experienced when I retired from the game.

As a child, I wondered about what a pro football player would look like up close. Growing up in Miami, I had landed a coveted job with the Miami Dolphins: operating the net that is raised behind the goalposts during an attempted field goal or extra point. I wore an orange staff shirt which allowed me to get into the locker room after the game and to see what these guys were made of.

This experience really sparked my early appreciation for the value of awareness. I discovered how much I could learn by getting close to people and just paying attention to everything that was going on. I learned to listen to what other said about me and what they thought I could do. I needed this awareness to manage the two dramatic transitions in my life: the transition from pro football to non-player and the transition from a more casual Jew to a more focused one.

In the second case, my awareness was piqued when I was once invited to a rabbi’s home for a meal. While I was there, a neighbor, also a rabbi, stopped by to borrow a barbecue grill. My host jumped to his feet and offered to take the grill over to his neighbor’s house and I followed. I watched his neighbor’s son and his friends enjoying a simple relay race game in the street and I was struck by how much they were enjoying the few hot dogs from the grill that highlighted the boy’s birthday party. It caused me to think about all the material “stuff” I had accumulated in my life and how I really desired to be more like these families: relaxed, focused and confident, living simply with everyday joy. I had fallen into the “where are you going to spend the summer?” syndrome and wanted to make a profound change – to return to my spiritual roots. One thing I knew is that it would take focus.

I once had a fellow player teach me all about how to focus. He asked what I focused on when I was in my stance as an offensive lineman and taught me that it must be on one thing: THE TARGET. So I started to stare at a single point on my opponent’s chest. This proved to be exactly what I needed in pursuing my Torah studies, from which I learned even more about focusing my mind and actions.

In addition to focus, you need to keep moving. I once played against Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants, a fearsome player that I dreaded facing. It turned out to be a great game for me and it was a big thrill the next day when I ended up getting a game ball for my efforts. But then the coach asked me, “OK, but what are you going to do TODAY?” That is the question we all have to ask ourselves each day if we are to continue to re-stoke our desire to be great at what we do.

You can do this! You can create changes large and small in your life if you ramp up your awareness, focus your desire and follow your passion, if you use your discipline and your wisdom and your transferable talents, if you create around you a team that will help pull you out of the old ways and into the new. You may not end up looking like you used to and that’s okay. You will be going on the journey of a lifetime.