Jews and football
First Person

Jews and football

I’m a fan who squirms with every injury and cheers every touchdown

Steven Weiss sits intently on the sidelines during a Bucknell University football game. (Courtesy Gail Lazarus)
Steven Weiss sits intently on the sidelines during a Bucknell University football game. (Courtesy Gail Lazarus)

As an unabashed football follower and lifelong Giants partisan, I was looking forward to the Monday night game on January 2 between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills, two of the NFL’s top contending teams. A lot would be riding on their meeting, with playoff implications at stake.

But my football fervor would have to cool until my wife, also an enthusiastic fan, finished her favorite British murder mysteries. Yes, we own more than one TV, but we choose to watch evening programs together and negotiate choices. As soon as the case was solved and the culprit apprehended, we switched to the game, about nine minutes in, and were greeted by the highly disturbing scene of the Buffalo team surrounding fallen safety Damar Hamlin.

Emergency responders administered CPR to Hamlin’s motionless figure in the midst of a hushed stadium. Millions watched as ESPN commentators struggled for words to describe the unprecedented scene. Although there have been countless injuries on televised football before, none were quite like this, where the tackle seemed ordinary, with the player getting up, staggering a few steps, and collapsing on the turf in cardiac arrest.

After an agonizing period, Hamlin was taken by ambulance to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. An announcement that play would resume soon fell by the wayside as coaches and players conferred before informing officials that no one had an appetite to continue despite directives to warm up. After some hesitation, the NFL suspended the game. Over the next four days, a variety of makeup solutions were floated before the league formally canceled the contest on January 5.

Meanwhile, Damar Hamlin, a sixth-round draft choice whose opportunity to start came only weeks before when another player suffered a neck injury, began his remarkable recovery from the brink of death. By Thursday, he was breathing without the aid of a ventilator, talking with family and FaceTiming his teammates. Doctors pronounced him neurologically intact, and said they found no underlying cause for the rare cardiac episode he experienced. On January 9, Hamlin was flown to a Buffalo hospital to continue his progress. Two days later, he was discharged, underscoring the resilience and conditioning of NFL players and the improved on-field medical staffing, which now averages 30 doctors and EMTs at each game.

Thousands of fans who did not know the name of the University of Pittsburgh’s star player at the beginning of the week were donating to a Go Fund Me campaign to support his charities; it is currently nearing $9 million. Thousands more held prayer vigils on his behalf, while over the weekend Buffalo won an inspiring home field playoff-qualifying game against the New England Patriots. Both the league and the Bills announced they would pay the entirety of Hamlin’s four-year contract. (Football deals, unlike other sports, are not usually guaranteed because of the high rate of injuries.)

As the 24-year-old safety confronted his brush with death and the NFL wrestled with the optics and fallout from the incident, I decided to revisit my own fascination with this most violent and elemental American sport. In the past, and I’ve been a fan for nearly 70 years, I always felt somewhat conflicted about harboring such passion for the game — and being Jewish.

It’s certainly not our tribe’s go-to activity. Baseball, definitely; swimming, certainly; basketball, assuredly; tennis, anyone; soccer, sure; golf, not so much, except if it’s at one of our own clubs. But football — football still remains stigmatized in certain quarters of the Jewish community, an outlier better left to Gentile kids from the Midwest and South. Judaism simply does not extol violence, individually or as part of a team.

I’ve watched in amazement as soccer, or what the rest of the world persists in calling football, has attracted headlines and legions of followers in the United States. The excitement generated by the just-concluded World Cup and the veneration shown globally in the wake of Pele’s death were not lost on me. When I occasionally tune in, I’m impressed by the athleticism of the players. Yet I have no sustained interest in it, don’t understand the penalties, the positions, or the length of the periods, and have only two words in my soccer vocabulary: pitch and nil.

I still love to talk baseball with my grandson, but not particularly to watch it. I grew up devouring the national pastime during the golden age of the New York Yankees, New York Giants, and Brooklyn Dodgers. Dad was a zealous Dodgers fan and we bonded at Ebbets Field. But he was also menschy enough to take me to the Stadium and the Polo Grounds. My heroes were Robinson, DiMaggio, Mantle, Ford, Mays, Newcombe, Hodges, Berra, and the uber pitcher and Jewish athlete of perhaps all-time, Sandy Koufax. The saddest experience of my youth was not making the Little League team at my Newark school.

Abraham Cahan, the legendary editor of the Forward, urged immigrant families in his Bintel Briefs to allow their sons to play baseball so they could assimilate more quickly into the new culture. For me, pure pleasure came with following each game, hanging on every pitch. The broadcasters were Mel Allen (né Israel) for the Yankees, Russ Hodges for the Giants, and the incomparable Red Barber for the Dodgers. Vin Scully was just a kid out of Fordham behind the Brooklyn mic. Whether on radio or the new, tiny TVs, these guys kept the drama intense.

But as my time became more precious and my journalism career took hold, my interest waned. Too many new teams, too many players to keep track of, too many labor and salary disputes. Even the arrival of the inept and lovable Mets couldn’t revive the feeling. The very virtue of the game’s languid pace became a liability in my busy world. (Pitch clocks will be introduced in the upcoming season.)

Steven and Michael Weiss celebrate after a victory by the Newark Academy football team. (Courtesy Gail Lazarus)

Basketball exerted the strongest tug on me after baseball, although as a teen I was tall, gawky, and a terrible ball handler. We briefly fielded a squad at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, then in Newark, but most of my on-court activity was spent at the Orange YMCA, and later at the JCC in West Orange. As a fan, I would rise and fall with the fortunes of the Knicks through the dramatic broadcasts of Marty Glickman and later Marv Albert. The team’s brilliant coach, William Holzman, was the son of immigrants and universally known as Red. The other Red, Arnold Jacob Auerbach, was also Jewish and coached the despised Boston Celtics.

Both, however, were products of the city game, a sport considered fair game by Jewish parents for their offspring who weren’t as likely to get injured on the way to college and a career as they would if they played football. Holzman guided the Knicks to two NBA championships while Auerbach won many more with the Celtics, who always fielded superior talent. But when the Holzman era ended, so did my chops for the game.  Once again, more expansion teams, salary and labor disputes, and bloated ticket prices all contributed.

Just as important, the stylistic evolution, and moving parts of basketball changed dramatically. Palming the ball seemed encouraged; traveling became an excursion before a whistle blew; picks and weaves began to disappear; the hook shot vanished; slam-dunking and trash-talking overwhelmed the court; draining a 3-pointer became a magic bullet.

Go ahead, label me retro and fusty. I realize all sports are fluid to varying degrees and are shaped by the athletes of the era in which they’re played. But sometimes change can seem off-putting and excessive. While I certainly am not advocating a return to the two-handed set shot, I’ll allow that the game has passed me by and I’m willing to let it go.

With tennis, the decision to remain unenthusiastic came easily. There was no love lost (oy!). My parents, who rarely attempted to force anything on me except Latin and piano (dismal results), thought my height and reach would make me a natural. Also, tennis appealed to them as a well-mannered and skillful game. When they insisted on lessons, I insisted on tuning out. When they hired a teaching pro for me many summers ago on LBI, I willfully disregarded his instructions. The experiment ended quickly, with Mom and Dad never bringing up the unpleasantness again.

Now, let’s punt it back to football (double oy?). My parents, to put it mildly, forbade my participation. Naturally I went behind their backs and found a pickup scrum in Newark’s Weequahic Park. As I carried the ball, tacklers hit me high and low, but I refused to go down. When I heard a snapping sound, I knew a bone had broken. This was 1957 and a cell phone wasn’t to be found, so I had to wait until the game ended to ask a friend to call Dad. When he arrived, he was upset but not judgmental. I had a broken tibia, wore a cast for six weeks, and never donned a helmet or shoulder pads after that.

Looking back, three events occurred to boost my football quotient. The first was the emergence of the American Football League, with its introduction of a flashier style of play than the NFL and its open-checkbook policy. New York-area fans immediately chose up loyalties with the tradition-laden Giants and their championship pedigree or the arriviste Jets and their brash quarterback, Joe Namath. A new rivalry had sprung up in Gotham in a sport other than baseball.

The second reason, and one that strikes much closer to home, came when my stepsons declared their unshakeable resolve to play football. Steven and Michael Weiss were 15 and 14 at the time, and two thoughts ran through my mind: I very much wanted for them to like their new stepfather, and I wanted to be more flexible about sports than my parents had been.

With some misgivings and after much soul-searching, Gail and I gave our consent as each teen entered Newark Academy in Livingston. Anyone who thinks prep school football is a pale version of what’s played in public schools needs to take a fresh look. Both excelled on the field, Steven as a speedy, elusive tailback who set new rushing and scoring records, and Michael as a bruising fullback and devastating defensive lineman. The two received all-state prep honors.

Several colleges scouted Steven and we were pleased when he chose Bucknell. He played four years of football, captaining the team as a senior and graduating as an English major. Immediately afterward, he became an assistant coach at SUNY Albany, where he completed his master’s in English and expanded his football playbook. Always passionate and scholarly about the game, he held several more assistant positions at the college level before pursuing an executive career.

Michael opted for a different path. Although pressed to join the team when he attended Wesley College in Delaware, he resisted and made it clear that his playing days were over. While Steven always trained doggedly by putting in significant gym time, Michael took a more relaxed, laissez faire approach. His instincts and great strength made him a natural athlete. When we sent both to football camp one summer, it was more of a tutorial for Steven and mostly a lark for Michael.

The third significant event in my football background occurred in 1976, when Giants Stadium opened in the Meadowlands. I was fortunate enough to score season tickets along with several members of the Star-Ledger staff because of the key role the paper played in helping secure financing for the venture when N.Y. banks decided to back out. Those tickets became a family heirloom of sorts, and last year I passed on ownership to Steven and Michael as a legacy gift. The three of us and my wife have used and enjoyed them over the decades and remain ardent Giants fans through thick and thin.

Our four grandchildren’s enthusiasm for the game ranges from excited to agnostic. Steven’s son, Daniel, stopped playing college football after two years because of injuries and is now in grad school. Dylan, Michael’s son, never played but loves the sport and follows it while studying abroad. Lindsey has accompanied Steven to the stadium, more to please her father than anything else, while Emma politely deflects Michael’s invitation to watch a contest from our upper-tier seats.

This piece isn’t intended as a defense of my long relationship with football, but I do hope it illustrates the intersections in my life as a participant, stepfather, and fan. I am acutely aware of the violence inherent in the sport (a territorial imperative, my professor would call it) and of the toll it has taken on players over the years. My hope is that more intensive research leads to even better medical diagnosis and protocols for players and safer equipment, especially with helmet design.

Certainly, awareness of football safety has heightened in the last five years and is no longer a peripheral issue. The NFL and team owners, a $20 billion-a-year marketing and entertainment combine, still need to do more, especially in conjunction with the players association. The league also must make its officiating more vigilant and consistent, adopt further rule changes geared toward safety, and spend generously on medical research. The game will only become more sophisticated and athletic in the years ahead.

And so I am in full playoff mode, two weeks after Damar Hamlin’s shocking injury. The Giants won their first post-season game in years against the Minnesota Vikings on January 15 and next confront the powerful Philadelphia Eagles.

Oh, the strange and conflicting lure of this sport.