Former NFL player who converted to Judaism visits St. Louis flag football league

Calvin Murray (second from right), a retired NFL player, visited St. Louis for the flag football tournament and to talk with different Jewish groups about his journey from Christianity to Orthodox Judaism. Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, staff writer

Calvin Murray, a retired Philadelphia Eagles player, stood Saturday night on the field of the former Rams training facility and offered advice to flag football players about footwork, calling audibles and disguising pass routes.

But more than football tips, Murray was in St. Louis to talk about his journey from Christianity to Orthodox Judaism. The occasion was the championship of the Torah & Turf flag football league, in which Jewish males play the game and learn a bit about the religion.

“You see someone who is playing the sport professionally but also consistently and constantly learning and studying and working on himself to be a better person,” said Rabbi Yaakov Berkowitz of the St. Louis Kollel, the Orthodox Jewish center that organized the league and Murray’s visit.

The 60-year-old athlete played at The Ohio State University and with the Eagles for two seasons and then in the now-defunct United States Football League before retiring because of an injury. Afterwards, he spent time in Columbus, Ohio as a pastor at a non-denominational Christian church and as a counselor for at-risk youth.

Murray and his wife, Jeri, began reading text from Rabbi Tovia Singer that examined places in the Torah where Christians had changed words “to fit the agenda that they wanted to do,” Murray said.

He became involved with Messianic Jews — a movement that follows some Jewish traditions but believes Jesus was the son of God. Murray eventually started visiting a Chabad center in New Albany, Ohio and participated in a Shabbat dinner there.

“We just thought ‘This is real Judaism; this is what we really want,’ ” said Murray, a father of six. “And we just kept going back and really enjoying ourselves and learning a lot about Judaism.”

Meanwhile, Murray continued to work in his church and bring what he had learned from the rabbis into his own teaching. The church eventually fired him, Murray said.

Without a job and insecure financially, Murray and his wife were unsure what to do next. Then his wife’s grandmother fell and could no longer live by herself. She told the couple that “the only way I’m going to come to your house and stay is I got to pay you.’ And she ended up paying us what we were losing” from Murray’s job.

“It’s just amazing that miracles like that happen. That hashem just shut one door and another one opened,” he said.

In 2013, he visited the Orthodox rabbinical court in Detroit and converted to Judaism. His wife also converted and changed her name to Emunah and two years ago, moved to Israel. Murray plans to move in June. In the meantime, he is continuing to work as a counselor to children in the Ohio state foster care system.

When Murray, who is black, was talking with a rabbi about his desire to convert, the rabbi asked him, “Why do you want to join a persecuted people?”

“And I said, ‘Rabbi, do you see the color of my skin?’ ” Murray said, laughing.

But the convert said he has largely “been very much accepted” in the Jewish community. “Even in Israel, very much accepted.” He has already connected with a number of yeshivas in Israel where he plans to study.

In addition to speaking to the football players from St. Louis, Columbus and Denver, Murray spoke at U. City Shul and at Torah Prep School of St. Louis, an Orthodox boys day school.

At the school, “they were in awe of him. And that was something that was extremely special,” said Berkowitz.

Murray, the author of “From Rose Bowl to Rashi, A Unique Journey to Orthodox Judaism,” said his goal in talking to kids is “to be a light for the Jewish people.”

And indeed, on the sidelines of the flag football game, younger Jewish boys hovered around Murray like a bright light.