What does it take for a “nice Jewish boy” to have a successful career in the rough-and-tumble of the National Football League? For Alan Veingrad, former NFL offensive lineman and Super Bowl champ, it helps being six-foot-five, 240 pounds, having a very “thick skin” and a sense of humor. All of those qualities were on full display last Saturday evening after Shabbas, when Veingrad, who now sports a full beard in addition to his Super Bowl ring from the 1992 Dallas Cowboys championship, and who also answers to the name Shlomo, spoke to 126 enthusiastic fans at the Sheraton Clayton Plaza, at an event sponsored by Chabad of St. Louis.
The self-described “skinny Jewish kid from Brooklyn” who remembers “often skipping Hebrew school which I really hated,” regaled his appreciative audience with the story of his remarkable football career, which evolved from attaining athletic prowess in high school, and accepting a football scholarship at East Texas University, where he recalls “being the only Jew at the school and within a 75-mile radius,” to a successful NFL career with the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys, where he helped his teammates win the Super Bowl in 1992. He also described his journey from Jewish pro football player to fully observant supporter and follower of the Chabad Hasidic movement.
“When I was first talked into coming to a discussion of the Torah Portion of the week, I had no idea what a “parsha” or portion was, and was surprised at the second discussion that there was a different Torah portion each week. Now I really look forward to studying the Torah seriously, and at home, my daughters and I have come to look forward to our new weekends of observing and celebrating Shabbat together. I had been nervous about telling them we would have to give up our weekend camping trips, but the next morning they were all dresssed up and ready for shul,” Veingrad said.
Veingrad’s wide-ranging talk and the discussion that followed, alternated and blended his colorful football anecdotes with his spiritual journey. Drawing a comparison to the hard training of “bench-pressing 400 pounds, getting eight hours of sleep and maintaining a healthy diet” to his “spiritual journey,” Veingrad said, “The key word to both is preparation. There is no way you can be a serious foootball player, especially at the NFL level without serious preparation, and there is no way you can be a serious Jew without preparation. After while, what seems hard and challenging at first becomes a joyful experience,” he said.
“I had to take some giant steps to make it in college and pro football,” Veinegrad said. “We all have to take a giant step spiritually as well as physically. I had heard all of the great motivational speakers, including Zig Zigler, but nothing can compare to the power of the Chabad rabbis I have met who have helped me become a baal teshuvah, a Jew who has returned to his spiritual roots.”
Veingrad said that during his college football career at East Texas University under Coach Ernest Hawkins, “I really did not experience any anti-Semitism at all. I guess it helped being the biggest guy on the team at 6-foot-5 and then 200 pounds, but my Christian teammates were very positive about Judaism and the Jewish people.”
Only once in the NFL, while training for the Green Bay Packers, did a teammate say, “Okay, Jewboy, show me what you’ve got,” Veingrad recalls. “Well, I used full force in blocking him as hard as I could, and I guess that showed him what I’ve got. I asked how he figured out I was Jewish since my name is not for sure a Jewish name. He said it was the name on my helmet and he really didn’t mean anything by it, and I chose to let it go.”
Veingrad said that Jewish newspapers have kept track of the few Jewish football players in the NFL. Reminded that comedian Jerry Lewis once said that the “Jewish Pro Football Hall of Fame could be listed on the edge of a Super Bowl score card,” Veingrad laughed and said, “It was the Jewish Press in Brooklyn, where I was born, which first interviewed me about being Jewish. In my seven years as an NFL player, I counted five other Jewish NFL players in all. They were all great guys, including Bret Novostelsky on our team, Harris Barton of the 49ers and Ariel Solomon of the Steelers. After the games, we would usually seek each other out and shake hands as fellow Jews who were proud to have made it in the violent sport of pro football.” Asked jokingly if it was a problem for an observant Jewish player to “handle a pigskin,” Veingrad smiled broadly and said, “As an offesive linebacker, I did not have to come in contact with the ball that often, but I would not hesitate to pounce on it as needed. Now I’m proud to go into the record books as the first Sabbath-observant, Shomer Shabbas NFL player to wear a Super Bowl ring, who looks forward to coming to shul early in order to be as prepared for Judaism as I tried to be for pro football.”