By Bayla Sheva Brenner
Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Alan Veingrad made all the right moves to protect the quarterback and secure a Super Bowl victory in 1992. Today, that discipline helps him focus on what he considers the ultimate end zone.
As kids, we lit candles Friday night and gathered on Chanukah but the focus was on the chicken soup and latkes. His parents sent him to Hebrew school for bar mitzvah, but I didnt connect. Id walk in the building and out the back door, spending the time throwing stones into a lake.
Aware of his then skinny frame, Veingrad asked the schools training coach to instruct him in weightlifting, and then went out for the high school football team.
Veingrad felt a need to flex his long atrophied spiritual muscles. I sought motivation from tapes and books how to improve myself, not only as a player, but as a person. That quest would follow him throughout his career.
Veingrads East Texas State University classmates hailed from the Bible Belthe was the lone Jew on campus. Most never met a Jew before, and only knew what they heard at home.
Throughout all the attempts at proselytizing and pre-game team prayer meetings, he never lost sense of who he was. Id say my own silent Jewish prayer, says Veingrad.
When the Green Bay Packers signed him on, a note left in my locker asked me to phone Lou Weinstein, who turned out to be a local Jewish businessman calling to congratulate me for making the team, asking if there was anything he could do for me. The Weinsteins welcomed Veingrad into their home and to Chabad for Rosh HaShana. When I heard the Torah, it connected to something inside me.
Aside from some locker room ribbing, Veingrad rarely encountered overt anti-Semitism during his professional ball-playing years, except once when a teammate mentioned that stereotypes were based on truth. Veingrad asked him what he meant. He said that Jews were cheap, recalls Veingrad.
I told him Im a Jew so hes calling me cheap, when he knows I always pay my share. I didnt have a good answer for him. But, I do today. Jews are the worlds biggest charity givers! President Bush recently related that American Jews single handedly saved people hit by Katrinaall the money that poured in and the Chabad rabbis who came through in the crisis. Speaking around the country, I always address this misconception.
Prejudice never showed its face with the NFLs professional management. The owners and coaches dont care where youre from, or what religion or color you are, says Veingrad. They only care about 3 hours on Sunday; that you help the team win.
After relentless practice, pressure, meetings and media exposure, winning the Super Bowl gave Veingrad a sense of relief. Once the exultation wound down, Veingrad started preparing for the rest of his life.
Life After Super Bowl
He married and settled in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The Veingrads soon welcomed their first child into their lives. As we are her link to the Jewish past, she is our link to the Jewish future, wrote Veingrad in a NYT piece called, What Being Jewish Means to Me. The local Chabad Shabbat atmosphere and inspiring Torah discussions whet his yearnings for more.
Veingrad warily observed how many retired professional athletes fell into debilitating depressions. All of a sudden they dont know what to do with themselves, he says. I didnt prepare myself for life after football and went through a difficult transition. One has a lot of energy as an athlete going from workout to a game to a practice to a meeting; hes in constant motion. When I stopped playing, I had all this downtime.
His cousin, Dr. Jonathan Rubin, who examined Veingrads x-rays after each football injury, informed Veingrad of a class given by a visiting Chabad rabbi about envy and materialism, which he found inspiring.
When I breathed football, the guys made big money; I owned a pickup truck and lived in a one-bedroom apartment. It wasnt until after I retired that I lived around people who owned huge homes whose lives revolved around vacations, boats, golfing, sports cars. I didnt like the environment where everyone was a slave to materialism.
An article in The Fort Worth Star Telegram depicted the former NFL linemans current milieu. It spoke of my kayaking, martial arts, biking, landscaping, and skateboarding with my children. I thought: Somethings missing. I decided this Friday night were going to shul, and having Shabbat meals. My family was right behind me.
Veingrad sees Shabbat as 25 precious hours to recharge. Were pounded six days a week with email and cell phones. I encourage people who spend Friday night with the TV to give themselves a chance to do a real Shabbos and compare the two.
The Veingrad children attend the Chabad Hebrew Academy Community School in Margate, FL. My children watch me go to a corner of the house and put on my tefillin, says Veingrad. When I announce that its time to go to shul, they wait at the door. We all feel this is a better life. I had a nice house one half-mile from the beach, but life had little meaning. Jewish life has so much more meaning. No one can argue with me; Ive lived both lives.
Before he passed away, Dad told me that hes prouder of me with the yarmulke on my head than with a Dallas Cowboy or Green Bay Packer helmet, says Veingrad. Dad went to shul only ten times, all in the last year of his life, because I dragged him along. He saw what it did for my family.
Veingrad and his son participate in recreational sports, but he doesnt encourage him to follow in his cleat-steps. Better learn Torah to make something of oneself; not just by using ones body.
Veingrad applies his keen football discipline and focus to Judaism. When Jimmy Johnson, the great football coach, called a meeting at 7am, if someone walked in late, hed look at him: Whats more important in your life than preparing for a game?
Bayla Sheva Brenner is an award-winning journalist. Reprinted with permission of the OU Shabbat Shalom newsletter [orig. Ending Off on the Right Foot] (www.ou.org/shabbat)