Jews & Sports

from Big Mo's Sports Desk

From Helmet to Scullcap

by Aaron Howard
(From the Jewish Herald-Voice, Houston, Texas)


Hey, sports fans! How many Jewish professional football players have won a Super Bowl ring?

The answer is: two. One of them is former Dallas Cowboys lineman Alan Veingrad.

Veingrad was an offensive lineman at Texas A&M University-Commerce (East Texas State University). He signed with the Green Bay Packers as a free agent in 1986 and played four seasons with the Packers.

In 1991, Veingrad moved to the Dallas Cowboys. The following year, the Cowboys won the NFC East with a record of 13-3-0 and then defeated the Buffalo Bills, 52-17, in the Super Bowl. Veingrad retired after the 1992 season, having played in 86 career NFL games.

Having played in the NFL, people want to know how he went from the secular world to being a follower of Chabad. "I wear a yarmulke [head-covering] and tzitzis [a sleeveless undergarment with dangling strands] and pray three times a day in a shul," he says. "I don't feel it's a radical change. I put my toe in the water; it felt nice, so I jumped in. Some of my Jewish friends argue with me. But I lived the way they did for 40 years."

A 1981 graduate of Miami Sunset Senior High School, Veingrad went to East Texas State, where he was named team captain of the football team as well as making All Conference and All American. Oh yes, a good Jewish boy, he also graduated on the dean's list.

Veingrad says that being a full-time Jew is a lot like being a professional football player. "In the NFL, all the time you think about football: from gaining weight to running and pass blocking; from pumping weights to the play book. Everything I learned in football, I can apply to making my Judaism the center of my life. You're praying to G-d in shul, and so you have to come in with the same focus [that you have when you come into a football game]. You can inspire yourself by continually learning. Every chance I get, I read or go to a Torah class or ask questions."

Veingrad left football in 1993. Recently married, he only had started five or six games for the Cowboys in 1992. "I was anxious to get on with my life," he says. "I had some aches and pains and thought maybe it was time for me to retire. If a football player has these feelings, he may lose concentration, and you can get terribly injured playing football."

Did religion play a role when he was in football? Not especially, Veingrad says. Most of the players didn't know he was Jewish.

"The offensive linemen were a team within the team," he says. "Most of them knew I was Jewish - and maybe some of the other guys I had relationships with. But it never was a factor. Teammates didn't care what religion you were. Guys would make comments about me being Jewish. But these were the same comments directed at the guy who was Samoan or African American. There was never any anti-Semitism."

"There's always a group of guys who have Bible study and pre-game religious services," he continues. "And there's a religious service in the hotel or some kind of spiritual inspiration given to the players. The team would get down on their knees and say the 'Lord's Prayer.' I felt like I was part of the team, but I'd make my own prayer. There's nothing wrong with the outward display of praying."

In January 2004, Veingrad made a decision: Friday night steaks and drinks no longer cut it. Becoming Sabbath observant was the culmination of a religious journey that began over a decade earlier with a Friday-night Shabbat meal at his cousin's Miami Beach house.

"My cousin invited me to a Torah class in Miami," Veingrad says, "and I decided to go to one class. It hit me up the side of the head. Torah was like a road map for life."

In August 2003, a newspaper published one of those "where are they now" stories in the sports section. The reporter wrote that Veingrad was spending his time fishing, kayaking and playing with his kids.

"I read the article and thought, 'You really have a shallow life, Alan.' I was missing something. It was all playing. There was no meaning. I told my family I wanted to live a Shomer Shabbat lifestyle." Veingrad's kids, aged 11, 8 and 6 [now a few years older], now attend Hebrew day school.

"You'd think they were religious kids all their lives," he says. "They saw me getting tangled up putting on tefillin and they flew with me as quick as they could go. Now, they're telling me what I'm doing wrong."

And football has become increasingly peripheral to his life. "Over the years, so many other things have become more important to me."


BTW, FYI: Edward Newman of the Miami Dolphins is the other Jewish Super Bowl winner.


update May 16, 2011*:

The Chabad Lubavitch of Peabody Jewish Center welcomed former NFL player Alan Viengrad to speak to their members. The six-year veteran, who retired in 1992 after winning Super Bowl XXVII with the Dallas Cowboys, spoke about his career in the NFL and the path he took in becoming a more observant Jew.

“His message is a message of inspiration in taking the lessons that he learned through football and then in his post-football life to advance people’s depth and experiences in life,” said Rabbi Nechemia, co-director of the center. “And these lessons can be beneficial to all people, not just Jews.”

“As an offensive lineman, you never look at the goal posts, you never look at the end zone, you focus on the inch, you focus on the yard, and slowly move the football down the field,” said Viengrad. “We have to focus on the inch, one mitzvah at a time. Slowly grow your spirituality for true meaning and purpose, and this way you’ll go through life happy, inspired to deal with the challenges that we face every single day.”

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