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Is Julian Edelman the best Jewish football player ever?

By Gabe Friedman

Julian Edelman talks to the media at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, the site of this year’s Super Bowl LIII, Jan. 28, 2019. This was his fifth Super Bowl appearance with the Patriots. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

(JTA) — The day after the New England Patriots beat the favored Kansas City Chiefs to reach their third straight Super Bowl — their amazing ninth in less than 20 years — CBS Sports analyst Boomer Esiason made an intriguing statement: Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“Is Julian Edelman not a Hall of Famer?” Esiason, a former NFL quarterback, asked on a Boston radio show last week. “The guy is clutch in the biggest of games. I don’t know what else to tell you. He is, in my eyes, truly the definition of a Hall of Famer: Make the play when the play needs to be made in the biggest games to win the game.”

Edelman, one of only a few Jewish players in the league, is certainly the most successful, through his role as star quarterback Tom Brady’s favorite target. The Brady-to-Edelman connection has been a major part of the Patriots’ dominance in recent years, and after this season’s Super Bowl LIII victory against the L.A. Rams on Feb. 3, the pair has won three Super Bowls together.

Edelman was named Most Valuable Player of this Super Bowl in Atlanta. He provided some of the rare offensive highlights in a torpid defensive game with a game-high 10 catches for 141 yards. Eight of those receptions led to first downs, keeping the ball out of the hands of the Rams’ potent young quarterback, Jared Goff.

Julian Edelman makes an inexplicable catch in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston, Feb. 5, 2017. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Edelman, 32, also is the most outwardly Jewish NFL player, embracing that side of his identity over time. He has a Jewish father but was not raised in the religion, and in the past, through the Patriots front office, often would defer on questions about his religion.

His is the quintessential surprise story: Undersized at 5’ 10” and less than 200 pounds, without blazing speed and coming from Kent State — not exactly Alabama — Edelman was picked toward the end of the last round of the 2009 draft. He didn’t establish
himself as a standout until the 2013 season. Coincidentally or not, it was during his breakout year that Edelman identified as Jewish in an interview with the NFL Network.

Since then, he has shown his Jewish pride on a number of occasions. In a 2014 game, for instance, he wore a pin featuring the Israeli flag. He has tweeted about Jewish holidays. He even went on a Birthright-style trip to Israel, and has written a children’s book that references modern-day Zionism founder Theodor Herzl. After the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in the fall that killed 11, he wore special cleats with Hebrew on them to honor the victims.

Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman wore these cleats on Dec. 16, 2018 to remember the 11 Jewish victims of the Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Credit: Julian Edelman/Twitter.

As Esiason noted, Edelman has become renowned in large part because of his clutch performances in the playoffs. He has made a series of memorable catches, including one in the 2017 Super Bowl that ranks among the wildest in championship games. Edelman also has the second most postseason receptions of all time.

Still, could Edelman be the best Jewish professional football player ever? Jews certainly don’t have a long or illustrious football lineage.

On paper, it looks like Sid Luckman, a Chicago Bears quarterback born to German Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, owns that distinction. Luckman, who played for the Bears from 1939 to 1950, boasts an array of impressive stats: He led the Monsters of the Midway to four championships, was the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1943, led the league in passing yards and touchdowns in three seasons, and holds the record for most touchdown passes in a single game with 7.

In 2016, the American Jewish Historical Society released a list of who it deemed to be the 10 best Jewish football players of all time. Luckman placed first, while Edelman was fourth behind two other Hall of Famers — offensive lineman Ron Mix and quarterback Benny Friedman.

Of course, Luckman played in a much different era. For now, Edelman remains the only modern Jewish player you can count on to appear in a Super Bowl — just about every year.

 

Israelis get inside the huddle and embrace American football

By Josh Hasten

(JNS) – Many Israelis came to work bleary-eyed on Monday morning, having stayed up all night watching the New England Patriots defeat the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII. While the low-scoring affair certainly wasn’t the most exciting of championship games, that didn’t dampen the jubilation.

As Steve Leibowitz, president and co-founder of the American Football in Israel (AFI) organization, said to JNS, “the Patriots are Israel’s team.” 

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft at the Kraft Family Sports Complex. Credit: American Football in Israel.

Leibowitz says that the Patriots became Israel’s favorite NFL franchise thanks to the nearly two-decade old friendship between the AFI and Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his late wife, Myra. The Krafts have been the biggest supporters of football in Israel, assisting in the funding of the construction of a small Jerusalem football stadium in 2000, known as Kraft Family Stadium, near the Machane Yehuda outdoor market, and new Kraft Family Sports Campus on the outskirts of the city, which opened in 2017, boasting the country’s only full-sized regulation football field. 

The sports complex is a multimillion-dollar facility built in partnership between the Krafts, the city of Jerusalem and Israel’s lottery authority. It was inaugurated in the presence of the Kraft family, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and 18 NFL Hall of Famers—some of the best to ever play the game—who were invited to Israel for a week of touring by the Kraft’s.

While American football in Israel remains the fifth most popular sport behind soccer (European Football), basketball, volleyball and handball, the game has exploded in popularity since Leibowitz and his friend, Danny Gewirtz, started the AFI in 1988 with a handful of players playing “touch football.”

Today in Israel, more than 2,000 men, women and youth participate in seven different leagues of flag and tackle football. In addition, Israel sends delegations of both men’s and women’s teams to complete in international tournaments.

In fact, both the men’s and women’s flag squads are ranked in Europe, and according to Leibowitz, for the first time ever, “Israel is hosting the European Flag Football Championships from Aug. 29 to Sept. 1 at the new Kraft Family Sports Campus.”

Betzalel Friedman is the AFI’s director of tackle football and commissioner of the adult men’s Kraft Family Israel Football League (IFL). He tells JNS that currently more than 800 adults and high school players, who are in a separate league known as the Kraft Family Israel High School Football League (IHFL), currently play the traditional form of the sport with full pads and helmets.

Friedman points out how the sport is growing in Israel. While the flag leagues originally consisted of American players who were studying in Israel after high school or were American expats, “in the tackle football leagues, over 80 percent of the players are born Israelis and don’t have American parents.”

He believes that “tackle football appeals to Israelis—the physicality, the camaraderie, the strategy. It’s actually good preparation for military service because football shares so many aspects, including hard work, perseverance, discipline and teamwork. And it also prepares you for life in general.”

Ori Shterenbach, AFI’s sports director, believes that the future for football in Israel is bright. Similar to comments made by Friedman, Shterenbach tells JNS that “American football fits for Israelis in more ways than you would expect—the strategy, tactics and the aggressiveness. It is my job to open the world of football to the youth in a way so they can understand that football is a way of life. It is something that they can grow more and more through, and develop their skills more and more, and one day represent our country on the international level.”

Two teams in Israel lining up. Credit: Erel Taly

While some may consider football to be a man’s game, that’s certainly not the case in Israel. Myra Kraft was the driving force behind the launch of the women’s program. During one of her many visits to Kraft Stadium, she noticed that the girls were casual observers watching the boys play, and she felt passionately that they deserved a shot to lace up their cleats as well.

Rachel Shmidman, director of the Flag Football Leagues and also a player in both the women’s league—Women’s American Football in Israel (WAFI) and on the women’s national flag team—notes that the women’s national flag team has medaled at international tournaments. She says 140 women currently play football in Israel either in WAFI or in one of the coed leagues.

She tells JNS that she is hopeful that the women’s national team will win the European Championships as the host country this August. When asked what playing football means to her, Shmidman, 27, says “football has been my home, my friend, my escape and my center of gravity since I was about 13 years old. It’s a sense of belonging—knowing there are other women who share your passion for a sport we all love.”

Yonah Mishaan, a legendary player and coach in both the flag and tackle leagues, currently serves as the vice president of Football in Israel. He tells JNS that he is grateful for the support shown by the Kraft Family, as well as the support given from “Ayelet”—an organization representing non-Olympic sports in Israel. Regarding American football, he says “we are slowly but surely climbing the ladder as one of the powerhouse team sports in Israel.”

He believes that through the establishment of more and more after-school youth clinics and additional leagues, football will continue to grow.

Both Mishaan and Leibowitz separately express that to accomplish that, Israel requires more full-sized fields and facilities in strategic locations throughout the country akin to the new field at the Kraft Family Sports Complex.

“The next step, or in Hebrew hachalom hagadol [‘the big dream’],” says Leibowitz, “is to build several more football sports centers around the country. One in the south, one in the north and one in the center to complement the one in Jerusalem, and we will be well on our way to becoming the third strongest team sport in the country.”

But for now, Leibowitz is savoring the Patriots’ victory over the Rams in their sixth Super Bowl win—and the fact the Most Valuable Player in the game was Julian Edelman, who identifies as being Jewish, and who several years ago made a special visit to Kraft Family Stadium to run drills with the younger players and give them some advice on football and life.

“Football in Israel has a new hero,” says Leibowitz, explaining that in addition to Tom Brady and Robert Kraft, now there is Julian Edelman—the Israel-identifying, Jewish-identifying Super Bowl MVP.

“It will take us a little while to process that fact,” he says, “but we have a Jewish NFL MVP who has visited Kraft Family Stadium, and we hope to have him back here very soon in the future.”

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