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NFL champion talks about his double life in football and Judaism

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09/10/2009

NFL champion photo 1   NFL champion photo 2

Hollywood likes to portray people living the double life. Usually the hero has an average job by day and is a crime fighter by night. Too bad no one told Tinseltown about Alan Veingrad. In one life, Alan spent seven years as an offensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers and Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys. His alter ego, Shlomo, is a 46-year-old family man who happens to be a devoted Orthodox Jew.

Veingrad, who now prefers to be called Shlomo, his Hebrew name, will be speaking about his experience as a Jew in the NFL at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 13 at the Torah Learning Center in Northbrook. Just in time for football season to start, Oy!Chicago got a “pregame” chance to talk to Shlomo last month about everything from pregame prayers to playing in a Super Bowl…

Oy!Chicago: How would you describe your Jewish upbringing?
Shlomo Veingard: I grew up like the majority of Jews living in America. You grew up and you had your mother lighting candles for Chanukah. You may have made latkes…and you’re bar mitzvahed [and it] is kind of like the exit out of Judaism instead of the entrance into Judaism. By my house there wasn’t a lot of inspiration or a lot of discussion around what was going on in the Torah around various holiday times.

It wasn’t until years after that I was invited to my cousin’s house for a traditional Shabbos meal. He then asked if I would be interested in going to a Torah class, and I said I would go to one; again, I didn’t have much interest. I didn’t really know what it was all about. I always believed in God; however I was somewhat removed, playing football all those years and not being in a Jewish environment, so I went to one Torah class and it was somewhat enlightening.

Your faith grew from there?
I started to go and I started to look into it and I realized there is a lot of energy and a lot of power and a lot of inspiration that one can get from learning about what was in the Torah.

Five years ago you went to Israel and came back a changed man, what happened?
At the time I was on the fence, or kind of walking from one side of the bridge to another, meaning I was starting to dabble into making changes in my family’s life, becoming more observant. I went to Israel, and when I was in Israel I decided I would put on a yarmulke and put on a pair of tzitzit (fringes worn on the corners of a four-cornered garment; the garment and fringes together). I wasn’t sure what I would do when I came back to the states after I was there for two weeks. I just decided when I was there that I would explore and try and see how it felt. When I came back to the states it just stayed on.

Lets turn to the gridiron. How did your religion impact your life off the field?
Off the field there was religion in the locker room, and there was always a religious or spiritual leader from the Christian faith associated with every team I was ever involved with. They would reach out to everybody in the locker room. Before games and after games there would be the Lord’s Prayer said. Many times before practice in my high school days we would say the Lord’s Prayer. Obviously, being the only Jew, I wouldn’t participate in the prayer, but still, being a teammate I would gather around with my team and they would say their prayer and I would speak to God and ask God for certain things to help me through this competition that we were about to face, or thank Him for letting me walk off the field at the end of the competition.

Did the players and coaches ever ask you questions about your religion?
I never got any questions from the coaches about my religion. I’m not sure the coaches knew what religion I was or if it ever played a role. I think generally coaches don’t care where you are from, what your background is or what your faith is as long as you are able to perform on a certain level on game day and you are a good teammate. My teammates, on the other hand, in the college days, going to East Texas State, 65 miles northeast of Dallas—which is known as the Bible Belt—these are really spiritual people of the Christian faith, churchgoers. They would at times ask me about Judaism…I had to become more of an educator to these people because many times they had never met a Jew before and they would ask me about the Jewish faith. I had such a poor background growing up with the Jewish faith that I didn’t have a lot of the answers.

How many other Jews were there in the NFL in a given year?
It seems to me that the number is six. Every year it is anywhere between five to eight…It is interesting to note that I always knew who the other Jews were. How did I know? Somebody across the country would send me a newspaper from a Jewish-affiliated paper that would list the Jews playing in the National Football League. When I would play against another team, after the game we would always look for each other and say hello to each other. I am quite sure that somebody would also send that other guy the list and he knew who the Jews were like I did.

What was it like to be in a Super Bowl?
It was an amazing experience, the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl and all that goes along with it.

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