Super Bowl star Alan's journey kick-started by a Shabbat dinner

Simon Yaffe speaks to an American footballer who has gone from Super Bowl to Super Jew

THERE doesn't seem to be an obvious link between American football and Orthodox Judaism.

But they are inexplicably related for Alan Veingrad, who has played in a Super Bowl final.

The 47-year-old is a former gridiron professional, playing hundreds of games for the Greenbay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys.

But life has an extremely different perspective for New York City-born Alan these days.

Also known as Shlomo, he is a devoutly observant Jew with strong links to the Chabad Lubavitch movement.

He wears a yarmulke and tzitzit and has a beard.

"I grew up in a normal, secular, American family," Alan told me from Houston Airport, Texas.

He's on his way home to Florida from one of his many motivational talks on spiritual transformation that he gives across North America.

Alan is softly-spoken, but there is a fierce pride and determination in what he has become, something which he views as beyond positive.

He said: "I was a typical American Jew in that my barmitzvah was an exit from Judaism instead of an entry, which it should have been."

The Veingrad family moved to the sunnier climes of Miami when Alan was nine and he admits that he and his brother Steve were wild children.

Alan recalled: "We were out on the streets a lot and needed something to keep us in line.

"My dad bought my brother and I some football equipment when we were young and that was it."

Football became a hobby, then an obsession and career for Alan.

Going on to play college football on a scholarship at East Texas State University, he was signed by Wisconsin's Greenbay Packers in 1986.

"I was a tall, skinny kid and I loved to train because it made feel good," he said.

"American football gave me an identity, although Jews generally didn't strive to play in the National Football League.

"To be honest, it is not a profession for a nice, Jewish boy.

"There are psychological and health issues, such as Alzheimer's and depression.

"But I think I am better off than most because I retired at the peak of my career when I knew I'd had enough."

He made his debut for the Packers in 1986 and stayed there until 1990 when he moved to the Dallas Cowboys.

And it was with the Texan side that Alan won the world-famous Super Bowl in January, 1993.

"When the Packers signed me I thought to myself, 'I've made it, man'," Alan explained.

"All the attention was on me and it was a proud moment."

He encountered no antisemitism in his career and pointed out that team-mates and coaches were more curious than anything else.

"They were interested in my being Jewish, but I didn't know a lot so I couldn't tell them much," he said.

But towards the end of his NFL career, Alan felt there was something missing from his life, a lack of spirituality, of Judaism.

"Judaism didn't matter that much to me, although it was instilled in me that I had to marry Jewish, which I did," he explained.

Alan's reconnection with Judaism started through his cousin, an Orthodox Jew who was also his radiologist during his career.

He was invited to Shabbat dinner at his cousin's home, and he said he began to feel "a pull".

Alan remembered: "This was in 1995 and it was my first authentic Shabbat dinner.

"At the end of the meal my cousin asked me if I would be interested in going to a Torah class with him, which I wasn't. But he persuaded me to go.

"After the class, I spoke to the rabbi and he gave me a chumash to read and explained a lot to me.

"I was given a deep insight and found that the Torah is not just a history book, it is also an inspirational roadmap for life."

From there on in, Alan was hooked - he became a baal teshuva (returnee to Judaism).

There were, he admitted, some raised eyebrows from friends and former team-mates.

His wife and children were "on the same page as me" and were also inspired.

Alan's father's reaction, however, was not exactly one of joy when his son told him the news.

Alan said: "He told me that this was not who we were. But one of the many parts of my journey back to Judaism is the obligation to inspire other Jews to do the same.

"My dad was not keen on the whole idea for a long time, he just was not interested.

"I convinced him to come to shul with me on Rosh Hashana and he experienced what I felt."

And one of Alan's most emotional moments came when his dad, while having lunch with his son, told him how proud he was of his newly-found Judaism and that he was more proud of him wearing a yarmulke than he ever was of him wearing an American football helmet.

"Words cannot describe how that felt to me," Alan said. "I was like, 'wow, you're kidding me?'"

His mother and father became regular fixtures at their son's home for Shabbat, but his father died a couple of years ago.

American newspapers picked up on his amazing story and he decided to use their interest to his advantage.

Alan promoted Judaism while speaking to the press and now spends the majority of his time speaking to Jews about his transformation.

He explained: "My goal is to inspire them in a bid to make them become a little bit more Jewish and to give them more meaning and purpose in life.

"Take Shabbat, for example. We're bombarded with so much stuff, we're pulled in all kinds of different directions and Shabbat allows us a chance to take a 25-hour break from it.

"I sit down and look at my kids and they're not running to the computer and I sit down and we talk.

"Without Shabbat I think I would miss out."

And Alan is sure that there are many similarities between American football and Orthodox Judaism.

He explained "In both, there is a tremendous amount of discipline, drive and motivation."

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph