Football fans usually don’t agree on much. Arguing is part of the fun. But nearly everyone agrees that this year’s Super Bowl, won by New England by only 13-3, was a snoozefest. Still, it was a welcome respite from acrimonious politics.
What the game lost in the U.S.A. it gained in, of all places, Israel, which is learning to love American football and to show its passion like fans in America, adding another reason for our “special relationship.” It’s a fascinating story about how Robert Kraft and his late wife, Myra, owners of the New England Patriots, helped in introducing American football to Israel, built a small stadium in Jerusalem and assisted in organizing seven leagues with the current participation of more than 2,000 men and women.
The connection between New England and the Holy Land, is a curious one. The Super Bowl paid dearly for that infamous missed call that deprived New Orleans of a shot at the league championship and then attracted the smallest television audience in a decade. Almost nobody watched in New Orleans (or would admit it), where the game was derided as the Boycott Bowl and the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s entire front page was blank but for a single small headline in the middle of the page: “Super Bowl? What Super Bowl?”
The morning after in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other Israeli towns and cities told a different story of joy of fans in unlikely places. “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,” the Jewish News Syndicate observed. “While the low-scoring affair certainly wasn’t the most exciting of championship games, that didn’t dampen enthusiasm.” It didn’t hurt that Julian Edelman, the Patriots wide receiver, is the first Jew to be named Most Valuable Player in a Super Bowl.
The New England Patriots, says Steve Leibowitz, co-founder and president of American Football in Israel (AFI), “are Israel’s team.” It was his friendship with the Krafts that put football on Israeli radar (so to speak). The stadium built by the Krafts is part of a multi-million dollar sports complex that is a joint project of Mr. Kraft, the city of Jerusalem and the national lottery authority. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and 18 members of the NFL Hall of Fame went to Israel for the dedication of the sports complex two years ago.
It’s not easy to introduce a new sport to an audience with no knowledge of the game, its history and traditions, particularly an unfamiliar game that is even now only the fifth-most popular in Israel, after soccer, called “European football,” a favorite of moms everywhere because there’s minimum physical contact and knees, hips and heads don’t take a beating. The other Israeli favorite sports are quieter, basketball, volleyball and handball. The popularity of American football exploded after Mr. Leibowitz and a friend, Danny Gewitz, started American Football in Israel with a handful of players playing touch, or flag, football.
The leagues include more than 800 players in a high-school league who play the traditional form with helmets, full pads and the hard hits that mark the game in the United States. This is a game that particularly appeals to Israelis, says Betzalel Friedman, the commissioner of Kraft Family Israel Football League, and an evangelist for American football who sounds something like an American high-school coach trying to sell a reluctant American mom on her eager son’s enthusiasm for the hard-hitting American game.
“Tackle football appeals to Israelis,” he tells Jewish News Syndicate. “The physicality, the camaraderie, the strategy. It’s actually good preparation for military service [in which all young Israelis participate] because football shares so many aspects, including hard work, perseverance, discipline and teamwork. And it also prepares you for life in general.”
The flag leagues, forerunners of the smashmouth game, originally consisted mostly of Americans living in Israel, boys in high school, expats or children of expats. Now over 80 percent of the players were born in Israel or are the sons of native Israelis. Several young men who learned the game in Israel have been recruited by colleges in the United States. One made the bench at Michigan, the Big Ten powerhouse, but never actually got in a game.
But devotion to the game runs deep. Rachel Shmidman, a player in the women’s flag league, recalls being “the weird kid in high school who walked around with a funny egg-shaped ball. [Later] I was the commander in the army who gave up precious hours of sleep to watch games [beamed from the United States] at 1 o’clock in the morning, and taking a final at 8. Football has been the one constant in my life for almost 15 years, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
• Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.
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