From Super Bowl Winner to Orthodox Jew
How many Jews, in the history of the world, have put on tefillin every day while simultaneously wearing a Super Bowl ring? As far as we know, the answer is exactly 1 and his name is Alan Veingrad, the only NFL player to become an Orthodox Jew. At the time Alan Shlomo Veingrad played, he was one of five Jewish players in the NFL. He played for two teams during his career: he was an offensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers from 1986-1990 before being signed by the Dallas Cowboys, where he played for two more years. While playing for the Cowboys, he won Superbowl XXVII, in which they beat the Buffalo Bills 52-17.
It was shortly after this major career accomplishment that Veingrad made the decision to retire from the NFL. “I felt like it was time to move on with my life.” Having felt fulfilled in his career after winning a Superbowl, he was worried that if he continued to play, he could not maintain good physical health later in life. In particular, he was concerned that his career choice would impede his ability to play with his children and grandchildren as he grew older, as many former NFL players have a variety of lingering medical conditions related injuries incurred while playing. He had responsibly saved his earnings and was ready to leave. He decided then that it was time to explore more personal avenues, but had no idea that this next chapter of his life would include becoming a frum Jew.
As a child, Veingrad attended a Conservative synagogue in Florida. When he and his older brother reached their Bar Mitzvahs, it was the end of their formal involvement with Jewish practice. “We took off two times a year, for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Then went to football practice after services.”
Vein grad’s introduction to observant Judaism was a very slow process. When he found out he had made the cut for the Green Bay Packers, he received a phone message from a stranger named Lou Weinstein. Many years later, Veingrad learned that Weinstein was following one of the most important of Jewish values: looking out for a fellow Jew. Weinstein wanted to help Veingrad with anything he might need, including help with making financial decisions. Veingrad attended many Shabbos meals at the Weinstein home, although it was not until ten years after retirement that Veingrad began his journey toward Orthodoxy in earnest, after he had married and had children.
The most impactful part of Veingrad’s teshuva journey came about after a call from his Orthodox Jewish cousin who had acted as his medical consultant while he was playing in the NFL. His cousin invited the family for Shabbos. “I wanted to say ‘No, why would I?’” Instead, he packed up his family and drove to spend the weekend with his cousin’s family. There, his cousin convinced him to attend a Torah class and he kept it up when he returned home. “It was a boring subject, like when I was a kid. About the Jews wandering the desert.” But at the end of the class, Veingrad looked around at the gorgeous house the class was being hosted at and thought hard about what he would do if he had such a beautiful place. “[Then the rabbi] starts talking about the meaning of life, and how if you focus only on materialism, then you won’t have a meaningful or purposeful life. Then the class just ends.” Veingrad was shocked. “I was concerned that the rabbi was reading my mind!”
Veingrad went up to speak to the rabbi and he ended up attending those weekly Torah classes for nearly eight years. He met with Chabad rabbis, and he and his wife began making changes in the way they were living their lives. “It’s slow. You take your kids and move them to Hebrew day school, you start talking about family purity, and tefillin and tallis, and learn Hebrew that you haven’t read since you were thirteen.” Ten years after he retired from football, he began to keep Shabbos.
On whether he thinks it’s possible to be a professional football player as an Orthodox Jew, he relates that the pro level isn’t the problem. “Friday nights are where [high school students] get exposure for scholarships.” Saturday afternoons hold similar challenges for college-level players. Unlike the exceptions that were made for NCAA athletes, the same kindnesses might not be extended in the world of football. “If you were already in the NFL…i.e. [as good as] a Tom Brady, and decided after the fourth or fifth year of playing [to become frum], it’s possible that the team would make exceptions.” Despite this, the bulk of the football season takes place at the same time as the major Jewish holidays. In any given season, there are only 16 games, so a few holidays could interrupt it. “I would never tell someone to not follow their dreams. It’s an interesting concept and perhaps one day we will see that…it’s a possible thing.”