Jewish Cowboy (and Packer)

Alan Veingrad spent seven seasons in the NFL as an offensive lineman, playing for the Green Bay Packers (1986-90) and … Continued

Alan Veingrad spent seven seasons in the NFL as an offensive lineman, playing for the Green Bay Packers (1986-90) and then the Dallas Cowboys (1991-92) where he won a Super Bowl ring. Veingrad played nearly every position on the line, blocking for Emmitt Smith and protecting Troy Aikman. Smith presented Veingrad with a Rolex watch after the running back won the NFL rushing title.

Veingrad played alongside many Christians in the NFL and at East Texas State University in the heart of the Bible belt, but few of his teammates shared his Jewish heritage. As he put it: “In the rough and tumble environment of an NFL team, a Jew is an outsider.” Though he always considered himself a Jew, Veingrad didn’t embrace Orthodox Judaism until after he left professional sports.

Q: Tell me about your faith.

Veingrad: I was born Jewish. It was instilled in me at a young age that there is a God. The Jewish religion focuses a lot on family and holidays and getting together. I didn’t know a lot about the spirituality aspects of it. I couldn’t really talk about all the different holidays and what they mean until years after I started to look into it and I realized it is the most inspirational thing that I ever learned. It’s all about inspiration. Every holiday and every Shabbat there’s always a Torah portion associated with it. There’s so much inspiration. I thought it was all about history. God said to Moses this, Moses said to God that, and God said to Abraham this, Abraham said to God that. I didn’t know that there was inspirational messages sprinkled in throughout all aspects of Judaism. And as an athlete, I was focused on inspiration. As an athlete, I read books about inspiration. As an athlete, I listed to motivational tapes about inspiration, about motivation, about being positive. And now as an adult and starting to understand that Judaism is so focused on the positive, I said sign me up. The Torah is mine as a Jew. I want to know about it.

Q: Before you discovered religion as inspiration, you turned to other people for inspiration.

Veingrad: Coaches.

Q: Dallas Cowboys Coach Jimmy Johnson, did you find inspiration in his words?

Veingrad: Out of fear. You’re around great coaches, and I read great coaches’ stories about how they’ve taken teams to championships and players that had become great players. It’s really ironic to me that as a high school athlete I listened to every motivational tape that I could get my hands on about Vince Lombardi, then I go on to play for the Green Bay Packers.

Q: When did Judaism become an inspiration for you?

Veingrad: I went to my cousin’s house for a traditional Friday night dinner and at that particular dinner he asks me, ‘Would you go to a Torah class?’ Out of obligation I said yes. So I went to my first Torah class a week later. It was a one hour Torah class. . . . It was during that class in this very wealthy doctor’s home in south Florida that first 59 ½ minutes of the one hour class, I was looking around the house, the chandeliers and the beauty of this house and the pool behind this house and the lake, thinking about the party I would have in this house if I owned this house. And the last 30 seconds of the class, the rabbi looked right at me, and he talked about materialism, and he talked about jealousy, and he talked about if you allow yourself you can become consumed with materialistic items, and then the rabbi stopped the class and my mouth was wide open. And I looked at the rabbi and I thought he knew exactly what I was thinking. I went to the rabbi afterward and said, ‘Rabbi, I really need to know a lot more about what you’re talking about. I don’t have any books on the Torah.’ He said, ‘Come back next week. I’ll bring you your first Torah book.’

I was raised like the majority of Jewish people in this country. You go to the synagogue, you become a bar mitzvah, and the bar mitzvah should be the entrance into Judaism. It was the exit out of Judaism for me, as it is with most Jews. . . . Okay, it’s this holiday or it’s that holiday, let’s have dinner together, let’s do this. But we didn’t focus on the spiritual aspect of the holiday. We just focused on the family getting together and the food. You tell me the holidays from 25 to,30 years with my family, I’ll tell you what we had to eat and that’s kind of where it stops. Now I can tell you what we had to eat, I can tell you a whole lot more about what the holiday means to the Jewish people and what does it mean to me, how I can become a better person.

Q: What’s the most misunderstood part of your faith?

Veingrad: That it’s rigid. That it’s a rigid way of living your lifestyle. That you’re being told what to do. It’s a battery pack. It gives you inspiration. It gives you focus. It gives you meaning in life. . . . Nobody can argue with me, and none of my friends would ever try, because I sat in their chair for 40 years. Now for four years I’ve sat in a different chair. I’ve experienced both aspects of life and I didn’t lose my mind. Nothing horrible happened to me. A lot of people come to faith because something happened to them. They lose a loved one. They lose their fortune. They go through a divorce. Nothing happened to me. I just felt as I was going to my rabbi’s house Friday night for the traditional Shabbat meal and I was driving with my family, and then on Saturday night I was going out with my friends and their wives and I was comparing the two ways of life. Friday night was so meaningful and so rich and so fun and so real and then Saturday night was so, what? What? What do we talk about? The next vacation you’re taking? That new car that you got? Your golf score? You’re going fishing and boating? Okay, there’s nothing wrong with all those things and I enjoy all of them. And I also like to go fishing and I like to exercise, and when I have the time I love taking my kids to Orlando to the theme park to do things like that with them. However, that is a very small part of life. The main focus of life is your relationship with God and growing toward that.

Q: Did anyone ever challenge your decision to make such a dramatic transformation from your previous life to the one you lead now?

Veingrad: They don’t. They tried a few years ago. Personal friends, they tried a few years to challenge me. But you challenge me when you’ve only lived one lifestyle. You don’t know what I do. You can’t. You don’t walk in these size 14 shoes. How can you challenge me? I don’t challenge them. I try to bring them with me. I try to invite them to my house for my Friday night meal and show them the beauty of Judaism. . . . People say, ‘Oh, you’re an extremist.’ The transformation, it was a very natural thing for me. The biggest struggle was living in between. . . . The Torah says this is what you’re supposed to do as a Jewish man, and I said, ‘Listen, I like it. This is what I’m going to do.’ So if someone tries to challenge me and say, ‘Why do you wear that yarmulke? You don’t have to wear the yarmulke.’ Or ‘You don’t have to have that big beard.’ Do I need to have a challenging discussion with them or do I just tell them I like it; it makes me feel good.

Q: What’s been the biggest test to your faith?

Veingrad: The biggest test? You’re going to ask me some tough questions.

Q: We can skip it and come back if you want.

Veingrad: Go ahead. I’ll think about that.

Q: I’m going to ask you some sports-related questions.

Veingrad: Uh oh.

Q: What role does God play in sports?

Veingrad: God has a role everywhere.

Q: So specifically in sports, what is God’s role?

Veingrad: What is his role? I tell you what his role was and what it is for me. The role for me was I played in the NFL for seven years. I won a Super Bowl ring then I retired from the game. I knew during my football experience that as a Jew, and we have very few of them in the NFL, that I had a message to tell the Jewish people. I didn’t know what the message was, but I knew deep down inside of me I had something to say. I wasn’t living any type of Jewish lifestyle. I was just a secular Jew like the majority of Jews in this country. . . . [A rabbi once asked him,] Shlomo, that’s my Hebrew name. I say, ‘Yes, rabbi.’ He goes, ‘Now that you know the life a Jew is supposed to live, a life of Torah and mitzvahs and doing good deeds and acts of kindness, would you have played in the NFL? I said, ‘Rabbi, you’re not going to like the answer to the question.’ I said, ‘Absolutely. I played in the NFL so I can tell these children here to learn the Torah and immerse themselves in learning, and that’s why I played in the NFL. I have a tool to bring people closer to Judaism.’

Q: When you were in the NFL was religion talked about in the locker room?

Veingrad: Yes

Q: Did you find that certain teams were more religious than others?

Veingrad: No. What I found, whether it was college, the Cowboys or the Packers, that every team, even in high school, always had a religious individual associated with the team. Whether it was Athletes in Action, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, there was always somebody associated with the team and kind of hung around the team and certain guys, and he would pretty much reach out to all the guys, and some guys would gravitate toward him and they would get together on a Wednesday night or a Thursday night for team study group or a Thursday night bible study class. Every team always had a religious component to it. And every hotel we stayed in, whether we were out of town or in town, we were always required to go to a hotel. After the team pregame meal, they would have a chapel service.

Q: Did you feel sort of left out of that, being Jewish?

Veingrad: Not really. Majority of guys weren’t involved in neither. Maybe a dozen guys would go. I don’t know how many would go.

Q: But you didn’t necessarily feel excluded?

Veingrad: My whole life I always had that kind of exclusion. High school there might have been other Jews on my high school football team, but there was no rabbi associated, no Judaism. There was a Fellowship of Christian Athletes who are a non-Jewish representative there to reach out to the population if you will. Same thing in college, same thing in the pros. . . . Before and after games, I would always say a prayer. The team would always get together and do a team prayer. They would say the Lord’s Prayer, before games and after games, in high school, in college and in the pros. I was generally the lone Jew.

Q: Did you feel uncomfortable doing that?

Veingrad: It was something that was always there. Guys said it or not, or what they said. I always said my own prayer. . . . Thank you God for not getting my neck broken today. Thank you God for giving me the opportunity to play a football game and not do something really, really bad to harm another player on my team.

Q: I think you’ve answered all my questions except for the one about what was the biggest test to your faith.

Veingrad: The biggest challenge is that there is so much that we have to do. In terms of the morning prayers, the afternoon prayers, and praying before we have a drink and after praying, it does take a long time to adjust to the time commitments.

Q: And the discipline I would think.

Veingrad: The discipline, I had the discipline as a football player. So I don’t think the discipline, the work ethic, the focus, the passion to Judaism, but the biggest challenge for me was juggling time. You always have to think. . . . I have to think about the logistics of, ‘Okay, will there be enough time for me to pray before I catch the flight?’ It takes about 45 minutes. You have to put on a tallis. You have to put on tefillin. . . . It’s a lot of time commitment. You have to think about your day. You have to plan your day. Especially for a returnee, which I am, a returnee to the Jewish religion. It doesn’t come as easily as someone who was born into the religion. They might not think about the things that I think about because to them it’s just natural.

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  • Edward J. Cunningham

    OK…how long before the anti-Semites crawl out from underneath their rocks and turn the comments section into a thread bashing Jews, Zionism, and Israel?(BTW, I’m a Catholic goyim.)

  • Michael

    Goyim is plural, singular is goy

  • Michael1945

    Cunningham is a pessimist. This is an interview with an former athlete which pertains to his choice of religion, not Zionism or Israel.Athletes in Action, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, etc. have no place in sport. Sport is secular and has nothing to do with religion. When one sees an athlete appearing to pray for a win or after a score, it is blasphemy.

  • M. Gobler

    What a fascinating interview! You provided a real insight into Alan Veingrad’s religious journey.Veingrad strikes me as an individual with a strong belief in himself. I’ve always wondered what it was like to be a non-Christian player in an environment where group prayer seemed to be ubiquitous. Veingrad managed to function in that environment and remain true to himself. Thanks so much!

  • Andrew

    If it is not blasphemy to see an office worker pray before a presentation or a teacher before a class, why would it be blasphemous to see an athlete in prayer during a contest? Michael1945, you just don’t get it.

  • good for you


  • Critical Thinkier

    I have no quarrel with this guy’s religion.But to try to present himself as an “outside” in the NFL because of his faith is just silly. He’s trying to make himself seem persecuted in the NFL without saying it.The only thing that matters in the NFL is if you can kick a guy’s butt on the field. You can be a scientologist or jew or muslim. Doesn’t matter. And God doesn’t care about sports. God cares about salvation and your soul, whatever your faith on earth.I know people want to think their professed religion makes them special and sets them apart. It doesn’t. It’s more like the kid who learns all about dinosaurs and thinks it makes him smarter than everybody else around him.This week’s article is a tremendous disappointment and adds fuel to the fire of people who think that faith, belief, and spirituality are for a bunch of ignorant rubes.

  • Janice

    It’s not blasphemy to pray before a game. Like Veingard said, the praying in sports is usually about not anyone getting hurt. I’m one of those secular types, but I’m envious of those who have found meaning to their lives. Maybe I’ll check out the Torah.

  • Jacob Blues

    Andrew – Teachers?!? Remember the old saying during the fights over whether or not to allow (organized) prayer in schools ,as long as there are tests, there will be students praying (with great fervor) Dear God, please let me pass.Critical Thinker, you’re misreading Alan Veingrad’s words. There is a difference between feeling as an outsider vs. feeling persecuted. He didn’t mention any hatred from either teammates or opponents, just the realization that much of what was going on in terms of religious activity in the locker room, was that of a different faith. Many Jews live through this situation, whether it’s living through the annual Christmas season, or, in Vinograd’s case, facing a team environment, with regular religous activity, that is of the majorities, and not yours. That doesn’t make it bad, but it definately makes one an ‘outsider’. As for sports, God may not care about the play of the game or the outcome, but let’s remember, the one constant across all sports is that it contains people (players, refs, coaches, team members, and of course fans) and God, above all, is concerned with people. I also disagree about the idea that the interview makes Vinograd out to be some special alien. He’s not, and as Jews, we’re not. Central to the idea of Judiasm is that salvation (whatever that means), is open to anyone, not just Jews, and whatever happens in the world to come, is based on one’s deeds, not one’s allegience to a particular faith.

  • Joe Porcnik

    When he played for Dallas, they should have made him wear the Star of David on his helmet instead of the Texas lone star.

  • A DC Wonk

    Jacob wrote: “Critical Thinker, you’re misreading Alan Veingrad’s words. There is a difference between feeling as an outsider vs. feeling persecuted.”I agree with Jacob. In fact, I heard Veingrad speak tonight (in Fairfax), and someone asked him about that. And Veingrad said, flat out: he experienced no anti-Semitism in the NFL. Yes, he felt like an outsider at times — but that comes with the territory of being a Jew in America (like every Jew does from time to time).

  • Melissa

    Feeling like an outsider doesn’t mean feeling persecuted, it just means being aware that you have a different point of reference on religion than the vast majority of others.

  • Joel

    I am a Christian (Roman Catholic), and I liked this very much! It was very inspiring. Thank you for providing this interview and insight.

  • Dave

    I played college football in Texas and was the lone Jewish football player on the team. I remember a fellow lineman asking me what religion I was and he was floored by my answer. He was a FCA member and very religious. But they didn’t try to convert me, they just were surprised because they hadn’t seen a big Jew before on a team. Plus I hit like a locomotive so it was different for them. Most Jews they came across were small and nerdy. But college is there to enlighten us to others in society and other ideas we might have not seen in our own communities. The only thing I look back on is having to take a knee with the team for the team prayer prior to the game. If I had been more religious, I would have stood. Also, Saturday games would have precluded me from playing if I were more religious back then. Sounds like Veingrad wouldn’t have had a pro career either if he wasn’t able to play Saturday football games in high school or college. Glad he has found his way now though.

  • RAS

    At the end of his career, when he had time on his hands, Veingrad turned to the religion most familiar to him.Nothing unusual there.What would have been unusual is if he had practiced his religion throughout his sporting career.Or, if he had taken instruction in world religions and turned to something other than the convenient and the familiar.It is always surprising to me that, in one of the most important decisions in life, the vast majority of people — without investigation — simply settle for the faith of their fathers.

  • harold

    RAS said “It is always surprising to me that, in one of the most important decisions in life, the vast majority of people — without investigation — simply settle for the faith of their fathers.” What about the faith of their Mother.

  • S. Toren

    Beautiful interview (I’m biased , I admit). Ras, nothing wrong about gravitating to your “father’s or mother’s” religion. If some one is brought up Jewish, it makes much sense to first investigate Judaism. That is where a Jew will probably find more content relevant to his identity ( eg: culture, history and family). Yashir Koach (“good for you”) Shlomo!

  • Stewby

    Talk about an outsider, Igor Olshansky of the San Diego Chargers is not only one of the few Jews in the NFL, he’s also the first Soviet-born player in the NFL. From Wikipedia;”His grandfather Abraham Rubashevsky fought for the Red Army in World War II and was wounded 11 times, leaving his left hand disabled. Due in part to the influence of his grandfather, he still studies military history and martial arts. Olshansky is proud of his Jewish heritage. He has many tattoos, including two of the Star of David. He is regularly featured in Jewish news publications locally and nationally. For several years Igor attended the Chabad-run Hebrew Academy.[3]”It does seem a little creepy with all the tattoos, but he is trying in his own way to embrace his heritage.

  • Jerry

    A most inspiring interview. Proves that for many football players, it’s the mind that is disciplined and for Shlomo, he shows determination and discipline every day in the new lifestyle that he embraces.

  • michael evans

    i converted and now i am jewish. i have never felt better in my life. I personally can relate to some things vinegrad said. i had the pleasure of talking to vinegrad at a superbowl party at the Queens Jewish Center in Ny, my synagouge.he said anyone in thier right mind who experienced shbbat would change thier lives. well it happened to me and i was very hard to do but a person who is already jewish but not orthodox must be crazy. Vinegrad told me hefeels better now about becoming jewish than after he won the superbowl which is saying alot. judaism is the best thing in the world. this guy is the only football player to leave the NFL with his brain in better shape than when he came in

  • joshua fields

    dan we gotta talk over the phone because from what i see in what you wrote you have to be totally out of your mind

  • joushua fields

    sorry not dan RAS we need to talk you are the messed up one. people like janice at least know what is right. by the way, I grew up totally not connected to judaism (I was jewish)and my whole family was like that. my great grandfather was my last ancestor to be orthodox.I got my family to become orthodox and i know what im talking about when i say… your crazy!!!!!

  • michoel eliezer goldstien

    Ras, I am a jew born to a religous family and attend shul daily 3 times, go to a yeshiva high school, learn alot of torah daily and couldnt be prouder to be a jew. the things you wrote in your comment are 100% crazy. i am a slow typer and dont want to be here all night. i want to talk to you me so i can explain why your ideas are totally nuts without posting it on the internet for all to see. if you agree to give me some of your time please type your number on this site and i will call you.