The date was January 25, 1998. The place: Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego California. An epic match-up between the Green Bay Packers and the Denver Broncos. More than 68,000 spectators in attendance, with another 90 million watching at home on television. Among those seated behind the goalpost at the north end of the stadium were myself, and a young colleague of mine by the name of “Yankel.”
I was then working as the Director of PR and Marketing for an international postal agency. Yankel – only a teenager at the time – had recently been hired to help out in the stockroom. My love for sports, and pro football in particular was well known around my old workplace. Every Monday morning during football season, my corner office would fill with a half-dozen, or so, NFL enthusiasts to recap the weekend’s games. We had a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, a Miami Dolphins die-hard, two Dallas Cowboys rooters, and an assortment of backers for our pair of local teams. Yankel, as I recall, was a New York Jets fan. It would be hard to call him “long-suffering” back then, as he was only 18-years old. However, his passion for the sport, and his knowledge of the game made him a valuable contributor to our Monday morning wrap-ups.
Yankel was a unique young man. He once confided in me that he had been raised by an Aunt and Uncle due to “complicated issues” relating to his biological parents. I also noticed that he would regularly recite kaddish during mincha in our office conference room each weekday afternoon. When I quietly asked him who he was saying it for, he told me matter-of-factly that his “actual father” had recently passed away… a man he barely knew. He had been advised by a rabbi that he was not obligated to observe all aspects of mourning due to these circumstances. Still, he felt the need to say kaddish whenever a minyan was available.
He was offering me a ticket to attend the Super Bowl. I nearly fell backward off my chair.
It was an overcast January Monday morning when Yankel skipped into my office with a grin from ear-to-ear. I’d figured that my young friend had come in to talk about Sunday playoff games from the just-completed weekend. Instead, Yankel closed the door to my room, sat down in the lone chair facing my desk and leaned in to share his big news.
“Hey, Lonnie, what if I told you that I could get us tickets to the Super Bowl?”
Up to this point in my life, I had never attended an NFL game. Tickets to the NY Giants were pretty much locked down by a group of some 70,000 season-ticket holders for decades. The Jets were of no interest to me, even if plenty of good seats were often available. Now, here was this young man that I worked with, offering me a ticket to attend the Super Bowl! I nearly fell backward off my chair.
It turned out that Yankel’s uncle worked for an apparel company in Brooklyn. As an NFL licensee, he received a pair of tickets to the big game each year. But this year, urgent business prevented him from traveling. He offered them to his football-obsessed nephew, providing that Yankel could find a responsible adult to accompany him to San Diego. That “responsible adult” turned out to be me.
I immediately began checking for flights to San Diego. There were none to be had. No hotel rooms either for Super Bowl weekend. A complete sellout. Plan B was to inquire on flights to Los Angeles. A few scattered seats remained open. Next, I called up a friend out in Agoura Hills to determine if he and his wife could host us for Shabbos, then drive us to the Amtrak station early on Sunday morning. Thankfully, the answer was yes on both counts.
Sunset at the Super Bowl
Kick-off occurred around 3:30pm local time. It was a picture-perfect warm and sunny afternoon. Yankel and I watched with excitement as Denver jumped out to a 17 – 14 halftime lead behind the success of star running back, Terrell Davis. A thoroughly entertaining back-and-forth affair.
The halftime show was billed as a 40th anniversary tribute to Motown. Featured performers were to include Boys II Men, Smokey Robinson and the Four Tops. As stages were being rolled into place on the field below, my friend, Yankel suddenly became panicked by a singular detail that we had overlooked.
“Where am I going to find a minyan to say kaddish?”
“The sun is already starting to set. By the time the game is over, it’ll be too late to daven mincha (pray the afternoon service). Where am I going to find a minyan to say kaddish?”
My initial instinct was to dismiss the idea of a minyan and to simply recite mincha on our own in one of the stadium corridors. Yankel was not sold. “There’s got to be ten Jewish men around here in this stadium. Probably more than that. But how do we find them and get them into one place? There’s got to be a way.”
We hurried from our seats to the main concourse, seeking men with yarmulkes. I located one emerging from a men’s room. Yankel couldn’t locate any. He was particularly frustrated by all the baseball caps, and these triangular cheese-head hats worn by the Green Bay contingent.
We strolled the crowded hallways in search for eight additional eligible participants. We passed concession stands, souvenir carts, even a baby-changing station. No luck. And to make matters more difficult, the halftime show was about to begin according to the announcements over the public address system. We were nearly prepared to call it quits when it hit me. The “Lost and Found.” Yankel and I had passed this area only moments before. Now, suddenly, it was our last hope.
A stanchion with red rope led us to a pair of wooden desks, situated in front of a small glass window that resembled a bank-teller station. A pair of stadium security guards sat at each of the desks with arms folded. Only one woman waited ahead of us in line. I turned back to Yankel and urged him to follow my lead. Moments later, one of the uniformed men called out: “Gentlemen, how can I help you?”
This may not have been honest, but it's what I came up with on the spur of the moment. I switched on my most panicked disposition. “Sir, it’s our younger brother. He’s only 12. He wandered off to the bathroom just before halftime. We can’t find him anywhere.”
The security guard pulled out a clipboard, fired off a few questions about the characteristics of our “missing brother,” and scribbled a few notes. Finally he asked: “And by the way, what’s his name?”
“Mincha,” I responded. “Mincha Service.”
“Meen-cha Service?” The man looked up at us with a puzzled expression, repeating the name to make sure he had the correct pronunciation. “Okay, I’m going to have them announce something. Let’s hope he hears it and turns up.”
“Would Meen-Cha Service please report to the lost and found…”
The guard slid a paper to a woman behind the glass window and carefully repeated the name we had provided. Within moments, an announcement rang out throughout the stadium: “Ladies and gentleman, may I have your attention please. Would Meen-Cha Service please report to the lost and found, located in on the plaza level between gates F and G. That’s Meen-Cha Service.”
To this day, I’m still not sure which aspect of this story surprises me more: The fact that the stadium security actually made the announcement at the Super Bowl, or the incredible, immediate response to our unusual minyan call. Within 90 seconds of the announcement, we had 14 men just outside the Lost & Found ready to daven. One man removed his Cheese-head, revealing a knitted yarmulke with the Green Bay Packers logo stitched in. He pointed the way east and led the service. Soon enough, some 27 men were shuckling back and forth, reciting the shemoneh esrei. Yankel had more than twice the requisite number of men to answer amen to his kaddish.
We recited Aleinu as the muffled strains from the halftime concert commenced. At that moment our friendly security guard stepped out from behind his post. “Sir, did you find your little brother?” he asked me with a look of concern etched on his face.
“Several of them,” Yankel shouted behind his back.
“Yes, thank you,” I replied, flashing a grateful smile. “We never would have found him if you hadn’t made that announcement. Thanks for being so helpful. You really saved the day.”
The final score was Denver 31 – Green Bay 24. But to Yankel, the 27 men who gathered outside the Lost & Found was the most significant number of all.