In 1992, Alan Veingrad, former offensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys, made all the right moves to protect the quarterback and ward off the other team's advances, helping to secure his team a Super Bowl victory. Today, he's taken that same sense of discipline and strength of will to focus his sights on what he considers a significantly more meaningful "end zone" – observant Judaism.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Elizabeth, NJ and Miami, FL, Mr. Veingrad says he grew up like most Jews in America -- with a "very secular" background. "We lit candles Friday night and got together with family on Chanukah and holidays," he says. "The focus was mainly on the chicken soup, kugel and latkes." In order to ready their son for the required bar mitzvah celebration, his parents insisted on Hebrew school. "I just didn't connect," he remembers. "After my parents dropped me off, I'd walk in the building and go out the back door. I spent the time throwing stones into a lake."
By 14, he had fulfilled his Hebrew school obligation and devoted his free time to "hanging around with the wrong crowd." He noticed that his older brother, Steve, chose a different route, participating in football, wrestling, basketball, and the track team. "I realized I would get into trouble if I didn't start getting involved in after school activities," he says. Well aware of his then skinny frame, Veingrad promptly approached the school's training coach and asked him to instruct him in weightlifting. Soon thereafter, he went out for the high school football team.
One day, during track & field (discus) practice, Veingrad sensed a compelling need to flex his long atrophied spiritual muscles. "I was starving for inspiration," says Mr. Veingrad. "I sought motivation from tapes and books on winning, to find out how to improve myself, not only as a player, but as a person." That desire would follow him throughout his accomplished football career.
"Most of my teammates had never met a Jew before."
Veingrad went on to attend East Texas State University in Commerce, TX, with classmates hailing from the Bible Belt states -- leaving Veingrad the lone Jew on campus. "Most of my teammates had never met a Jew before," he says. "What little they knew they heard at home and in the movies." When he entered professional football, his teammates came to him with questions around the holiday time. "They asked me why Jews celebrate eight days of Chanukah and told me they read that Jews fast on a particular day and could I tell them why." Because of his limited background, he found himself hard-pressed to answer their inquiries. Throughout all the attempts at proselytizing and pre-game team prayer meetings, he never lost his sense of who he was and wanted to be. "I would say my own silent prayer," says Veingrad. "A Jewish prayer."
After he completed his undergraduate degree, the Green Bay Packers signed him on as a free agent. Upon hearing of the team's solitary Jewish Packer, a family in the Wisconsin Jewish community reached out to Veingrad. "I found a note in my locker that instructed me to phone Lou Weinstein, who turned out to be a local Jewish businessman calling to congratulate me for making the team and to ask if there was anything he could do to help me." The Weinsteins welcomed Veingrad into their home and brought him to their shul for Rosh Hashana. "When I heard the Torah, it connected to something inside me," he says. "Those experiences sustained me during my years with the Packers."
Over his seven professional ball-playing years, aside from some locker room ribbing, Veingrad says he rarely encountered overt anti-Semitism. However, he remembers one disturbing incident. A teammate informed him that he thought all stereotypes were based on truth. Veingrad asked him what he meant. "He said that Jews were cheap," recalls Veingrad. "I told him I'm a Jew so he's calling me cheap, when he knows I always pay my share. I didn't have a good answer for him. But, I do today. Jews are the biggest charity givers in the world. President George Bush recently told an audience from the Republican Jewish Coalition that American Jews single handedly saved the people hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans -- with all the money that poured in and the rabbis that came through in the crisis. When I speak around the country, I always talk about this [misconception]."
Prejudice never showed its face with the NFL's professional management. "The ownership and coaches don't care where you're from, what college you went to, or what religion or color you are," says Veingrad. "They only care about three hours on Sunday; that you perform on a level that helps the team win. I never experienced anything other than [the expectation to] work hard. I had to prove myself every single day."
After many months of relentless practice, pressure, meetings, and media exposure, winning the Super Bowl gave Veingrad and his teammates a hard-earned sense of relief. And the end-of-the-season team party offered them an appropriate forum for exuberant congratulations between team members, family and friends. Once the exultation wound down, Veingrad left the party and caught a flight home out of Los Angeles -- to start preparing for the rest of his life.
The Power of Reaching Out
In 1993, a year into retirement from professional sports, he married and started a family. The Veingrads settled in the Fort Lauderdale section of Florida and soon welcomed Jeri Lauren, their first child, into their lives. "As we are her link to the Jewish past, she is our link to the Jewish future," wrote Veingrad about this joyous event, in a 1995 piece for The New York Times in a piece called, "What Being Jewish Means to Me." The local rabbis fortified that link with Shabbat meal invitations. Once again, the exalted Shabbat atmosphere and inspiring Torah discussions whet his yearnings for a more Jewish life.
Veingrad warily observed how many retired professional athletes fell into debilitating depressions. "All of a sudden they don't know what to do with themselves," he says. "I didn't prepare myself for life after football and went through four years of a difficult transition. One has a lot of energy as an athlete -- going from workout to a game to a practice to a meeting; he's in constant motion. When I stopped playing, I had all this downtime." He says he filled it with golf, fishing, and dabbling in real estate. On the golf course, he met up with a fellow ex-NFLer, Bernie Kosar, a former high-profile quarterback, who offered him a position as sales vice-president in a cooperate company that out-sources customer care. "I immersed myself in the industry," says Veingrad. "I learned the business; doing lots of traveling, preparation and attending meetings." Yet, a familiar internal nudge prompted him to seek out the true, deeper meaning to life.
His cousin and personal radiologist, Dr. Jonathan Rubin, who examined Veingrad's x-rays after each football injury, facilitated that goal with a friendly invitation to an "authentic Shabbat meal" at his Miami Beach home. "He showed me the power of reaching out to a Jew," says Veingrad. "My cousin asked me: 'Alan, will you come to my house for a Shabbos?' And I accepted. Then during the meal he asked me; "Alan, would you go to a Torah class?' I said okay, I'll go to one."
"I encourage people who sit at home on Friday night with the TV, to give themselves a chance to do a real Shabbos in a rabbi's home and compare the two experiences."
He informed Veingrad of a class given by a "traveling rabbi" who made a regular stop in his neighborhood. He attended the class and found the rabbi's topic particularly inspiring. "He spoke about envy and materialism," recounts Veingrad. "When I lived and breathed football, the guys made lots of money; I didn't relate to that aspect. I owned a pickup truck and lived in a one-bedroom apartment. It wasn't until after I retired that I lived around people who owned huge homes [and whose lives revolved around] vacations, boats, golfing, sports cars. I didn't like it. I realized I couldn't live in an environment in which everyone was a slave to materialism." He sees it as no coincidence that his first Torah class spoke directly to his core beliefs and gave him fuel to take him to the next spiritual step.
The Shabbat experiences and a telling article solidified some consequential decisions concerning Veingrad's life direction. He noticed a piece in The Fort Worth Star Telegram depicting the former NFL lineman's current milieu. "It spoke of my 'busy lifestyle' of kayaking, martial arts, biking, landscaping, and skateboarding with my children," he says. "I read it and thought: 'Something's missing.'" He decided to hold a family discussion about how they would be making some changes in their weekly routine together. "This Friday night, we are going to shul," he began. "And we are going to have Shabbat meals. My family was right behind me."
Veingrad's speaking engagements allow his family to experience Shabbat in communities around the country. When his daughter, Jeri, is asked if she misses the other life, she responds with a self-assured, "Not at all." Veingrad sees Shabbat as 25 precious hours to recharge. "We are pounded six days a week with email and cell phones. Shabbos is so important. I encourage people, who sit at home on Friday night, with the TV, to give themselves a chance to do a real Shabbos in a rabbi's home and compare the two experiences. I assure you they are going to change their lives."
His cousin continues to assist him in his quest to grow in Judaism by offering to learn with him. "He bought me a book and we learn every day," says Veingrad. "This is a very busy doctor with a family, who calls me from the hospital [during a free moment in his hectic workday] and asks me if I have five minutes. Then he says: 'Turn to page...and start reading."
"This is who I am."
The Veingard children, Jeri, Brooke, and Ryan, currently attend the Hebrew Academy Community School in Margate, FL and continue to admire their foremost mentor, their father. "My children watch me as I go to a corner of the house and quietly put on my tefillin," says Veingrad. "When I announce that it's time to go to shul, they wait at the door. They all feel this is a better life. I had a nice house one half-mile from the beach; I had all these things and didn't feel my life had much meaning. Living a Jewish life has so much more meaning. No one can argue with me; I've lived both lives."
"My father called and told me that he's prouder of me with the yarmulke on my head than with a Dallas Cowboy or Green Bay Packer helmet."
His parents had only positive things to say about their son's turnaround. "Before he passed away, my father called and told me that he's prouder of me with the yarmulke on my head than with a Dallas Cowboy or Green Bay Packer helmet," says Veingrad. "This is a Jew who went to shul [a total of] ten times, all within the last year of his life, because I dragged him with me. He saw what it did for my family." When the Veingrads visit his mother, she gladly accommodates their kosher needs. His older brother, Steve, whose powerful example motivated Veingrad to pursue more productive after school activities back in junior high, is currently reaping the rewards for his favorable influence. He attends local Shabbatonim with his younger brother and has heard him speak. "He told me just a few months ago: 'I was never proud of being Jewish, but I am now.'"
Although Veingrad and his son participate in recreational sports, he doesn't encourage him to follow in his father's cleat-steps. "It is better to learn the Torah, to make something of oneself; not by using one's body," he says. "As a professional player, the body gets pounded. I can still feel its effects."
Veingrad readily admits that he developed his keen discipline and focus from his football days and applies it to Judaism. "Some of the rabbis laugh because I have to get to shul before they start, with tallis and tefillin on, ready to go" says Veingrad. "When Jimmy Johnson, the great football coach, called a meeting at 7:00 a.m., if someone walked in late, he would look at him and say: 'Is there something more important in your life than preparation for a football game? If one takes those extra minutes to prepare oneself, it gives a greater lift to one's davening."
According to Veingrad, when Jews, resistant to becoming more involved in their Judaism, hear his story, they surmise that he was able to change his life around because professional football players can more facilely go from 0 – 60. "I'm not suggesting that everyone should grow as quickly as I did," he says. "I felt this is what I wanted to do. I liked the way the waters felt, so I jumped in with both feet. I didn't like being in that in- between space of okay this week we'll go to shul and next week to Disney World."
In 2004, an Israeli friend from Veingrad's shul approached him and stated: "You're going to go to Israel with me this May." Before boarding the plane, Veingrad placed a yarmulke on his head. While in Israel, he bought tzitzit and davened three times a day. "I was a sponge," he says. "And I was growing." On the way back to Florida, the former football pro found himself tackling an unexpected dilemma. "I've got this yarmulke and tzitzit on me," he thought. "What am I going to do once I get back to the US?" For a few weeks, he tucked the tzitzit in and wore a hat. Feeling increasingly uneasy with that solution, he removed the hat and put his yarmulke back on. It hasn't come off since. "I said: 'This is it! This is who I am.'"
After that long-ago Super Bowl victory party, Alan "Shlomo" Veingrad knew he needed to return home to prepare for the rest of his life. And he did.
This article originally appeared on Ou.org