Holding Court: Doing it for the flag and the frum

Holding Court Doing it

By ARYEH DEAN COHEN
November 5, 2009 10:31
shana sprung 248 88

shana sprung 248 88. (photo credit: )

 
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If you'd asked Shana Sprung years ago if she ever dreamed she'd end up quarterback of the Israeli Women's National Flag Football Team - which earned a bronze medal this past summer at the European Federation of American Football championships in Belfast, and begins practice again this month - she would have said "definitely not... I would've said: You're crazy." But after growing up with two older brothers who "played tackle football with me in the basement" after making aliya from North Hollywood, Florida, some 20 years ago, Sprung, 23, has become the Tom Brady of the women's team, completing an overtime pass against nemesis France to win the bronze after an excruciating six games played on that Sunday, because most of the women on the team are observant, so they must make up games other teams play on Saturday. In fact, Sprung - whose coach Yona Mishaan calls "highly motivated... focused, and always striving for the best" - remembers making a few supplications to the Almighty as her club tried to withstand France's last-ditch effort to tie. "I remember praying to God a lot, saying: 'Please, just stop them.' I was asking for a little help from God." That help arrived, and the months of twice-a-week and more workouts proved fruitful for the club, which had failed to bring home a medal in other world tournaments, coming close but never doing what Sprung's hero Brady - the Patriots quarterback she was just back from seeing lead his team to victory in a game in London recently when we spoke to her - does with regularity. "Tom Brady is the guy: The main thing he's known for is winning when it counts, especially toward the end, with two minutes left, down by a touchdown or two, and he just somehow does it... he's cool and collected," says Sprung of her role model. It's no surprise Brady's a favorite of a player whose team is sponsored by Myra Kraft and her husband, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, for whom Kraft Stadium, where the team's bronze medal is proudly displayed, is named. But it's Sprung's ability to stay within herself while backing up her teammates with encouragement, and the strong spirit of togetherness on the team that finds expression around the Shabbat table during trips to tournaments abroad that keeps her coming back for more. "It's a huge, huge privilege" representing Israel, she says. "The first tournament, we were in the Dominican Republic, and the people were looking at us kind of weird; I don't know if they had ever heard of Israel. But it's everything when it comes down to tournaments like we had in Germany. We've traveled there twice already. "When we played Austria there in the club tournament finals two years ago, and Germany this year... you have different things that can drive you, different feelings... When you think about what happened in Germany, it matters and means a lot more playing there." She remembers singing "Hatikva" when they won "and a lot of the girls were crying and I had goose bumps." While she's currently nursing a shoulder injury she hopes will soon allow her to get back into the Israeli women's league action, which resumed last month, she got into the sport by simply tagging along to see her older brothers play. A group of girls watching the guys were approached by league commissioner Steve Leibowitz, "and he asked us if we wanted to play, and that's really how it started. From Yona our coach's point of view, he just got a bunch of girls who weren't sure what was going on." QUARTERBACK WASN'T her first choice in flag football, which features five offensive vs five defensive players, no tackling, with plays stopped when the defense is able to grab a flag from the offensive player with the ball. "I didn't know how much I had to learn," says the modest Sprung, who says she can throw the football the distance of Kraft Stadium. "From the beginning I thought I wanted to be a receiver, and the quarterback position just kind of fell into my lap. I was also picked for it because I could throw well, but things just fell into place." Being quarterback is "taking control, and being in charge, taking all the weight," she says with a smile. "I know in the past I wasn't always able to carry that weight... but it's stressful, because you work almost an entire year and then it comes down to one day. That one day you have to perform - if you don't, it's just a waste of an entire year, twice a week training, etc. But I was ready. I knew we were going to win." Says her coach: "She's not happy unless we're doing well and she's doing well." He singles out "her work ethic and her athletic abilities - everyone on the team is inspired by her." That team runs like family, says Sprung, and all arguments or disagreements are kept strictly in-house. Often traveling to events with the men's national team, "we try to have Shabbat meals together, and singing and stuff like that. So anywhere we are, we come with our Jewish tradition and we feel it." On one occasion, "we just made a huge Shabbat table, flowers, as many as possible, little things that make a difference." THE MAIN difference in this year's World Cup experience as compared to last year in the US, when they finished out of the money in fifth, was that last year "we were physically unprepared," she says: "I can tell you I never felt that tired in my life. It was hard... A lot of people maybe wanted to forget about the tournament, but to me it was very, very important to remember, to learn from our mistakes, and the feeling of defeat, which is something that can drive everyone to win." So when she threw the winning toss to Ayelet Wartelsky as she did a buttonhook over the touchdown line to beat the French, it was especially sweet, since their opponents had been something of "a camel on our backs" for several seasons. Still, it wasn't enough for the success-oriented quarterback, who still thinks her team could've gone to the final, but lost in a Final Four rematch with a Finnish squad they had beaten in the earlier rounds. "But just coming in there and finding the energy and not thinking about what happened... I think I'd feel much worse if I didn't come home with third place," she says. WHAT'S THE biggest challenge for her as quarterback? "Just knowing that basically, if I screw up, nothing's going to happen. We can have receivers who can catch and I can be off from time to time, and they have to make a great catch, but if I don't make the right decision, and I throw interceptions, we're not going to do anything... The ball comes to me every single play, and it's a lot of pressure, but it's pressure I like." "As a quarterback, she has a very good arm, she's very, very fast and girls look up to her. They know that she knows her position better than anyone else out there, including some from other countries," says her coach. "The main thing is just to feel comfortable where I am already," says Sprung, who is studying physical therapy at the Wingate Institute and working as a therapist with the ASA Jerusalem basketball team when she's not playing football. Still, she's most at home on the gridiron, where even if she does mess up "everybody has each other's back, and it's really like a family - that's our team... Even on the sidelines, the offense is cheering for the defense and the defense is cheering for the offense: Ahat, shtayim, shalosh - Yisrael!... The more important the game is, you just feel the roar and it's very, very powerful. And I don't know any other team that I heard that I kind of got the chills from when they cheered each other on." Being religious and playing football on the road also has its challenges. "Every trip is kind of an experience," she says. Most of the women also wear long shorts instead of the leggings and other less modest equipment worn by their opponents. "We try to learn what to do and what not to do, what to bring, what not to bring... I remember traveling in France. It was very, very close to Shabbat and we were going from Paris to Le Havre, which is where the tournament was, and Steve and the woman in charge then were running with chickens on their backs to make the train, and we were trying to stall it... It's always easier when the when the guys' team is there too - I know in Germany last year they brought a Torah. We try to bring a feeling of Shabbat wherever we go." While there is not supposed to be any contact in the sport, Sprung has been hit on occasion, though not as often as some of her teammates running routes or playing defense. Still, with all the throwing, she incurred a minor shoulder injury which has her on the sidelines as league play begins. But with practice for the national team starting next month, Sprung hopes to heal and maybe find "some new girls showing up for the league" who could start on the national squad. As for now, she's at the gym every other day, thinking about chickens and road trips and touchdown passes, and a medal and team of which she's very proud. "I really wanted it to be gold, but it has definitely shown we've been doing something these past years," she says, "and hopefully we'll just keep getting better and better."

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