Praying for victory

For the National Women's Flag Football team, preparing for a tournament abroad requires more than religious adherence to athletic ambitions.

women football 298.88 (photo credit: Adinah Greene)
women football 298.88
(photo credit: Adinah Greene)
At Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem, the quarterback throws a pass to a teammate, who catches the ball, tosses it back and sprints to the end of the line of players. There are no shoulder pads or helmet on QB Shana Sprung, but the 20-year-old Bar-Ilan University undergraduate - a founding member of the national women's flag football team - is wearing a skirt. She also has diabetes, which requires checking her blood-sugar level regularly during games, as well as today, during practice. Sprung and nine other young women are making final preparations to defend their title next week in Le Havre, France, as champions of "Flag Oceane," the largest American football tournament in Europe. These preparations begin with the players receiving personal training, which involves a range of muscle-building exercises. Then they get down to the serious drills of running and flag-pulling, the key defensive element in this non-contact variation of the game. Finally, coach Yonah Mishaan runs them through the playbook - going over dozens of complex offensive and defensive plays they need to remember and coordinate. THE NATIONAL team members were selected from among more than 100 players in the 11-team Women's American Football in Israel league, established nearly three years ago in the capital. It all began when league president Steve Leibowitz, whose "day job" is editor of IBA TV English news, spotted a group of girls on the sidelines, watching the boys play. Leibowitz approached them and asked if they'd be interested in shedding their spectator status and trading the bleachers for the field. The girls agreed. Next Leibowitz had to tackle Mishaan, who was then captain of the national men's team, to persuade him to take on the girls. His heads-up was the winning touchdown. Since then, Mishaan - a full-time plumber and contractor - has volunteered many hours of his time every week training and practicing with the women, and overseeing the development of WAFI, which has grown more than eight-fold since its creation. "It's more than a football league," says 25-year-old national team receiver Ayelet Wartelsky. "We meet on and off the field. As corny as this sounds, it's like a big family or a small community." If former national team player Meira Harow's wedding at the Jerusalem Convention Center last month is any indication, Wartelsky isn't kidding. After the hupa and subsequent dinner, a group of about 20 league members in attendance - all dressed in formal attire - began throwing footballs to each other across the dance floor. Even the bride was throwing and catching passes. BACK TO the national team practice, during which all the players are wearing long shorts, except for Sprung, who wears a specially adapted skirt to enable her to conform to religious modesty, without impeding on her mobility. The issue of what the women wear while playing is not as simple as it may sound, however. In fact, the women confessed to having consulted with their rabbis before deciding on appropriate athletic attire. Indeed, most team members - and nearly all WAFI players - are Orthodox Jews, though Mishaan says he hopes to expand the league in size and diversity. "As it turned out, we attracted many religious American immigrants, or kids of American immigrants," says Mishaan. "[But] our goal is to include a wider variety of players, including more native Israelis." AMERICAN FOOTBALL in Israel is recognized by the government as the local governing body for the sport, with more than 1,000 registered men, women and children playing in different programs based at Kraft Stadium. The AFI-run national teams are the only ones in the country dominated by observant players. They carry glatt kosher food with them on all international trips - the women's national team has been to the Dominican Republic, France and Finland - and only take part in tournaments that allow for strict Shabbat observance. Leibowitz personally oversees game schedules, to make sure that all such "religious issues" are taken care of. Mishaan's job is to handle the sports side of these events, but due to the unique nature of his team, he has become much more than merely a coach. Claiming to be over-protective compared to his counterparts, Mishaan explains, "These are relatively young players from observant homes. Everything must be within Jewish tradition or we risk harming our entire program." Sprung and center Ahuva Odenheimer, 17, are the only two national team players who remain from the core group. Several founding players have left for a number of reasons, among them: military service in the IDF, studies abroad, marriage and pregnancy. "I nearly had to skip this tournament because of my matriculation exams," says Odenheimer. "Luckily for me, WAFI is now well-known and well thought of in my school, so they let me have a make-up date." BEFORE JOINING WAFI, few of the girls played organized sports. A notable exception is defensive captain Elissa Sagoskin, a new immigrant who played varsity basketball for the University of Maryland. At age 26, Sagoskin is the oldest player on the team. Her sister, Jessica, 23, is a receiver and cornerback. At age 15, Estie "Baseball" Bernstein is the team's youngest player. "The first time she came to the field, "recalls Mishaan, "she said she was a baseball player and only wanted to watch. The nickname sort of stuck, but Estie is a tremendous natural athlete in all sports." Receiver Emily Neilson, 17, seems to have the most unusual background. Hailing from a small town in Tennessee, Neilson says that it wasn't until three years ago that she understood she was a Jew. "My parents kind of hid our Jewishness from us." When her mother and father finally did drop the bombshell, they added the following fuel: "Guess what? We're moving to Israel." When Neilson expressed surprise, her mother explained the family's upcoming aliya by saying, "There's a chip in every Jewish heart, and when it activates, it's time to come home." Now "home," Neilson has problems other than her newfound Jewish and Israeli identity to contend with. A member of the US High School Track and Field team when still living there, Neilson continued her training for the Junior Olympics after moving to Israel. During a practice 100-meter-dash run, she fell and broke her femur in half. Since then, she has undergone surgery three times in the last two years. "Doctors told me I would never run again," says Neilson. "But my heart told me something different. This team has 10 hearts beating as one, and that's not something every team has." Other players include British-born Yael Freedman, linebacker Adena Brickman and cornerback Sarit Bailey. THE TEAMS receive no public funding. According to Leibowitz, the "non-playing, yet crucial backbone" of the team are its sponsors, chief among them Myra Kraft, the wife of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and Fieldturf CEO John Gilman. Leibowitz quotes Kraft as saying she adopted the women "because girls have to have an opportunity to play sports in Israel." Gilman, who made his first visit to Jerusalem about a year and a half ago for the dedication of his company's new playing surface at the stadium, told Leibowitz that when he saw the girls in an exhibition game, he "fell in love." Gilman has been a sponsor ever since. ASKED ABOUT the women's chances of winning the impending tournament for which they are practicing, Mishaan is cautiously optimistic. "Last year was kind of a fluke," he says, attributing the "double overtime" victory in Le Havre to having "only French competition, who didn't take us seriously enough." This time, he says, the women are expecting to face tougher competitors from North America and several European countries, quipping, "None of those players have our heart, and none will be eating good kosher food and resting on Shabbat."