Israelis get a kick out of American football

The common thread running through Israel’s national gridiron football team: A love of the game.

 HAIFA DOGS vs Ramat Hasharon Hammers, 2022 season.  (photo credit: Courtesy Jay Hoffman)
HAIFA DOGS vs Ramat Hasharon Hammers, 2022 season.
(photo credit: Courtesy Jay Hoffman)

A cantor, a rocket scientist, college students, infantry officers, a doctoral student of neuroscience, an F-16 pilot, a Druze, an Israeli Arab. Religious guys, secular guys, immigrants and natives – 45 men in all, ranging in age from 19 to 38.

What unites this unlikely group? Playing football for Israel’s national team. Not soccer. American football.

“We have an eclectic group of athletes, a melting pot of Israeli society,” says Brooklyn-bred Hadera resident Jay Hoffman, head coach of American Football in Israel and coach of the national team and the Haifa team. 

“It’s great to see that it’s not just one segment, not only olim from the United States. Some do have parents who were born in the States, but the vast majority were born and raised in Israel. They got involved with the game after seeing it on TV or being played in their neighborhood. And they’ve become pretty good.”

“It’s great to see that it’s not just one segment, not only olim from the United States. Some do have parents who were born in the States, but the vast majority were born and raised in Israel. They got involved with the game after seeing it on TV or being played in their neighborhood. And they’ve become pretty good.”

Jay Hoffman

Mica Allon, a 29-year-old aerospace engineer and co-captain of the national team, says he enjoyed watching American football as a kid growing up in Hoshaya. 

“When I was 18 and started studying at the Technion, I was walking around campus one day and saw some guys throwing a football, so I joined them. And they said, ‘Did you know there is a football league in Israel?’ I’d never heard of it.”

 IN THE practice huddle. (credit: Courtesy Jay Hoffman) IN THE practice huddle. (credit: Courtesy Jay Hoffman)

Allon joined the Haifa Underdogs, and he was hooked.

“It’s one of those sports where you can give your all, a really great place to release your energy and frustrations. And it has a lot of teamwork that you don’t find in most other sports. It’s very intense. Everyone has to give 100% in every single play,” says Allon in English, the obvious language of the sport.

Finding time to practice isn’t easy, he admits, but “if it’s something you love and want to be better at, and people are relying on you, you put time aside and dedicate a portion of your life to it. It gives back to me just as much as I put into it.” 

The guys usually begin preparing for the season in November, practicing twice a week at a boarding school in Zichron Ya’acov. 

The first game this season is January 28, versus the Italian Football League’s Bologna Warriors. This will be the first game ever between an Israeli club team and a foreign club team, notes Hoffman. “All the previous international competitions were at the level of the national team.”

Hoffman’s sports pedigree dates to 1980s America as a pro football player and then sports science adviser to Major League Baseball strength coaches.

After moving to Israel in the early 1990s, with a PhD in physiology, he rose to command the Physiological Unit of the Israel Air Force. Following a prolonged stint back in the United States, during which he was a sports science consultant for professional basketball, baseball and hockey teams, he returned in 2019 to take on the position of professor of molecular biology at Ariel University. Hoffman directs the Applied Physiological Lab and Sport Science Program in Ariel’s Department of Physical Therapy. 

“I started coaching the national team in 2017, even when I was still living in the United States. I used to come here a couple of times a year for practices, generally over the summer and in the winter,” he says.

“The first game when I was the head coach was in 2019. We played Turkey away and Belgium at home, in the first international football game ever held in Jerusalem,” he recounts.

In 2021, the national team played just one game, in Hungary, which it lost.

“We still have a ways to go,” Hoffman concedes. 

“Because football is not a professional sport here, all our players serve in the military. A few years ago, we got the ability to have distinguished sportsmen, which takes players out of combat duty and puts them on a base close by so they can practice. We have maybe one or two distinguished sportsmen a year.”

All the other players take leave of the game when they’re drafted into the military.

“The biggest hurdle that we have is losing a lot of good young players when they go into the army,” says Hoffman. 

“Hopefully they’ll come back after they finish their service, but generally their bodies have been changed. In football, you’re trying to bulk up, and the army generally slims you down.”

Hoffman has been working, so far unsuccessfully, to persuade the IDF to follow the US Army’s emphasis on strength conditioning over endurance conditioning. He says strength training maximizes military performance, while endurance training abuses the body. Coincidentally, strength conditioning is what makes ideal football players.

“Long story short, the American soldier trains like the American football player, and the Israeli soldier trains like a marathon runner. The American military is always advertising at football games because they understand that those are the types of individuals they want to recruit.”

Jay Hoffman

“Long story short, the American soldier trains like the American football player, and the Israeli soldier trains like a marathon runner,” he explains. “The American military is always advertising at football games because they understand that those are the types of individuals they want to recruit.” 

But on the other hand, those who do return after IDF service are more motivated than ever to represent Israel in sports. 

“When ‘Hatikvah’ is being played before the game, there’s a great feeling because most of these players contributed to some very good units and really understand the importance of the State of Israel and are dedicated to its protection,” says Hoffman. 

“About 20% of our players are officers, and we’ve had players in the league who have served in Shayetet – the Israeli [version of the US] Navy SEALs – and in every commando unit, military police and Air Force. We have some pretty bright atuda’im,” gifted high school graduates, such as Allon, who attend university before drafting. 

“We have an offensive lineman getting his PhD in neuroscience, lined up next to an immigrant from Ukraine, next to somebody who works in the Israeli defense industry. And we’ve had three Israeli Arabs on the national team,” Hoffman continues.

“Unlike a professional NFL team or even a Division I college team in the United States, our players’ only commonality is that they love to play football.”

Still, Hoffman has struggled to adjust to the consequences of that difference.

“We’re not as good as we could be if we practiced every day. But the reality is that these guys have got to go to school or go to work, and they have to spend time with their families. In Israel, this is a hobby, not a profession.”

‘The best sport in the world’

National team and Haifa co-captain Shachar Adi, a 24-year-old university student, says he enjoys “getting to know people from different countries and religions and perspectives. But we don’t really argue politics or anything else.”

Adi grew up playing soccer in his Haifa neighborhood but found his passion in the US version of the sport.

“American football is the best sport in the whole world.”

Shachar Adi

“American football is the best sport in the whole world,” he says.

“Maybe you get hit and stuff, but we are a family. Everybody takes care of the others. We win together, we lose together. Every player has a part in the chain. Coach always says we are as strong as our weakest link, and you really see that in a football game.”

Hoffman elaborates, “One person in basketball can be so dominant that he can control the game. In baseball, one player who’s very dominant can control the league. In football, you can have the best quarterback of all time, but if the five guys in front of him don’t do their job and block, he’s never going to throw the ball, or he’ll get hurt. Football is the epitome of a team sport, really relying on everybody to be successful.”

“One person in basketball can be so dominant that he can control the game. In baseball, one player who’s very dominant can control the league. In football, you can have the best quarterback of all time, but if the five guys in front of him don’t do their job and block, he’s never going to throw the ball, or he’ll get hurt. Football is the epitome of a team sport, really relying on everybody to be successful.”

Jay Hoffman

This tight interdependence, Hoffman continues, “is great preparation for the military because great teamwork is exactly what is asked of the soldiers. I think the players really understand that. The number of guys that we have leaving high school to go into elite combat units is remarkable. They built a love of achieving greatness from collaboration with others. And that’s what the military needs.”

And, just as in combat, football players understand they can get injured. “When you’re out there and you go full speed smacking somebody, it is really a huge risk,” Hoffman says. 

He and colleagues from other universities recently published a study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research on the effect of competitive football on cognitive function and brain health, based on analysis of bloodwork and MRI images of 15 of his players before and after games. 

Among their findings were significant changes in both acute and long-term memory loss in all players immediately following a game, which fortunately returned to baseline levels within 24 hours.

“When all is said and done, what’s the benefit for these players?” Hoffman concludes. “They just love the game. And that’s what I’m coaching.” 