Hebrew in the huddle: Football lands in Israel

The quintessentially American game touches down in Israel.

football feat 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
football feat 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As kickoffs go, the opening play of last Friday's game between Big Blue and the Pioneers was unexceptional - the only indication of any greater significance being that it ended, in what was undoubtedly a first for an American tackle football league, with a Levi tackling a Levy. Minutes into the Israel Football League's inaugural game on an unseasonably warm November afternoon at Jerusalem's Kraft Stadium, one of the more than 200 mostly American immigrants in attendance soaked in the sound of shoulder pads crunching against churning thighs as if listening to a long-lost rock'n'roll album he had just rediscovered at the back of his closet. "Wow," he said, turning to his friend and nodding with satisfaction, "it really brings you back to high school, doesn't it?" As Big Blue's Moshe Horowitz sprinted across the artificial grass, bouncing off would-be tacklers on his way to scoring the first touchdown in IFL history, his thoughts, too, turned to high school - specifically, to the first time he scored for the prep school outside of Philadelphia that introduced him to the game of tackle football a dozen years ago. "To this day, I remember that touchdown," Horowitz would later recall with noticeable glee. "It was a busted play going to the right... I cut back to the left and sprinted 70 yards into the end zone, where I spiked the ball." Back at Kraft Stadium, Horowitz ran around or though Hasharon's defense while Jerusalem galloped to a 48-16 victory over the Pioneers. But the final score hardly mattered. For both teams, just playing was cause for celebration. "A lot of us have waited for this for so long," Horowitz said afterward. "For me, and for the guys who grew up with this game and played it when we were younger, the opportunity to play in pads again is really precious." For players like Horowitz's Big Blue teammate Greg Tepper, who is originally from the Washington DC area, the IFL is an opportunity to relive the fleeting thrills and glory of a game they thought had passed them by. "Once you finish high school, if you're not playing in college, that's it. It's over," Tepper said. "So, to be playing football in Israel is great. When I moved here 10 years ago, I never thought it would happen. Besides, most guys my age don't get to play." To clarify, it is possible to play football here, but for most that means flag football - a simplified version of the game that involves only minimal contact - and no one, until now, has played in helmets and pads. "Flag football is a good way to play and learn the game without all the physicality... but if you're a bigger, more powerful player, flag football can be frustrating," Horowitz said. "Tackle is the real thing." ALMOST HALF of those on Big Blue are originally from the US. But the Jerusalem team is the exception that proves the rule: Of the 86 players on the league rosters, only 22 percent were born in North America. Most IFL players, actually, are sabras who were introduced to American football only recently - guys like Ben Friedman of the Haifa Underdogs, who became enamored of the sport in the 12th grade, when an American friend invited him to play a pickup game. "When I scored a touchdown while carrying three guys on my back, I said to myself, 'Now, this is something I could really enjoy!'" Friedman said. In Haifa and in Tel Aviv, a number of other sabras, similarly smitten by the sport, had been playing regular tackle football games, albeit without any safety equipment. Two years ago, they organized themselves into the Israel Football League. To take their project to the next level, they approached Steve Leibowitz of American Football Israel, which runs a thriving program for flag football. In March, Leibowitz and AFI agreed to organize and subsidize the IFL, on the condition players use the full compliment of helmet and pads. Eric Amkraut, a former head strength and conditioning coach at Rutgers University who had recently made aliya, agreed to become the league's commissioner, referee and primary coach. Again, though, the use of pads was an imperative. "My initial concern was safety," Amkraut said. "Football is not merely a contact sport, it's a collision sport. You have to be concerned about neck and spinal cord injuries." The players agreed, assuming the costs of the equipment. Even with a favorable price negotiated with football equipment company Adams, that meant about $400 out of the pockets of every player. The players were also required to pass a physical exam and take out an insurance policy at a cost of another $100. From there, things moved pretty quickly. The Jerusalem team was created from local flag football players and those who answered a call for open tryouts. That rounded out the four-team league, with Mike's Place Tel Aviv Sabres, Dancing Camel Hasharon Pioneers and Real Housing Haifa Underdogs. Amkraut spent time with each team, teaching football basics until the safety equipment arrived. During Succot, the league held a three-day clinic at the Baptist Village sports facility in Petah Tikva with the help of a pair of coaches brought in from Tennessee. Having spent months learning how to tackle, how to block, how to shed blocks, etc., the players were eager to finally don their protective gear. "It was like army recruits' first day at the induction center," Leibowitz recalled with a laugh. "We did everything from showing the guys how to put on their jockstraps to how to strap on their helmets." With every strap and pad in place, the players were finally able to line up for some real action. "Hearing Hebrew in the huddle," Amkraut said, "gave me the chills." WEARING UNIFORMS, however, did not make for uniform skills. "Initially, there was a huge gap in knowledge between the experienced players and the younger players," Horowitz explained. "Some of the guys who tried out for the league had never even seen the game before." "Israelis make up the majority of the league and, while some of these guys know the rules, formations and positions, other guys have only seen football once or twice on TV," added Tepper. "It's a process with some of these guys... but we are learning everything together as a team. The guys who do know have been very patient. And the native Israelis are very enthusiastic." Those accustomed to American football will find the IFL game smaller in most respects. The field, instead of being 100 yards long, is 60 yards long. The quarters, instead if being 15 minutes, last for 12 minutes. Play is eight-on-eight rather than 11-on-11. And most of the players, instead of being hulking athletes, average around 75 kilograms. Some players are little more than 50 kg. "At first I was really worried about the smaller guys," said Horowitz. "I thought that when they started getting tackled, they would figure they had made a mistake in coming out to play. But the funny thing is that the opposite happened - the more they got hit, the more they liked it." What isn't smaller in the Israeli game is the players' passion. Friedman said that football was "like a virus, once it's in your blood you can't stop. Until I'm forced to hang up the cleats and I can't play anymore, I'll keep playing. If I have to die somewhere, I would prefer it would be on the football field." That's a bit dire, even for football. But Friedman has already suffered for the game. "In my first game as a quarterback, I tore my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament in the knee]," he said. "My doctor told me I would have to either undergo reconstructive surgery or stop playing football. I told him I'd stop, but I had no intention of actually doing so." Friedman, 26, who has little interest in soccer or rugby, tries to recruit fellow sabras to football, but said the process can be "painfully slow." "You have to fight the Israeliness of the guys," added Dori Reichman of the Pioneers. "They're used to passing a ball back and forth. Running with the ball takes some time to learn. In general, learning this game takes discipline, and Israelis aren't so disciplined." Even so, Reichman noted, "There is a whole generation of kids who can't wait to reach the minimum age to play. And I get requests all the time from people who want to join the league." Alfred Kour of Tel Aviv is one of Reichman's newest disciples. Looking exhausted but invigorated after Hasharon's loss to Jerusalem, Kour explained what drew him to the American sport: "People think this is just a violent game, but there's so much technique to it. There's strategy behind every play." "Plus, it's a hell of a way to get into shape. Look at me," said the less-than-svelte Kour, "a few months ago, I weighed 132 kg. Now I'm down to 106. Here," he gestured with his cellphone and broke into a mischievous smile, "call my wife and ask her how this game has affected me physically." NOT ONLY has the game attracted native Israeli Jews, but even a few Arab players have joined the ranks. Marwan Sima'an of Nazareth, who is studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, joined Big Blue. When Tepper broke his arm only days before the season opener, Sima'an stepped in and took his place in the starting lineup. "I have loved American football ever since I was a little kid, when I saw a game on METV," he said after a recent practice. "I love the fact that you get to smack into people and let out your aggression - but it's also a sport that is intellectually challenging." When a friend told him about the IFL, Sima'an had already been searching the Internet for American football in Israel. He e-mailed the league for more information, tried out for the Jerusalem team and was accepted. "At first, I was afraid I wouldn't know what to do. I know the game and its rules, but I didn't know things like jargon, and what to do in the huddle," he said. "But I wasn't embarrassed to ask questions, so I started to learn. I had no idea what to do as a linebacker, but when we were doing tackling drills, they told me I was good at tackling. So I started playing linebacker, and when Greg broke his arm, I took his place." Sima'an's friends and family support his decision to play, he said. "They're waiting for the day when we play in Haifa so they can watch me play." A Christian Arab from Nazareth playing on a team of largely religious Jewish players in Jerusalem might seem like a big deal. To the team, said Sima'an, it isn't. "The fact that I'm an Arab made me worry at first that they wouldn't accept me. But very quickly it became clear that it wasn't an issue. The guys are good guys and there's no trouble. To this day, I've never been exposed to any of the ugliness that there has been, for example, in the national soccer league. Now, some of my Arab friends want to play, too. This is real coexistence." "You can find enthusiasm for football among religious, secular, Arabs and Jews. This league is open to everyone," Tepper said. "I don't care who anyone is or what their creed is, if someone wants to come out and play football, I'm psyched for that." SO, THE IFL players are eager, they're dedicated, they're inclusive and they're tolerant. But are they any good? Judging by the season opener, they're no worse than some American high-school teams. "Some of us were afraid there would be 10 offsides penalties, or that someone would start running the wrong way on the field," Horowitz said. "The level of play, though, has been pretty good. And it has already gotten so much cleaner, from the preseason exhibition to the season opener." "Every day that our players are out on the playing field, they're growing, and their level of knowledge is growing exponentially," said Amkraut. "We are ahead of where I thought we'd be. And, I guarantee that the games people will see in February will be better than the ones they'll see in November." Beyond the novelty and fun factor of all the IFL, yet to be seen is where all this will lead. What is Israel's tackle football potential? "You will know we have made it as a league when we have our first player on an NCAA roster... and I can tell you that we have some players who have that as a goal," said Amkraut. "Now, are we there yet? Absolutely not. But in three to five years, I have no doubt that we could have a player at a [small] school." Similarly, Leibowitz said, "Spain has 15,000 tackle football players. Tons of small towns in Germany have teams. Sweden has players on American college teams. Can that happen for us eventually? We hope so." While the IFL players practice their touchdown celebration dances, Amkraut and Leibowitz aspire to steadily increase the number of teams in the league, move up to 11-on-11 play and full-size fields. They believe they can accomplish all this, along with establishing a quality youth division to serve as a sort of developmental league, within five years. "Our players have a sense of being part of something new, but also of building something larger for the long term," Amkraut says. "We expect to have a place in the pantheon of Israeli sports. And I think that's realistic." No Friday night lights for these footballers In America, Friday nights in autumn belong to high-school football. In Israel, the drama of soccer, the king of national sports, is played out on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. The IFL almost followed suit - but in the end decided, like Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, not to roll on Shabbat. "This year, in the initial draft of the schedule, we had six Shabbat games out of the 18 games in the regular season, but we later cut that down to three," said league organizer Steve Leibowitz. "I didn't realize how much flak I would get from fans, asking why we were sanctioning a league where games are played on Shabbat. My answer has been that that's the norm around the country, that that's the norm of the guys who have been playing tackle football the past few years. I mean, when Haifa plays Tel Aviv, none of those guys is religious. Saturday is the day that is most convenient for them. Why should I dictate to them that their league should be shomer Shabbat? But I came to the conclusion, after a lot of consultation, that we have to limit [Shabbat play], and maybe even eliminate it altogether. We've taken a policy decision to eliminate [Shabbat play] by next season. "It's hard, because on the one hand, my organization is running things, but on the other hand, these are existing teams and I don't want to dictate to them every aspect of what they do. But I do think that religious fans have a right to see the games. I don't want it to be impossible for them." Big Blue, the newcomer to the league, is a big part of that. Although not everyone on the team is observant, Leibowitz said, "Jerusalem is a shomer Shabbat team; all but one of the observant players in the league are playing for the Jerusalem team." He noted, as well, that the flag football leagues run by American Football in Israel - half of which are made up of yeshiva students from overseas - do not play on Shabbat. Also, he said, when Israeli national teams play in international competitions, they do not play on Shabbat. A replay of this summer's baseball league? No way, says the IFL In talking with players and organizers about what makes the Israel Football League what it is, discussion inevitably turns to the Israel Baseball League, which opened this past summer to much fanfare. It's only natural: They both involve uniquely American sports, they appeal especially to American immigrants and they began play within a few months of each other, with roughly equivalent roster sizes. But that, the football folks insist, is where the similarities end. To start with, the football players are all amateurs; they receive no compensation for playing. The baseball players, by contrast, were paid $2,000 and housed in a dormitory during their eight-week season. Whereas several of the baseball players recruited to play here this past summer hoped to use the experience as a springboard to America's more advanced professional leagues, IFL players are playing - they say this sincerely, without hyperbole - for the joy of it. "This is not about playing for money, or for the chance to play in college," notes Jerusalem running back Moshe Horowitz. "It's a chance to play a great game, to do something you really care about. It's personal." Unlike the baseball league, which hired Jewish former Major League heroes to coach the teams, the football league has made no attempt to involve the handful of Jews who have played in the NFL. Neither has the IFL hired a full-time PR consultant or made much of an effort to commercialize the league. As yet, there are no IFL memorabilia on offer at the games or on-line. "We are a non-profit association," stresses American Football in Israel president Steve Leibowitz, who heads the IFL management. "The only person on salary on this is the commissioner, who is paid by the AFI. The total budget for our entire first season is about NIS 120,000. We have a league sponsor in Fieldturf, which paid $5,000, and each of the teams is sponsored. But that's about it." The IFL does not try to gain exposure for itself by broadcasting its games on the Sports Channel, like the IBL did in the first part of its season. The cost of producing each game would be around $5,000, Leibowitz says, and "I don't have that." The biggest difference between the two leagues, though, is in the athletes. The baseball players were almost all foreigners whose sole connection to the cities they supposedly represented was in the names printed on their jerseys. The footballers are all Israelis, playing in front of their family and friends. "None of us is going home in two or three months to their home country," notes Greg Tepper of Big Blue. The two leagues have taken divergent approaches, one recreating a risky business, the other recreating scenes from American high schools. To be honest, neither is guaranteed to work. "My ultimate goal is not to sell tickets to spectators, or to sell merchandise to spectators," Leibowitz concludes. "What we want is to get a tackle football league off the ground and get it to rise to whatever its natural level is - not to take something from over there [in America], plunk it down and say, 'Look at this!' I think that if we do it step by step, it'll succeed."