SAN DIEGO, Calif. (JTA) — The snack bar is always kosher and the games are never on Friday night. The roster is packed with names like Adam, Isaac, Benjamin and Micah, with an Ori, Ethan, Yuval and Noam thrown in. The players huddle to say the Sh’ma before taking the field; the quarterback calls the plays in Hebrew.
Meet the San Diego Jewish Academy Lions, perhaps the only 11-man Jewish high school football team in America. It’s homecoming, and the players are lining up on a sunny, green bluff, where you can see the Pacific Ocean and just a surf ride or two from La Jolla, Calif. There’s a balloon arch, a lion mascot, cheerleaders and stands filled with fans.
“Today there will be two anthems,” the public address announcer informs the crowd a few moments later on this Thursday afternoon in a game against the league rival Julian Eagles. The crowd rises, listening first to a recording of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” and then “Hatikvah.”
Bruno Garcia-Jed takes the opening kickoff, cuts left, breaks a tackle, fakes a defender and races own the sideline into the end zone — the first kickoff returned for a touchdown in San Diego Jewish Academy history. At the season’s beginning, this would have seemed a dream.
Seeking a higher level of competition, the academy had upgraded its program the previous year from eight-man football to 11. Surprisingly the Lions finished with a winning season in the Division 5 league of small Christian and public schools, even qualifying for the playoffs.
This fall, despite losing a few players to graduation, expectations were high. But first the academy, whose high school has 180 students split evenly between boys and girls, had to do some recruiting.
First-year head coach Charlie Wund, a former college player and the academy’s middle school athletic director, said his coaching staff made some “house calls,” taking the case for trying out to potential players and their sometimes reluctant parents.
Wund recalled a meeting at the beginning of the season. “I asked if you are the first in your family to play football, raise your hand. Everyone but two raised their hands,” he said.
Though perhaps new to many of the families at the academy, participation in full contact sports is not new to Jews in America. Among the dozens of Jews who have played in the National Football League are three who were inducted into the Football Hall of Fame: Benny Friedman, Sid Luckman and Ron Mix. Several others, like the late Lyle Alzado, were selected All-Pros, too.
Searching the small high school for their own waiting-to-be-discovered stars were the team’s two new offensive coaches: Jason Carter, who played five seasons in the NFL, and assistant Mark Wetzel, a former college player and assistant college coach. The coaches, who both hail from the high school football hotbed of Texas, were flummoxed initially by the lack of interest.
“In Texas,” Wetzel said, “everybody plays.”
“We needed more players,” he added, “so like David looking for more stones for Goliath, I needed to get out and find four more stones.” Considering that the team has 27 players, nearly a third of the male enrollment, perhaps a bit of Texas had come to the Southern California academy.
Helping the coaching staff field a team is the fact that unlike many high schools, academic probation at San Diego Jewish Academy is not a problem. “We have a team GPA of between 3.4 and 3.5,” Wund said. “Every single one of these kids will go to college.”
“We have the opposite problem of academic probation,” said high school athletic director Mike Quigley, who supervises 10 varsity teams in addition to football. “Our kids might need to be late to practice, but it’s because they have to study for an SAT test.”
“Our philosophy is ‘opportunity,’ ” he said in speaking about giving kids a shot who have never played. “And here there are also real life experiences we can teach,” Wund added.
Wund, who is not Jewish, has found himself learning on the job. “In my first year at the academy, I supervised the tefillah class,” he said. “I’ve gained so much respect.”
Wund replaced last year’s coach, John Milisitz, who with his mother is facing an 18-count federal indictment for “mail fraud and interstate transportation of stolen property,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice news release last March.
“It’s had no effect on the program,” Wund said, waving off the affair.
Against Julian, Wund had nothing to wave off: His coaching staff’s recruiting and tutelage were paying dividends.
The Lions, with a squad featuring 14 members playing football for the first time, grabbed a 15-0 halftime lead that included a 60-yard scoring drive featuring several runs and short passes, as well as a Noam Baltinester field goal.
At halftime, watching the parade of decorated electric golf carts, the football parents were all smiles. Was the stereotype of the Jewish mom or dad, too fearful of their child getting hurt to let them go out for football, turning end over end on its way out of bounds?
“I love it,” said Lee Posnock, whose son Jake is a freshman offensive lineman. “The kids are part of a team.”
Another mom, Shifra Baltinester, who has two sons on the team, reluctantly let her kids play. “At first I didn’t like” the full contact, Baltinester said, recalling how she worried that Tomer, a freshman linebacker, and Noam, a junior kicker and safety, could get hurt. But then she thought it’s safer than soccer. “There are pads and helmets,” she noted. Another parent, Micha Danzig, acknowledged having concerns.
“Sure I’m worried about my kid,” Danzig said, gesturing proudly toward son Jeremy, an outside linebacker who leads the team in quarterback sacks. “He weighs 155 and he’s going up against that kid who weighs 250.”
As for the players, the culture of contact — of “hit hard and tackle low” drilled into them at practice — is catching on, albeit somewhat painfully.
“I was sore after the first practice,” acknowledged Zack Smith, a junior wide receiver and linebacker, in an interview following practice one day. “But it got better.”
Smith enjoys the team’s camaraderie, noting how the players high five and fist bump each other passing in the halls at school.
“We hang together,” he said.
On the field, that camaraderie is being tested. In the third quarter, San Diego Academy suffers a couple of interceptions. And early in the fourth period, the Eagles recover a Lions fumble and return it for a touchdown. The point after makes it 15-7 with slightly more than nine minutes remaining. Three minutes later, the visitors score on a 30-yard run. The Eagles also run in the two-point conversion to make it 15-all.
In the final six minutes, as the sun begins to set over the Pacific, both teams look worn. San Diego Academy parents in the stands grow quiet with concern. Several had expressed the view earlier that having their sons on the team would help them “to learn to build teamwork”; now that lesson is being put to the test. The Eagles have owned the size advantage; the Lions had countered with speed and team tackling. With just a few seconds left, the Lions take over at midfield with a last chance.
“I don’t want a tie,” Wund is heard saying from the sidelines.
But a dropped pass ends the game that way.
“We didn’t have enough at the end,” Garcia-Jed said on his way to the locker room. “But we didn’t quit.”
Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at [email protected].