The journey from Pop Warner to the National Football League is a dream for many youngsters. It seemed an impossible dream for a lanky Jewish boy from Brooklyn in the ’70s. Alan Veingrad shared how mentors helped him make that dream come true — and how “community” ultimately intercepted his career path, sending him on a spiritual journey — as the keynote speaker at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Men’s Night Out and 2018 Mentor Awards event at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, March 6.
When his family moved from New Jersey to Miami in 1972, Veingrad became a rabid Miami Dolphins fan. That year, the Dolphins were undefeated and won the Super Bowl. Veingrad was hooked. When he became a reluctant bar mitzvah, he saw the ceremony as his exit ticket from Judaism. Football was most important. Even though he wasn’t a great high school player, he had a burning desire to play college football. With his coach’s guidance, he became the high school team captain, making All-Conference and All-American teams.
It was Veingrad’s ability to throw a discus farther than anyone else in south Florida that actually earned his entrée into college football at Division II East Texas State University (now Texas A&M University-Commerce). His coach’s faith in his capability, encouragement and training convinced Veingrad that he had NFL potential. He bulked up, learned and listened. But, after cuts from two pro team attempts (with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Houston Oilers), he returned to finish his degree and finally earned a longshot opportunity as a free agent with the Green Bay Packers in 1986.
“As a free agent rookie, I was nobody from nowhere,” he says, and a stranger in a strange town. “I didn’t know the obligations from the Torah for a Jew to look out for others.” When the Green Bay Jewish community started reaching out to him, his teammates started asking, “What’s the story with you and your people?” “I didn’t know what to tell them,” Veingrad recalls.
It was then that he began to understand the importance of community, he told the AJP before the speaking at the local event. He told the audience about a community member who took him to lunch and wrapped a community of advisors around him to facilitate his long-term financial, residential and legal success for the seven-year duration of his professional football career as an offensive lineman. Ending with the Super Bowl XXVII win with the Dallas Cowboys over the Buffalo Bills in 1992, he played in a total of 86 career games.
While Jews are abundant as fans, they are uncommon as top football players. During Veingrad’s career, he was one of only five Jews in the NFL. He says he never experienced any anti-Semitism in the league. Even in the Bible Belt in college, he never had such an experience. “Texas people are real, good, Bible people. They were interested in the Jewish guy. They had lots of questions but I didn’t know what to tell them.”
It wasn’t until he retired from the NFL, had a wife and the first of their three children that he seriously became a ba’al teshuva (returnee to the faith).
“I’m still on that journey. Sometimes, it’s a step forward and sometimes it’s a step back,” he told AJP. His emerging religious life was mentored by Orthodox Rabbi Moshe Gruenstein, in South Florida, with whom he studied the Torah for eight years, and then by several Chabad rabbis. “My Jewish life now is doing these events and inspiring youth,” he says.
Veingrad fielded questions from the audience of about 130 that ranged from his post-football brain health to what he enjoyed most about his time in the NFL. To the former he joked, “Did you hear me speak?” but noted that he’s participated with the NFL over the past eight years in three multi-day tests “to make sure I’m okay.”
For the latter, “Any NFL player will say it’s the camaraderie. But, if there’s another Jew on any other team, you know him and he knows you. Because there’s only five and there’s an instant connection.” And now, he compares that to the community he feels the instant connections with. “There’s an importance of sharing being Jewish and the community.”
Veingrad maintains generational ties to football and the NFL. His daughter will intern with the NFL this summer in information technology. Like his dad, son Ryan took a longshot chance and succeeded as a preferred walk-on at the University of Michigan. Despite an injury and a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis — he’s recovered from both — Ryan aspires to play in the NFL.
Now advocating for Israel and mentoring his young colleagues as a senior manager at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Veingrad speaks to about 40 audiences worldwide each year.
Inducted into National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2010, Veingrad still sports the Cowboy’s Super Bowl ring and a gold Rolex watch, a gift from Cowboy’s star running back Emmitt Smith. But today he calls the Torah his playbook.
Mentor Award posthumously honors Lowell Rothschild
Lowell Rothschild, a local attorney for 65 years who died in December, was honored with the 2018 Mentor Award, presented by Mel Cohen. Grandsons Isaac and Nathan Rothchild eulogized Rothschild, a founding partner of Mesch Clark and Rothschild.
They spoke of how their grandfather was a mentor not only to them, but to many other attorneys and community members, some of whom were in the audience that evening.
Gary Kippur led “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Hatikvah.” Sam Goldfinger, age 15, delivered an impressive resume of his volunteerism and mitzvot, demonstrating the wealth of opportunities available for youth in the local community. His father, Tedd Goldfinger, underscored the value of l’dor v’dor in passing these traditions from generation to generation.