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Gridiron Greatness


Summer’s warmth gives way to autumn’s chill. A new year beckons, not just for Klal Yisrael but also for the game that has become our country’s favorite sport – no, our national obsession: football.

Like everything in the world, football isn’t just a game watched by hundreds of millions – it’s something that can be used as a means of coming closer to Hashem. It instructs us in many yesodos hachaim, fundamentals of life. Indeed, it teaches us many lessons found in the vast corpus of Torah literature.

The importance of every Jew: The quarterback is the team leader. A great one, like Peyton Manning, can lift an otherwise mediocre team like the Indianapolis Colts to greatness, while a bad quarterback can pull his team down. But for a football team to succeed, each of the players on the field must be performing his job properly, even those that seem unimportant.

During the 2002-2003 playoffs, the New York Giants played the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers staged a historic comeback to take a 39-38 lead. With seconds to play the Giants lined up for a game-winning field goal attempt by kicker Matt Bryant. They brought in a new long snapper, Trey Junkin, to snap the ball to the holder. Junkin had just come out of retirement; he’d been a long snapper, perhaps the most insignificant job in football, for 19 seasons. Junkin botched the snap and the field goal was never attempted. Giants coach Jim Fassel called it the worst loss of his life.

We often feel our role as individual Jews is not that significant. But the Gemara tells us each Jew represents a letter in the Torah. Just as a Torah with a missing letter, no matter how insignificant, is invalid, so too Klal Yisrael cannot function properly without each Jew doing his job, no matter how small that may seem. If we are still alive, it is because we have some vital purpose in this world.

Growth in life: Former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback and ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski once gave an important yesod about football and life: “You must pass to score and run to win.”

This means a good offense needs to be balanced so it can score often by completing big pass plays while also being able to matriculate the ball (to borrow a phrase from legendary Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram) downfield in order to keep it away from the other team. Teams that have flashy passing games but don’t run the ball efficiently – such as the 1980′s San Diego Chargers led by quarterback Dan Fouts – can’t win because they gave their opponents too many chances with the ball.

Passing too often is high risk/high reward, negatively impacting a team’s ability to keep possession of the football. On the other hand, if a team runs the ball well but cannot pass for chunks of yardage and make big scoring plays – such as the 2009 New York Jets – it will have a hard timing being better than average because it will not score enough points. In a 16-13 loss to the lowly Buffalo Bills last year, the Jets rushed for a whopping 300 yards but lost because they couldn’t make enough big plays.

One of the most elementary concepts in Judaism is that a Jew must constantly be growing. On some occasions, such as during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance), or when some life-altering event occurs, we grow by leaps and bounds. Often though, growth is about taking small, steady steps toward one’s goals. Someone who only takes great leaps forward often will find himself eventually slipping back into old routines. But if we only take small steps, we never get a chance to make major changes. By taking both paths, we ensure a winning combination of growth in our relationship with Hashem.

The importance of a tzibbur: Joshua Schwager, member of the 1986 national champion Penn State Nittany Lions and now a shomer Torah umitzvos Jew, told my students at Rutgers that the 2007 New York Giants became a great team and won the Super Bowl only after they got rid of Tiki Barber and Jeremy Shockey.

Shockey and Barber had both been offensive superstars for the Giants for years before the ’07 season. They both put up flashy individual statistics, but that didn’t translate into playoff victories for the Giants. Shockey and Barber negatively affected team chemistry by being “me first” players who loudly criticized teammates and coaches. But after Barber retired prior to the 2007 season and Shockey’s injury forced him to miss the playoffs, the Giants came together as a team.

Devarim 33:5 tells us, “And He was King in Jeshurun, whenever the sum total of the people were gathered, and the tribes of Israel were together.” Rashi, quoting the Sifri, comments, “When Israel is gathered together in a unified group, and there is peace among them, God is their King – but not when there is strife among them.”

Klal Yisrael can only be Hashem’s people when we are all working as a unified whole. Certainly each of us has a different role to perform and we need not always agree ideologically with one another. But as the Arizal tells us, the Jewish people share a collective soul. As the Days of Awe draw near, let us remember that one of the ways to merit a good judgment is to become an indispensable part of the community. One is then judged as part of a greater whole rather than as an individual.

As the new year for football and life is ushered in, let us truly become the greatest players we can be on Hashem’s team.

Rabbi Meir Goldberg is director of Rutgers Jewish Xperience at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He resides in Lakewood with his wife and children. He can be reached at Mgoldberg@RutgersJX.com.

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