In our last column (The Magazine, 7-19), Shlomo Veingrad, the NFL Super Bowl player-turned inspirational frum speaker, shared some of his stories from the road. He’s back again with more anecdotes, including how he inspired the Head Coach of the Dallas Cowboys and learned some lessons of his own.
One of the major triggers that led Shlomo to becoming frum was the sincere welcome and warmth he received by the Jewish world. His days playing for the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys were filled with a never-ending schedule of practice and games, as well as the camaraderie of teammates and the positive pressure of goals and objectives. After retiring in 1993 he, like many other players, felt a distinct void. But upon being introduced to a Torah class by a frum relative and attending Shabbat morning davening at a local Florida synagogue, he began to see that Judaism offered an even more satisfying lineup than he had ever experienced before.
“I went on a Shabbat morning to the Chabad of East Fort Lauderdale. It was one of the few times I had been to shul since my Bar Mitzvah, and it might have been the first time since then that I was called up to the Torah. After an aliyah it’s customary for a man to bless the people in his family. A hundred people were looking at me, I was feeling a little nervous. The gabbai said ‘Who do you want to bless?’ The guy in front of me listed his wife and children so I did that too.”
“‘Anybody else?’ the gabbai asked.
“‘The Rabbi and his family.’
(“I felt like I was doing something wrong, I had to bless somebody else.”)
“‘Yeah, the soldiers in Israel.’
“The gabbai said in a soft voice, ‘The Packers or the Cowboys?’
(“I smiled greatly. This was unbelievable, the real deal, I’m in shul and he asked me which one to bless. I said ‘Yeah, let’s give the Packers a blessing. I spent five years there, they need the blessing.'”)
“‘He said quietly, ‘ok, a blessing for the Packers!’
“‘It was really funny, serious of course but it showed that he had a sense of humor and it made me feel very welcome. After that I stopped sweating, smiled and said ‘Ok let’s get someone else up here now.'”
Shlomo has traveled further for his speaking engagements than even during his days in the NFL, crisscrossing America and speaking around the world. Once he spoke on a Tuesday night at a Chabad House in Milwaukee and had another speaking engagement at a local school on Wednesday afternoon.
He davened Shacharit on Wednesday morning at the Chabad House. Before davening an elderly rabbi approached him and adjusted his Tefillin on his head because it was not in the correct place. He then handed him a small mirror with a blue back that he could use in the future.
After Shacharit, Shlomo was waiting in the library until his next engagement when the same old rabbi approached and motioned to him.
“Get the mirror and follow me,” he said.
“You’re taking the mirror back?”
“Just follow me.”
Shlomo followed him up the stairs, down a hallway and into his office. He then took back the mirror from Shlomo, but a moment later handed it back to him.
Shlomo turned it over in his hands and noticed that the rabbi had given him a new one, with a green back.
“Aren’t these your colors?” the Rabbi asked.
(“I just smiled. I thought to myself, ‘how would an old chassid know the Green Bay Packers?'”)
When he speaks, Shlomo tries to give direction and inspiration to people from his own experiences. Once while traveling he received his own helpful course adjustment.
When flying out to speaking engagements, Shlomo tries to daven before leaving. He notes that davening on a plane can sometimes bother other passengers or flight attendants. On one trip, he was unable to daven before he left, but knew he would have enough time before his connecting flights.
Upon landing at around 6:00 am, he searched the terminal and found a deserted area away from other travelers. He took out his tallit and tefillin and began to daven, but realized he didn’t know which way was mizrach, east! He also couldn’t find the compass that he usually carried in his bag.
Not knowing what to do, he continuing davening. Just as he was about to start Shemoneh Esrai, he noticed another Jewish man standing just a few feet away from him putting on his own tallit and tefillin. He motioned to Shlomo and pointed out the correct direction to face.
“I was behind a wall, I don’t know how he found me,” Shlomo said. “G-d provided for me. He wanted me to daven facing Jerusalem so he sent me a shaliach.”
In his speeches Shlomo tries to give listeners advice to help them pass the religious and personal tests in their own lives. Many people have approached him and described the strength they received from him.
Once Shlomo was an unwitting role model while speaking to a group of eighty Jewish high school kids in New York. He had brought his children with him and throughout the speech his daughter was sitting in the audience giggling and talking. His son was standing behind him. Shlomo began speaking about running the 40-yard dash, one of the measures of a football player’s speed. Just at that moment he sensed that his son was running dashes behind him! Shlomo tried as hard as he could not to look at him and retain his focus.
Suddenly his son fell and started screaming. One of the rabbis ran up to the stage, picked him up and brought him to the audience.
“I was boiling inside! They brought me in to give an inspirational speech, and here it was getting ruined!”
A little while later his son calmed down and brought him an open bottle of water. He approached from behind. Shlomo was speaking animatedly and was waving his hands. Suddenly he jerked his arm back and hit the bottle out of his son’s hand, splashing water everywhere! The speech had gone from bad to worse.
After the speech one of the rabbis approached Shlomo.
“I’m very impressed with how well you maintained your composure.”
Shlomo just smiled. (‘I was boiling inside. I was thinking never to bring my kids along again!’)
Shlomo has also succeeded in being a source of inspiration for his former teammates. From time to time he’ll meet up with them and they marvel at the composure and personal strength he now has, which he attributes solely to his religious growth.
Last year Shlomo was invited by the Dallas Cowboys to the twenty-year reunion of Super Bowl XXVII. He and other teammates, as well as players from Super Bowl XXII, were honored in a special event on the field at halftime.
“I wanted to be there on the field with my yarmulka on. Being a football player, not observant, and now wearing a yarmulka, it gave me a great sense of pride.”
After the game the previous and current players joined up for a party in a hall below the stadium. In the middle of the party, Head Coach Jason Garret entered. He ignored the people crowding around him wanting to speak to him, instead scanning the room. His eyes met Shlomo’s and made a beeline to him. The two men had played together years earlier, but they had not seen each other in a long time.
“You are like a legend around here,” Jason said.
(“I thought, ‘I wasn’t such a great football player to be a legend around here.'”)
“You’re always welcome here, we’re so happy that you came,” the coach continued. “I can only imagine how much wisdom and knowledge you’ve gathered over the years.”
The Dallas Cowboys Assistant PR Director standing behind him perked up. “But Coach, you went to Princeton!”
“Yes, but it’s not the same as what he has learned.”
Those words made a deep impression on Shlomo, and indeed they have been his objective throughout his speaking career: recognizing the personal growth and insight he has achieved through his religious development and using them to inspire others. He has learned that it’s not athletic victories and physical prowess that the real Head Coach demands, but one’s internal strength and personal growth that matter. That’s the playbook that’s now leading Shlomo’s life.
About the Author: Michael Gros writes from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To read more articles and sign up to receive them via email, visit http://www.michaelgros.com
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