In 1992 the Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowl XXVII. Among the members of the team was a young Jewish man named Alan Veingrad. Alan, now Shlomo, became frum several years later and found a much more significant calling: as an in-demand speaker he captivates Jewish and non-Jewish audiences around the world with lessons from his football days and from his teshuva journey. Years ago in this column we profiled his return to Judaism. We recently caught up with him to hear about some of his experiences on the road inspiring others, and being inspired by them.
Shlomo speaks fifty times a year, to schools, shuls, kiruv programs and other organizations. His speaking engagements have taken him throughout the United States and across the world, from South Africa to South America.
Shlomo said one of his most special trips was last summer to Camp Simcha, the unique summer camp for children with life-threatening illnesses. He flew up to New York from his Florida home on a Sunday morning to spend four hours playing football and running clinics with the campers and counselors.
When he arrived at the camp he admitted to the director that didn’t know how to act around the campers and how much he could push them, given the precarious health challenges many of them face. The director told him just to treat them as regular kids, and if he was pushing them too hard, the counselors would let him know.
Well, after the four hours the campers wanted more, and it was Shlomo who was passed out, completely exhausted from the experience.
“It was wonderful. It was extremely rewarding to be around real tough kids.”
Shlomo’s trademark, other than his 6-foot-5-inch, 235 pound frame, is his Super Bowl XXVII ring. He wears it everywhere and it’s often the first thing people want to see. Shlomo gained a new insight into the ring’s message on the flight up to Camp Simcha, in the merit of the campers.
“As I was flying up, I looked closer at the Super Bowl ring, closer than ever before. It carries a lot of info, and there’s one thing I never noticed in twenty years of wearing it. The ring has the numbers 16 and 3, because the Dallas Cowboys that year won 16 games and lost 3. If you juggle it around it’s 613.
“Seeing that solidified all the traveling and schlepping I do. Why do I have that ring? It’s not about the Super Bowl. It’s about the 613. That’s the real reason I have that ring.”
Throughout his travels Shlomo has met a wide myriad of Jews from different backgrounds and experiences. He says the one common bond uniting them all is their sincere care and concern for other Jews.
“I’ve had friends, former teammates ask me, ‘how do you fly from here to Panama? You don’t know where you’re going, where you’re staying. You’re going all the way to South Africa – isn’t it weird staying in other people’s homes?’ I tell them, ‘No, we’re family. There’s an immediate connection. When you land, it’s like reconnecting with a long-lost friend or a family member.
“In the business world, it takes time to build relationships. It’s different in the Jewish world – you take a car ride from the airport with your host, and it takes just a few minutes for the relationship to cultivate. Once we arrive [they tell me], ‘there’s your bathroom, here’s your bedroom, we have something for you to eat, if you’re hungry at night, feel free to help yourself.’ People are really sincere, they just want to make sure I’m comfortable.”
One Friday afternoon Shlomo arrived at a Rabbi’s house in northern New Jersey where he would be staying for Shabbat. The Rebbetzin opened the door, holding a child in one hand, with another wrapped around her leg and a third grasping her other hand. She welcomed him in, and asked him if he wanted something to eat. He declined, but said he wanted to lay down and rest from his trip. He said that his years of football wreaked havoc on his body and he still often feels aches and pains.
“I could use a bag of ice, I have a painful neck,” he replied.
“I’m sorry, we don’t have any ice.”
“You don’t have any ice? How about a bag of frozen peas or carrots?”
“No, sorry, we don’t have that either. But I can give you a roll of frozen gefilte fish.”
“You want to put frozen gefilte fish on my neck?” I couldn’t believe she offered that. I just smiled.
Shlomo has been able to reach and uplift people of all backgrounds, and when we speaks he often encourages them to commit to little steps in their Jewish observance. He says inevitably as he’s sharing his story of returning to Yiddishkeit, he’ll see heads nod in the audience. People will approach him afterwards to share their common experiences and shared challenges. Often someone will approach him and tell him they gained new courage in their own observance from hearing him speak.
“Someone will come up and say, “I’ve never been proud to wear kippah outside, but come Monday morning, I’m walking into work with it on. Someone else will tell me – after hearing your speech I’m going to try to keep Shabbos. If someone tells me this after 45 minutes of my speech, that’s amazing. If it’s because of my words, what I did, it’s so worth it to travel and share my life with people.”
One of the main messages Shlomo tries to impart when speaking is our responsibility as Jews to constantly behave in a way that makes a Kiddush Hashem.
“If we’re going to go around this world with a kippah on our heads, regardless of who we are, we all have that responsibility. We can’t act up at the security counter in the airport. If our order is wrong in Starbucks or the grocery store, we have to act in an extremely dignified way. We represent something extremely big. We should all focus on being a mentch. We all report to the biggest Coach there is.”
That message is universal. Whether we’re the starting lineman or Monday morning quarterback, we all have that responsibility. The eyes of the world are always on us, and it’s our job to make our Coach proud.
For more information on Shlomo Veingrad and his speaking engagements, visit www.alanveingrad.com