Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

January 27, 2014

Gefilte Gridiron

Authors Sam Freedman and Rich Cohen discuss two of their favorite topics: Jews and football.

Michael Gluckstadt

It's a well-established fact that Jews and football go together like gefilte fish and game day nachos. That is to say, they don't. Sure, there's Sid Luckman and Sage Rosenfels, but there isn't too much in between.

Rich Cohen and Sam Freedman.
"George Halas figured something like, 'Yeesh, you need to be as smart as a Jew to run a football offense.'" - Rich Cohen

Rich Cohen and Sam Freedman.

Two authors seek to break that mold, or at least put a small dent in it. Sam Freedman and Rich Cohen have tackled a lot of Jewish subject matter in their work. Freedman, a New York Times religion columnist and professor at Columbia, wrote Jew Vs Jew: The Struggle For The Soul Of American Jewry, a staple in Contemporary Jewish American Literature classes. Cohen, a Chicago-bred bestselling author, has loaded up the non-fiction shelves of Judaica stores everywhere with his works, Israel Is Real, The Avengers, and Tough Jews.

Recently, both authors have turned their attention to the gridiron with Freedman's Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights and Cohen's Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football.

In the run-up to the New York/New Jersey Super Bowl, Freedman and Cohen will be speaking on January 28 at "Pigskin Is Kosher," an event co-hosted by Tablet Magazine and Gelf's Varsity Letters. Their discussion will be moderated by Jewish Jocks editor Marc Tracy. Prior to the event, the authors discussed some distinctly Jewish contributions to a distinctly non-Jewish game.

Sam Freedman: I don't know about you, Rich, but for a long time I've had a sense that to be a serious writer and also a football fan—as we both are—was to be kind of a renegade, or an oddball. It was OK to do narrative non-fiction about baseball or boxing, even tennis or golf, but football was always sniffed it, with a few rare exceptions like Frederick Exley or Dave Maraniss. Even Buzz Bissinger, who wrote one of the terrific football books in Friday Night Lights, now seems to want to ban the sport.

Rich Cohen: I felt no shame about the great game. It was everything when the cold weather came to Chicago. Which was at 2 pm every October 3. The fact that there have not been a surfeit of great football books seemed like an opportunity. The fact is, the market for baseball books is glutted. It's like hog futures: you want to unload 'em while there's time. Because of this, it seems to me that a lot of baseball books are not really about baseball—they're about other baseball books. It's a jam session that's been going on at least since Updike wrote the thing on the Splendid Splinter. With football, I felt you like really had a chance to write about the actual, the game itself, the big monsters going at it on the field. I don't want to ban football. I want to make it even more legal.

Sam Freedman: Since my birthday is October 3, I'm especially glad to be the equinox for cold weather and football. You're right about football feeling like a much bigger, open field for a writer to explore. The other thing I've found—and it really goes against the image of football players as a lot of dumb beef—is that the players and coaches I spoke to were almost universally smart and insightful. And I felt ratified in that observation when I happened to attend a barbecue a few summers ago where one guest was a sports psychologist who works with major pro and college teams. In the course of our chat, he told me that football as a sport had the brightest and most thoughtful players—because it's a team sport, in which nobody can really do a diva thing and so there's a built-in level of humility, and because the playbook is so extraordinarily complicated.

Rich Cohen: Actually, my book began with the same realization. I happened to talk to Doug Plank, who'd been my favorite football player when I was a kid. He played free safety for the Bears. He was a little guy—relatively speaking—but a ferocious hitter, one of the most violent in team history. He was known as the human missile. I got on the phone with him, half expecting some kind of inarticulate lunatic, and what I got instead was one of the best interviews of my life. Hyper-smart, great at explaining a game I thought I understood. He called football tackle chess. He said, "You can take all my pawns, but I tip over that king, I win." And who is the king? The quarterback. That's what makes football our greatest game. It's at once the most brutal and also the most violent. It's the sugar and salt that make it hum. Dick Butkus plus Gale Sayers.

Sam Freedman: Sugar and salt, great image, and it rings true for me, too. It was fascinating for me to talk to James Harris, who was prepared by Grambling's coach, Eddie Robinson, to become the first black quarterback in the NFL. Harris had to be so fiercely competitive on the field. Then he had to disprove all the racist stereotypes about a black player not being smart enough to be a quarterback. And then he had to be unflappable in the face of hostile media and fans. Dealing with the Doug Planks on the football field must've been easy in comparison to that kind of psychological juggling act. And if it's OK with you, I want to float a different question. Besides writing about (and loving) football, we've both written a lot about the Jewish experience. Did you find any places in the saga of the Bears where a Jewish angle or element came into play?

Rich Cohen: Well, of course, Sid Luckman comes to mind. He was the greatest Bears QB. He won several titles, and I think Jay Cutler finally broke his yardage record last year. His record of seven TD passes in a game has been tied, but never broken. And he did all this at a time when the pass was much less prevalent. Sid's success with the team really fits with the idea of stereotyping for position. George Halas, one of the guys who started the NFL and a great player and coach in his own right, working with his assistants, really invented the modern football offense. This was the modern T formation, with man in motion. For the first time, the QB would be reading defenses, calling audibles, and cycling through options as the walls caved in. Halas, seeing these plans, said, "My God, the quarterback will have to be another goddamn coach on the field." They experimented with it, but it was too complex. Seemingly no one could lick it. Finally, Halas figured something like, "Yeesh, you need to be as smart as a Jew to run the thing." So he went to Columbia—nod to you, Sam—and recruited Luckman, who, before college, had been a Brooklyn playground and public school legend at Erasmus Hall. That's one of the things I love about Halas. The man was really free of prejudice. Polish, Jewish, Asian, African-American—he cared only about one thing. Could you help the Bears win. A true meritocrat. Like the guys used to say about Lombardi: He treats us all the same—like dogs. In fact, the Bears had the first African-American quarterback, the perfectly named Willie Thrower, though few remember it. And speaking of Grambling: I seem to remember a TV movie of the week in which Bruce Jenner played a white kid trying to break the all-black squad fielded by Eddie Robinson.

Sam Freedman: Yes, that movie was "Grambling's White Tiger," with Jenner as Eddie Robinson's first white recruit. My book is mostly about the role the black college teams and coaches played in desegregating football—opening up the Southern white colleges to black players, getting a black quarterback and head coaches in the NFL—but it's also true the black colleges then began to get some white players. It's like a running joke now at the HBCUs that every team has to have a white kicker. I think Grambling may've had a Jewish kid from New York as a quarterback in the late 90s, long after my book is set. But there was an important Jewish element to what Eddie Robinson accomplished. During the heyday of black college football in the 50s and 60s, the major media, i.e. the white media, barely covered these teams. The great coach at Tennessee State, John Merritt, used to say that black college football was played "behind God's back." The first white journalist to pay any serious attention to Grambling was Jerry Izenberg, who wrote several magazine stories about the Tigers and got his friend and sometime collaborator Howard Cosell intrigued by Grambling. Cosell often had Eddie Robinson as a guest on his radio show, "Speaking of Sports," and he executive-produced a terrific documentary about Grambling that Izenberg wrote and filmed during the 1967 season, "100 Yards To Glory." (I wrote a piece for Tablet about all this a few months ago.) So these two northern Jews, who were both very sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement, were vital for Grambling getting some visibility outside the black community.

Rich Cohen: What we can agree on is that if you want to find out more about our books, football, Jews, or anything else, come out on January 28 to "Pigskin Is Kosher." Your rabbi will bless you for it.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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