Hebrew in the huddle

As kickoffs go, the opening play of last Friday’s game
between Big Blue and the Pioneers was unexceptional –
the only indication of any greater significance being
that it ended, in what was undoubtedly a first for an
American tackle football league, with a Levi tackling
a Levy.

Minutes into the Israel Football League’s inaugural
game on an unseasonably warm November afternoon at
Jerusalem’s Kraft Stadium, one of the more than 200
mostly American immigrants in attendance soaked in the
sound of shoulder pads crunching against churning
thighs as if listening to a long-lost rock’n’roll
album he had just rediscovered at the back of his
closet. ‘Wow,’ he said, turning to his friend and
nodding with satisfaction, ‘it really brings you back
to high school, doesn’t it?’

As Big Blue’s Moshe Horowitz sprinted across the
artificial grass, bouncing off would-be tacklers on
his way to scoring the first touchdown in IFL history,
his thoughts, too, turned to high school –
specifically, to the first time he scored for the prep
school outside of Philadelphia that introduced him to
the game of tackle football a dozen years ago.

‘To this day, I remember that touchdown,’ Horowitz
would later recall with noticeable glee. ‘It was a
busted play going to the right… I cut back to the
left and sprinted 70 yards into the end zone, where I
spiked the ball.’

Back at Kraft Stadium, Horowitz ran around or though
Hasharon’s defense while Jerusalem galloped to a 48-16
victory over the Pioneers. But the final score hardly
mattered. For both teams, just playing was cause for
celebration.

‘A lot of us have waited for this for so long,’
Horowitz said afterward. ‘For me, and for the guys who
grew up with this game and played it when we were
younger, the opportunity to play in pads again is
really precious.’

For players like Horowitz’s Big Blue teammate Greg
Tepper, who is originally from the Washington DC area,
the IFL is an opportunity to relive the fleeting
thrills and glory of a game they thought had passed
them by.

‘Once you finish high school, if you’re not playing in
college, that’s it. It’s over,’ Tepper said. ‘So, to
be playing football in Israel is great. When I moved
here 10 years ago, I never thought it would happen.
Besides, most guys my age don’t get to play.’

To clarify, it is possible to play football here, but
for most that means flag football – a simplified
version of the game that involves only minimal contact
– and no one, until now, has played in helmets and
pads.

‘Flag football is a good way to play and learn the
game without all the physicality… but if you’re a
bigger, more powerful player, flag football can be
frustrating,’ Horowitz said. ‘Tackle is the real
thing.’

ALMOST HALF of those on Big Blue are originally from
the US. But the Jerusalem team is the exception that
proves the rule: Of the 86 players on the league
rosters, only 22 percent were born in North America.
Most IFL players, actually, are sabras who were
introduced to American football only recently – guys
like Ben Friedman of the Haifa Underdogs, who became
enamored of the sport in the 12th grade, when an
American friend invited him to play a pickup game.

‘When I scored a touchdown while carrying three guys
on my back, I said to myself, ‘Now, this is something
I could really enjoy!” Friedman said.

In Haifa and in Tel Aviv, a number of other sabras,
similarly smitten by the sport, had been playing
regular tackle football games, albeit without any
safety equipment. Two years ago, they organized
themselves into the Israel Football League. To take
their project to the next level, they approached Steve
Leibowitz of American Football Israel, which runs a
thriving program for flag football.

In March, Leibowitz and AFI agreed to organize and
subsidize the IFL, on the condition players use the
full compliment of helmet and pads. Eric Amkraut, a
former head strength and conditioning coach at Rutgers
University who had recently made aliya, agreed to
become the league’s commissioner, referee and primary
coach. Again, though, the use of pads was an
imperative.

‘My initial concern was safety,’ Amkraut said.
‘Football is not merely a contact sport, it’s a
collision sport. You have to be concerned about neck
and spinal cord injuries.’

The players agreed, assuming the costs of the
equipment. Even with a favorable price negotiated with
football equipment company Adams, that meant about
$400 out of the pockets of every player. The players
were also required to pass a physical exam and take
out an insurance policy at a cost of another $100.

From there, things moved pretty quickly. The Jerusalem
team was created from local flag football players and
those who answered a call for open tryouts. That
rounded out the four-team league, with Mike’s Place
Tel Aviv Sabres, Dancing Camel Hasharon Pioneers and
Real Housing Haifa Underdogs. Amkraut spent time with
each team, teaching football basics until the safety
equipment arrived.

During Succot, the league held a three-day clinic at
the Baptist Village sports facility in Petah Tikva
with the help of a pair of coaches brought in from
Tennessee. Having spent months learning how to tackle,
how to block, how to shed blocks, etc., the players
were eager to finally don their protective gear.

‘It was like army recruits’ first day at the induction
center,’ Leibowitz recalled with a laugh. ‘We did
everything from showing the guys how to put on their
jockstraps to how to strap on their helmets.’

With every strap and pad in place, the players were
finally able to line up for some real action.

‘Hearing Hebrew in the huddle,’ Amkraut said, ‘gave me
the chills.’

WEARING UNIFORMS, however, did not make for uniform
skills.

‘Initially, there was a huge gap in knowledge between
the experienced players and the younger players,’
Horowitz explained. ‘Some of the guys who tried out
for the league had never even seen the game before.’

‘Israelis make up the majority of the league and,
while some of these guys know the rules, formations
and positions, other guys have only seen football once
or twice on TV,’ added Tepper. ‘It’s a process with
some of these guys… but we are learning everything
together as a team. The guys who do know have been
very patient. And the native Israelis are very
enthusiastic.’

Those accustomed to American football will find the
IFL game smaller in most respects. The field, instead
of being 100 yards long, is 60 yards long. The
quarters, instead if being 15 minutes, last for 12
minutes. Play is eight-on-eight rather than 11-on-11.

And most of the players, instead of being hulking
athletes, average around 75 kilograms. Some players
are little more than 50 kg.

‘At first I was really worried about the smaller
guys,’ said Horowitz. ‘I thought that when they
started getting tackled, they would figure they had
made a mistake in coming out to play. But the funny
thing is that the opposite happened – the more they
got hit, the more they liked it.’

What isn’t smaller in the Israeli game is the players’
passion.

Friedman said that football was ‘like a virus, once
it’s in your blood you can’t stop. Until I’m forced to
hang up the cleats and I can’t play anymore, I’ll keep
playing. If I have to die somewhere, I would prefer it
would be on the football field.’

That’s a bit dire, even for football. But Friedman has
already suffered for the game.

‘In my first game as a quarterback, I tore my ACL
[anterior cruciate ligament in the knee],’ he said.
‘My doctor told me I would have to either undergo
reconstructive surgery or stop playing football. I
told him I’d stop, but I had no intention of actually
doing so.’

Friedman, 26, who has little interest in soccer or
rugby, tries to recruit fellow sabras to football, but
said the process can be ‘painfully slow.’

‘You have to fight the Israeliness of the guys,’ added
Dori Reichman of the Pioneers. ‘They’re used to
passing a ball back and forth. Running with the ball
takes some time to learn. In general, learning this
game takes discipline, and Israelis aren’t so
disciplined.’

Even so, Reichman noted, ‘There is a whole generation
of kids who can’t wait to reach the minimum age to
play. And I get requests all the time from people who
want to join the league.’

Alfred Kour of Tel Aviv is one of Reichman’s newest
disciples. Looking exhausted but invigorated after
Hasharon’s loss to Jerusalem, Kour explained what drew
him to the American sport: ‘People think this is just
a violent game, but there’s so much technique to it.
There’s strategy behind every play.’

‘Plus, it’s a hell of a way to get into shape. Look at
me,’ said the less-than-svelte Kour, ‘a few months
ago, I weighed 132 kg. Now I’m down to 106. Here,’ he
gestured with his cellphone and broke into a
mischievous smile, ‘call my wife and ask her how this
game has affected me physically.’

NOT ONLY has the game attracted native Israeli Jews,
but even a few Arab players have joined the ranks.

Marwan Sima’an of Nazareth, who is studying at the
Hebrew University in Jerusalem, joined Big Blue. When
Tepper broke his arm only days before the season
opener, Sima’an stepped in and took his place in the
starting lineup.

‘I have loved American football ever since I was a
little kid, when I saw a game on METV,’ he said after
a recent practice. ‘I love the fact that you get to
smack into people and let out your aggression – but
it’s also a sport that is intellectually challenging.’
When a friend told him about the IFL, Sima’an had
already been searching the Internet for American
football in Israel. He e-mailed the league for more
information, tried out for the Jerusalem team and was
accepted.

‘At first, I was afraid I wouldn’t know what to do. I
know the game and its rules, but I didn’t know things
like jargon, and what to do in the huddle,’ he said.
‘But I wasn’t embarrassed to ask questions, so I
started to learn. I had no idea what to do as a
linebacker, but when we were doing tackling drills,
they told me I was good at tackling. So I started
playing linebacker, and when Greg broke his arm, I
took his place.’

Sima’an’s friends and family support his decision to
play, he said. ‘They’re waiting for the day when we
play in Haifa so they can watch me play.’

A Christian Arab from Nazareth playing on a team of
largely religious Jewish players in Jerusalem might
seem like a big deal. To the team, said Sima’an, it
isn’t.

‘The fact that I’m an Arab made me worry at first that
they wouldn’t accept me. But very quickly it became
clear that it wasn’t an issue. The guys are good guys
and there’s no trouble. To this day, I’ve never been
exposed to any of the ugliness that there has been,
for example, in the national soccer league. Now, some
of my Arab friends want to play, too. This is real
coexistence.’

‘You can find enthusiasm for football among religious,
secular, Arabs and Jews. This league is open to
everyone,’ Tepper said. ‘I don’t care who anyone is or
what their creed is, if someone wants to come out and
play football, I’m psyched for that.’

SO, THE IFL players are eager, they’re dedicated,
they’re inclusive and they’re tolerant. But are they
any good? Judging by the season opener, they’re no
worse than some American high-school teams.

‘Some of us were afraid there would be 10 offsides
penalties, or that someone would start running the
wrong way on the field,’ Horowitz said. ‘The level of
play, though, has been pretty good. And it has already
gotten so much cleaner, from the preseason exhibition
to the season opener.’

‘Every day that our players are out on the playing
field, they’re growing, and their level of knowledge
is growing exponentially,’ said Amkraut. ‘We are ahead
of where I thought we’d be. And, I guarantee that the
games people will see in February will be better than
the ones they’ll see in November.’

Beyond the novelty and fun factor of all the IFL, yet
to be seen is where all this will lead. What is
Israel’s tackle football potential?

‘You will know we have made it as a league when we
have our first player on an NCAA roster… and I can
tell you that we have some players who have that as a
goal,’ said Amkraut. ‘Now, are we there yet?
Absolutely not. But in three to five years, I have no
doubt that we could have a player at a [small]
school.’

Similarly, Leibowitz said, ‘Spain has 15,000 tackle
football players. Tons of small towns in Germany have
teams. Sweden has players on American college teams.
Can that happen for us eventually? We hope so.’

While the IFL players practice their touchdown
celebration dances, Amkraut and Leibowitz aspire to
steadily increase the number of teams in the league,
move up to 11-on-11 play and full-size fields. They
believe they can accomplish all this, along with
establishing a quality youth division to serve as a
sort of developmental league, within five years.

‘Our players have a sense of being part of something
new, but also of building something larger for the
long term,’ Amkraut says. ‘We expect to have a place
in the pantheon of Israeli sports. And I think that’s
realistic.’

(BOX #1) No Friday night lights for these footballers

In America, Friday nights in autumn belong to high-
school football. In Israel, the drama of soccer, the
king of national sports, is played out on Friday
nights and Saturday afternoons. The IFL almost
followed suit – but in the end decided, like Walter
Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, not to roll on Shabbat.

‘This year, in the initial draft of the schedule, we
had six Shabbat games out of the 18 games in the
regular season, but we later cut that down to three,’
said league organizer Steve Leibowitz.

‘I didn’t realize how much flak I would get from fans,
asking why we were sanctioning a league where games
are played on Shabbat. My answer has been that that’s
the norm around the country, that that’s the norm of
the guys who have been playing tackle football the
past few years. I mean, when Haifa plays Tel Aviv,
none of those guys is religious. Saturday is the day
that is most convenient for them. Why should I dictate
to them that their league should be shomer Shabbat?
But I came to the conclusion, after a lot of
consultation, that we have to limit [Shabbat play],
and maybe even eliminate it altogether. We’ve taken a
policy decision to eliminate [Shabbat play] by next
season.

‘It’s hard, because on the one hand, my organization
is running things, but on the other hand, these are
existing teams and I don’t want to dictate to them
every aspect of what they do. But I do think that
religious fans have a right to see the games. I don’t
want it to be impossible for them.’

Big Blue, the newcomer to the league, is a big part of
that. Although not everyone on the team is observant,
Leibowitz said, ‘Jerusalem is a shomer Shabbat team;
all but one of the observant players in the league are
playing for the Jerusalem team.’

He noted, as well, that the flag football leagues run
by American Football in Israel – half of which are
made up of yeshiva students from overseas – do not
play on Shabbat. Also, he said, when Israeli national
teams play in international competitions, they do not
play on Shabbat.

(BOX #2) A replay of this summer’s baseball league? No
way, says the IFL

In talking with players and organizers about what
makes the Israel Football League what it is,
discussion inevitably turns to the Israel Baseball
League, which opened this past summer to much fanfare.
It’s only natural: They both involve uniquely American
sports, they appeal especially to American immigrants
and they began play within a few months of each other,
with roughly equivalent roster sizes. But that, the
football folks insist, is where the similarities end.

To start with, the football players are all amateurs;
they receive no compensation for playing. The baseball
players, by contrast, were paid $2,000 and housed in a
dormitory during their eight-week season. Whereas
several of the baseball players recruited to play here
this past summer hoped to use the experience as a
springboard to America’s more advanced professional
leagues, IFL players are playing – they say this
sincerely, without hyperbole – for the joy of it.

‘This is not about playing for money, or for the
chance to play in college,’ notes Jerusalem running
back Moshe Horowitz. ‘It’s a chance to play a great
game, to do something you really care about. It’s
personal.’

Unlike the baseball league, which hired Jewish former
Major League heroes to coach the teams, the football
league has made no attempt to involve the handful of
Jews who have played in the NFL. Neither has the IFL
hired a full-time PR consultant or made much of an
effort to commercialize the league. As yet, there are
no IFL memorabilia on offer at the games or on-line.

‘We are a non-profit association,’ stresses American
Football in Israel president Steve Leibowitz, who
heads the IFL management. ‘The only person on salary
on this is the commissioner, who is paid by the AFI.
The total budget for our entire first season is about
NIS 120,000. We have a league sponsor in Fieldturf,
which paid $5,000, and each of the teams is sponsored.
But that’s about it.’

The IFL does not try to gain exposure for itself by
broadcasting its games on the Sports Channel, like the
IBL did in the first part of its season. The cost of
producing each game would be around $5,000, Leibowitz
says, and ‘I don’t have that.’

The biggest difference between the two leagues,
though, is in the athletes. The baseball players were
almost all foreigners whose sole connection to the
cities they supposedly represented was in the names
printed on their jerseys. The footballers are all
Israelis, playing in front of their family and
friends.

‘None of us is going home in two or three months to
their home country,’ notes Greg Tepper of Big Blue.

The two leagues have taken divergent approaches, one
recreating a risky business, the other recreating
scenes from American high schools. To be honest,
neither is guaranteed to work.

‘My ultimate goal is not to sell tickets to
spectators, or to sell merchandise to spectators,’
Leibowitz concludes. ‘What we want is to get a tackle
football league off the ground and get it to rise to
whatever its natural level is – not to take something
from over there [in America], plunk it down and say,
‘Look at this!’ I think that if we do it step by step,
it’ll succeed.’

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