Jewish Cowboy (and Packer)
Alan Veingrad spent seven seasons in the NFL as an offensive lineman, playing for the Green Bay Packers (1986-90) and then the Dallas Cowboys (1991-92) where he won a Super Bowl ring. Veingrad played nearly every position on the line, blocking for Emmitt Smith and protecting Troy Aikman. Smith presented Veingrad with a Rolex watch after the running back won the NFL rushing title.
Veingrad played alongside many Christians in the NFL and at East Texas State University in the heart of the Bible belt, but few of his teammates shared his Jewish heritage. As he put it: “In the rough and tumble environment of an NFL team, a Jew is an outsider.” Though he always considered himself a Jew, Veingrad didn’t embrace Orthodox Judaism until after he left professional sports.
Q: Tell me about your faith.
Veingrad: I was born Jewish. It was instilled in me at a young age that there is a God. The Jewish religion focuses a lot on family and holidays and getting together. I didn’t know a lot about the spirituality aspects of it. I couldn’t really talk about all the different holidays and what they mean until years after I started to look into it and I realized it is the most inspirational thing that I ever learned. It’s all about inspiration. Every holiday and every Shabbat there’s always a Torah portion associated with it. There’s so much inspiration. I thought it was all about history. God said to Moses this, Moses said to God that, and God said to Abraham this, Abraham said to God that. I didn’t know that there was inspirational messages sprinkled in throughout all aspects of Judaism. And as an athlete, I was focused on inspiration. As an athlete, I read books about inspiration. As an athlete, I listed to motivational tapes about inspiration, about motivation, about being positive. And now as an adult and starting to understand that Judaism is so focused on the positive, I said sign me up. The Torah is mine as a Jew. I want to know about it.
Q: Before you discovered religion as inspiration, you turned to other people for inspiration.
Q: Dallas Cowboys Coach Jimmy Johnson, did you find inspiration in his words?
Veingrad: Out of fear. You’re around great coaches, and I read great coaches' stories about how they’ve taken teams to championships and players that had become great players. It’s really ironic to me that as a high school athlete I listened to every motivational tape that I could get my hands on about Vince Lombardi, then I go on to play for the Green Bay Packers.
Q: When did Judaism become an inspiration for you?
Veingrad: I went to my cousin’s house for a traditional Friday night dinner and at that particular dinner he asks me, ‘Would you go to a Torah class?’ Out of obligation I said yes. So I went to my first Torah class a week later. It was a one hour Torah class. . . . It was during that class in this very wealthy doctor’s home in south Florida that first 59 ½ minutes of the one hour class, I was looking around the house, the chandeliers and the beauty of this house and the pool behind this house and the lake, thinking about the party I would have in this house if I owned this house. And the last 30 seconds of the class, the rabbi looked right at me, and he talked about materialism, and he talked about jealousy, and he talked about if you allow yourself you can become consumed with materialistic items, and then the rabbi stopped the class and my mouth was wide open. And I looked at the rabbi and I thought he knew exactly what I was thinking. I went to the rabbi afterward and said, ‘Rabbi, I really need to know a lot more about what you’re talking about. I don’t have any books on the Torah.’ He said, ‘Come back next week. I’ll bring you your first Torah book.’
I was raised like the majority of Jewish people in this country. You go to the synagogue, you become a bar mitzvah, and the bar mitzvah should be the entrance into Judaism. It was the exit out of Judaism for me, as it is with most Jews. . . . Okay, it’s this holiday or it’s that holiday, let’s have dinner together, let’s do this. But we didn’t focus on the spiritual aspect of the holiday. We just focused on the family getting together and the food. You tell me the holidays from 25 to,30 years with my family, I’ll tell you what we had to eat and that’s kind of where it stops. Now I can tell you what we had to eat, I can tell you a whole lot more about what the holiday means to the Jewish people and what does it mean to me, how I can become a better person.
Q: What’s the most misunderstood part of your faith?
Veingrad: That it’s rigid. That it’s a rigid way of living your lifestyle. That you’re being told what to do. It’s a battery pack. It gives you inspiration. It gives you focus. It gives you meaning in life. . . . Nobody can argue with me, and none of my friends would ever try, because I sat in their chair for 40 years. Now for four years I’ve sat in a different chair. I’ve experienced both aspects of life and I didn’t lose my mind. Nothing horrible happened to me. A lot of people come to faith because something happened to them. They lose a loved one. They lose their fortune. They go through a divorce. Nothing happened to me. I just felt as I was going to my rabbi’s house Friday night for the traditional Shabbat meal and I was driving with my family, and then on Saturday night I was going out with my friends and their wives and I was comparing the two ways of life. Friday night was so meaningful and so rich and so fun and so real and then Saturday night was so, what? What? What do we talk about? The next vacation you’re taking? That new car that you got? Your golf score? You’re going fishing and boating? Okay, there’s nothing wrong with all those things and I enjoy all of them. And I also like to go fishing and I like to exercise, and when I have the time I love taking my kids to Orlando to the theme park to do things like that with them. However, that is a very small part of life. The main focus of life is your relationship with God and growing toward that.
Q: Did anyone ever challenge your decision to make such a dramatic transformation from your previous life to the one you lead now?
Veingrad: They don’t. They tried a few years ago. Personal friends, they tried a few years to challenge me. But you challenge me when you’ve only lived one lifestyle. You don’t know what I do. You can’t. You don’t walk in these size 14 shoes. How can you challenge me? I don’t challenge them. I try to bring them with me. I try to invite them to my house for my Friday night meal and show them the beauty of Judaism. . . . People say, ‘Oh, you’re an extremist.’ The transformation, it was a very natural thing for me. The biggest struggle was living in between. . . . The Torah says this is what you’re supposed to do as a Jewish man, and I said, ‘Listen, I like it. This is what I’m going to do.’ So if someone tries to challenge me and say, ‘Why do you wear that yarmulke? You don’t have to wear the yarmulke.’ Or ‘You don’t have to have that big beard.’ Do I need to have a challenging discussion with them or do I just tell them I like it; it makes me feel good.
Q: What’s been the biggest test to your faith?
Veingrad: The biggest test? You’re going to ask me some tough questions.
Q: We can skip it and come back if you want.
Veingrad: Go ahead. I’ll think about that.
Q: I’m going to ask you some sports-related questions.
Veingrad: Uh oh.
Q: What role does God play in sports?
Veingrad: God has a role everywhere.
Q: So specifically in sports, what is God’s role?
Veingrad: What is his role? I tell you what his role was and what it is for me. The role for me was I played in the NFL for seven years. I won a Super Bowl ring then I retired from the game. I knew during my football experience that as a Jew, and we have very few of them in the NFL, that I had a message to tell the Jewish people. I didn’t know what the message was, but I knew deep down inside of me I had something to say. I wasn’t living any type of Jewish lifestyle. I was just a secular Jew like the majority of Jews in this country. . . . [A rabbi once asked him,] Shlomo, that’s my Hebrew name. I say, ‘Yes, rabbi.’ He goes, ‘Now that you know the life a Jew is supposed to live, a life of Torah and mitzvahs and doing good deeds and acts of kindness, would you have played in the NFL? I said, ‘Rabbi, you’re not going to like the answer to the question.’ I said, ‘Absolutely. I played in the NFL so I can tell these children here to learn the Torah and immerse themselves in learning, and that’s why I played in the NFL. I have a tool to bring people closer to Judaism.’
Q: When you were in the NFL was religion talked about in the locker room?
Q: Did you find that certain teams were more religious than others?
Veingrad: No. What I found, whether it was college, the Cowboys or the Packers, that every team, even in high school, always had a religious individual associated with the team. Whether it was Athletes in Action, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, there was always somebody associated with the team and kind of hung around the team and certain guys, and he would pretty much reach out to all the guys, and some guys would gravitate toward him and they would get together on a Wednesday night or a Thursday night for team study group or a Thursday night bible study class. Every team always had a religious component to it. And every hotel we stayed in, whether we were out of town or in town, we were always required to go to a hotel. After the team pregame meal, they would have a chapel service.
Q: Did you feel sort of left out of that, being Jewish?
Veingrad: Not really. Majority of guys weren’t involved in neither. Maybe a dozen guys would go. I don’t know how many would go.
Q: But you didn’t necessarily feel excluded?
Veingrad: My whole life I always had that kind of exclusion. High school there might have been other Jews on my high school football team, but there was no rabbi associated, no Judaism. There was a Fellowship of Christian Athletes who are a non-Jewish representative there to reach out to the population if you will. Same thing in college, same thing in the pros. . . . Before and after games, I would always say a prayer. The team would always get together and do a team prayer. They would say the Lord’s Prayer, before games and after games, in high school, in college and in the pros. I was generally the lone Jew.
Q: Did you feel uncomfortable doing that?
Veingrad: It was something that was always there. Guys said it or not, or what they said. I always said my own prayer. . . . Thank you God for not getting my neck broken today. Thank you God for giving me the opportunity to play a football game and not do something really, really bad to harm another player on my team.
Q: I think you’ve answered all my questions except for the one about what was the biggest test to your faith.
Veingrad: The biggest challenge is that there is so much that we have to do. In terms of the morning prayers, the afternoon prayers, and praying before we have a drink and after praying, it does take a long time to adjust to the time commitments.
Q: And the discipline I would think.
Veingrad: The discipline, I had the discipline as a football player. So I don’t think the discipline, the work ethic, the focus, the passion to Judaism, but the biggest challenge for me was juggling time. You always have to think. . . . I have to think about the logistics of, ‘Okay, will there be enough time for me to pray before I catch the flight?’ It takes about 45 minutes. You have to put on a tallis. You have to put on tefillin. . . . It’s a lot of time commitment. You have to think about your day. You have to plan your day. Especially for a returnee, which I am, a returnee to the Jewish religion. It doesn’t come as easily as someone who was born into the religion. They might not think about the things that I think about because to them it’s just natural.