Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Ex-NFL player goes from shoulder pads to prayer shawl

Ex-NFL player goes from shoulder pads to prayer shawl
Shlomo Veingrad's broad shoulders are wrapped in a prayer shawl, and
at six-foot-five, he towers over the other Orthodox Jewish
congregants at the Coral Springs Chabad. He hoists the heavy Torah
scroll over his head with ease: Those same long, mighty arms spent
seven years shoving aside NFL defensive linemen to clear space for
Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith.
As an offensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas
Cowboys from 1986 to 1993, Alan Veingrad, 44, a Miami Sunset High
grad, wore giant shoulder pads under his jersey. Now, his
undergarments are ''tzitzit'' -- knotted fringes that serve as a
reminder of his commitment to Judaism.

Back then, before he wore a yarmulke on his head, before he grew a
long, thick beard, before he kept kosher, he studied playbooks
instead of scriptures. His inspiration was Jimmy Johnson; his most
prized possession was his Super Bowl ring.

That Super Bowl was in 1993, and it would be his last. Newly married
and his body aching from Johnson's ''bloodbath'' practices, Veingrad

But like many professional athletes who become reliant on built-in
structure and motivation from coaches, Veingrad felt lost when the
cheering stopped. An Orthodox cousin invited him for Sabbath dinner,
and thus began his metamorphosis. After spending most of his life in
a violent, macho world where men bragged about material possessions
and sexual escapades, Veingrad was intrigued by the simpler, gentler
Orthodox way of life.

He went to Israel and came back wearing a yarmulke and calling
himself by his Hebrew name, a man transformed.

''I'm one of those guys who was always starved for inspiration, had
every Vince Lombardi book, Zig Ziglar tapes, and I realized the Torah
was not a boring history book, but a very inspirational guide to
life,'' Veingrad said. ``It's a battery pack. The more I learned, the
deeper I wanted to go. I wanted real Judaism, authentic, not watered
down. I don't do anything watered down.''

Local Hasidic rabbis say his bigger-than-life appearance and his
engaging personality make him an inspiration.

''He has been able to channel that dedication and commitment he had
for football to Judaism while living in a very secular environment,''
said Rabbi Schneur Kaplan of the Fort Lauderdale Downtown Chabad.

``People are drawn to him because he played in the NFL, won a Super
Bowl, he's a guy people can relate to and he has a powerful message
not just for Jews, but for all people, that it's possible to live in
this world and find time for faith and family. People see me, a
rabbi, and think I don't understand them. A football player is a real
guy, and that captivates people.''

Said older brother Steve Veingrad, a Miami-Dade police officer: ``I
was shocked at first, thought it was like a cult, but now I see he's
found happiness and tranquillity, and I'm proud of him.


``He went from Super Bowl to Super Jew. His new life isn't really for
me, but in December I did buy myself a little mezuzah [doorpost
prayer scroll] that I wear on a chain around my neck, under my
uniform. He opened my mind.''

The old Veingrad's perfect Saturday was spent with beer and buddies
watching college football. Now, he walks to synagogue for Sabbath
services with his family. Veingrad fully observes the day of rest --
which means no driving, cellphone, television, cooking and no
flipping light switches. He spends the day praying, studying and
bonding with his three children.

Veingrad was born Jewish and had a bar mitzvah at age 13 at Temple
Zion in Kendall. Like many secular Jews, his family lit Sabbath
candles on occasion, went to High Holy Day services twice a year, but
that was about it. ''The bar mitzvah should be an entry to Judaism,
and for me it was an exit,'' he said.

Though he wasn't religious, he felt excluded at times.

One of the few Jewish players at Sunset High, Veingrad would bow his
head in silence when Fellowship of Christian Athletes representatives
led the team in the Lord's Prayer before practice and games.

''It never bothered me because it was something you were used to
hearing if you were a football player,'' he said. Later, in his
college days at East Texas State, ``most of my teammates were from
the Bible Belt and had never met a Jewish person.''

Veingrad said he never experienced anti-Semitism on the football
field. His teammates at college, now known as Texas A&M at Commerce,
invited him to fish and ride horses on their ranches. A few years
ago, he was inducted into the school's Sports Hall of Fame, and they
rescheduled the ceremony to accommodate his Sabbath observance.

During his tryout for the college team, Veingrad admits, he pulled a
fast one on the coaches in the 40-yard dash. When the coach with the
stopwatch turned his back to walk toward the finish line, Veingrad
took a gigantic step forward.

''Ready, Set, Go!'' the coach yelled. Veingrad just made the required
time of 4.9 seconds and got a scholarship. He and coach Ernest
Hawkins would laugh later about his 39-yard dash.

''He was a tall, skinny kid, pretty good speed and strength,''
Hawkins recalls. ``He had good intelligence and was a real hard

Veingrad considered the NFL an unrealistic goal. But an assistant
coach said NFL scouts would like his long arms and height. He kept
working out and bulking up and got what looked like a break -- the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed him as a free agent in 1985. He was cut
10 days later. Another tryout with the Houston Oilers ended the same

Veingrad bided his time as a student-coach at East Texas State,
finishing his degree. Then the Packers called, and this tryout led to
five years in Green Bay -- during which he started ahead of Tony
Mandarich, a hotshot young lineman.

He signed as a free agent with the Cowboys in 1991 for $1.4 million.

Always one of the first to arrive at synagogue, Veingrad credits
coach Johnson for his punctuality.

''If the meeting started at 7 o'clock, you were expected to be there
at 6:50,'' Veingrad said. ``Jimmy said if you got there right at
7 . . . you couldn't switch from cutting up in the hallway with your
friends to being in the mind-frame for a meeting. I bring that lesson
to the religious world.

``If showing up for meetings with Jimmy Johnson 10 minutes ahead of
time was important, how much more important is showing up early to
shul [synagogue] to meet with the King of all Kings, God Almighty?''

Johnson hasn't seen the new Veingrad, slimmed 60 pounds to 225 from
his playing days, but he isn't surprised the former Cowboy is taking
his new calling seriously.

''Alan was a very intelligent player who gave outstanding effort, and
he became valuable because he was versatile and could play any
position on the line,'' Johnson said. ``Had he not been intelligent
and not tried hard, he wouldn't have made it in the NFL.''


He insists he doesn't miss being a pro -- and rarely even watches
football anymore. As for his Super Bowl ring, he wears it only for
speaking engagements and important business meetings.

``I loved the games, the challenge, the competition. I was a very
intense player, and I loved Sundays. There is nothing like it, can't
replace that feeling of coming out of a tunnel in Green Bay,
beautiful blue sky, 50 degrees, the smell of beer and brats in the

``I get a charge from different things now.''

Veingrad was divorced from the mother of his three kids a few years
ago and re-married Chaya, who is also Orthodox, last month. He works
for Silverhill Financial, a commercial mortgage lending company,
during the week.

On the side, he travels the country giving speeches, mostly to Jewish

``When I speak at Anytown USA and tell my story and people come up
later and say they're going to change their lives, that's not a game.
That's real life.''

Veingrad's father, Leo, was uneasy with his son's Orthodox life at
first. When Shlomo invited him to Shabbat dinner and services, he
politely declined, saying, ``That's for you; it's not for me, son.''

But he had started to come around by the time he died three years
ago. He gave a $100 donation to his son's synagogue, and even more
telling was something he said.

'My dad said, `Son, I was really proud of you as a football player
with that Packers and Cowboys helmet on your head, but I'm prouder of
you with the yarmulke on your head,' '' Veingrad said, stroking his
flowing beard. ``Amazing.''

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