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Tackling Antisemitism Through College Football

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avatar by David May

Opinion

A photo of David May. Photo: provided.

Sam Salz donning his jersey and his kippah on the sidelines of a Texas A&M game is a perfect counter to rising antisemitism. Ostensibly the first sabbath observant player in college football history, Salz took Jewish social media by storm.

I can relate to Salz’s experience. My journey to earning a spot as a kicker on the University of Maryland’s football team was unusual, considering I had never played organized football. I was captain of the soccer team at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland — a school without a football team.

Joining the Maryland football team in 2006 allowed me to engage with teammates of different religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. I also discovered that I was not the only Jew on the team. Senior Adam Podlesh, who would go on to punt in the National Football League, served as a mentor. Before games, which were played on Saturday, we wished each other a “Shabbat Shalom.”

Surprisingly, when I met Edwin Williams, a 300-pound African American lineman, he embraced me with a hearty “Ma Nishma?” — Hebrew for “what is going on?” An Israeli-American academic advisor for the team taught him some useful Hebrew phrases, and also advised players on how to spell their Hebrew-letter tattoos, which were mostly correct.

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But at my first game, I truly felt like an outsider. The team huddled in a circle in the locker room and took a knee. Suddenly, I felt a tug from behind me. Cornerback Adam Kareem, a Muslim teammate, pulled me to a side nook. He knew the drill. The team started in prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven” — the Lord’s prayer. Never having witnessed a Christian prayer circle, I didn’t know what to do. Seeing Adam mumbling a Muslim prayer, I did the only thing I could think of: I recited the “Sh’ma” with my eyes (and ears) closed next to my Muslim teammate.

The next culture shock came moments later. When running out of the tunnel to the field, players rubbed the nose of Testudo — the turtle statue by the field — for good luck. Concerned about the idolatrous implications of that action, I ran to the side and left Testudo’s nose unrubbed.

Before games, the locker room was filled with anxiety, tension, and energy. Most players got into the zone while listening to their iPods (this was before smartphones). One time, a lineman sitting next to me had taped on his gloves and needed help selecting a song. He grabbed my hand and tried to use it to change the song. But it was Shabbat, and I instinctively pulled my hand back — hard enough to overcome the lineman — so as not to desecrate the sabbath.

Some of the culture shocks were tougher than others. My teammates had a tough time getting over my Israeli nickname — Dudi. But there was the time someone drew a swastika on my locker. It was most likely a stupid prank because other lockers had racial and homophobic slurs drawn on them as well. In any case, the following day, coach Friedgen forcefully condemned the incident and made clear there was no room for racism on his team.

Antisemitism and my college football history resurfaced a few months ago at the beginning of the Kanye controversy. Torrey Smith, a two-time Super Bowl champion and a former teammate of mine, made a statement that propagated antisemitic tropes. I reached out to Torrey to chat and explain why his words were hurtful. We spoke for half an hour, and he later apologized. Being on the Maryland football team put me in a position to play a small part in combating antisemitism.

Perhaps my most memorable Jewish football moment came in 2008 at our bowl game in Boise, Idaho, over Hanukkah. Through Rabbi Eli Backman at the University of Maryland, I reached out to Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz, the Chabad rabbi of Boise. Unfortunately, my flip phone had no reception in Boise, and I had no way of contacting him.

One evening, I got a call in my hotel room. Someone was waiting for me in the lobby. I headed down and it was Rabbi Lifshitz with homemade latkes, sufganiyot, a hanukkiyah, and candles. I thanked the rabbi for his generosity. He then asked me if I wanted to go with him for a homecooked meal. Having the night off, I said, “Sure.”

His house was filled with delicious food, Hanukkah songs, and excited children. I showed them how to spin the football like a dreidel. Rabbi Lifshitz’s brother was in town to help with their Hanukkah celebrations, and they were huge football fans. The game was being played on a Wednesday, so I offered them my complementary tickets for friends and family.

We won the game 42–35 against a Nevada team led by Colin Kaepernick. After the game, Rabbi Lifshitz and his brother walked onto the field with the other guests of players. They thanked me for the tickets and wished me a “Happy Hanukkah.” In their black suits, white shirts, and tzitzit (corner fringes) hanging out, Rabbi Lifshitz and his brother went to Maryland quarterback Chris Turner (not Jewish) to ask for a picture. After the photo, Chris raised his helmet and shouted in celebration, “L’chaim!”

Salz will surely have his share of unique stories only possible for a Torah observant football player. And by wearing his helmet and his kippah, Salz is generating the incandescent Jewish pride that will continue to overcome the darkness of antisemitism.

David May was a placekicker for the University of Maryland football team from 2006–2009.

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