Friday Night Lights
Cleveland Brown Mitchell Schwartz and his brother, Geoff, a Minnesota Viking, are Jewish boys in the NFL
At 5:00 p.m. on a recent Friday, a gaggle of chatty teenagers in yarmulkes and tzitzit poured out of the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The students, from Blobstein’s Yeshiva in Monsey, N.Y., had traveled to Akron for the weekend to spend Shabbat with friends. While they were in Ohio, they figured they might as well stop by the museum. They liked football, and it was on their route.
“Hey,” an excited bystander yelled out to the boys. “Do you want to meet a Jewish professional football player?” Their eyes widened. “I didn’t know there was such a thing,” one of them said.
But there one was, right in the parking lot: 6-foot-5 Mitchell Schwartz, the Cleveland Browns’ rookie offensive linesman, who had come to pay homage to football’s greatest legends.
The group ran over to him. “Do you play quarterback?” a boy named Adam Feder asked.
“No,” Schwartz said, quietly. “I play offensive line.”
“Oh, that’s cool,” Feder replied. “Can I get your autograph?”
The group passed their camera phones to visitors to snap photo after photo of them with their new friend. Standing next to the high-school students, Schwartz looks as tall as a tree.
“I’m going to root for you in every game now,” 18-year-old Michael Blumenkrantz promised. “Except for when you play the Giants.”
“What’s your name again?” Feder asked.
“Schwartz … that’s easy to remember,” he said. Schwartz stood to the side, looking disconcerted by all the attention. “I didn’t expect this,” he noted.
He better start preparing for the limelight. Since being drafted in April for the Cleveland Browns, Mitchell and his older brother Geoffrey, who plays for the Minnesota Vikings, became the first pair of Jewish brothers to play in the NFL since Ralph and Arnold Horween in 1923. And for Jews looking for sports heroes, the Schwartzes offer excellent options: They are practicing Conservative Jews who took off school for Rosh Hashanah, and they have Hebrew names (Geoff’s is Gedalia Yitzhak, Mitchell’s is Mendel). They didn’t go out for pop warner as pre-teens, partly because their dad worried it would interfere with their bar mitzvah studies. Both still refer to their heritage as providing a moral compass.
“I like how Judaism focuses on the positive,” Geoff told me. “You do things not out of fear of something bad happening to you, but because you want to do good, for its own sake.” His brother echoed him: “It teaches you about being a good person in society—how to be a good family member and community member,” Mitch said.
But for most of the boys’ careers, Judaism has just been a secondary trait—like the dirty-blondness of their hair: something that was a natural part of them but not something they spent a lot of time pondering. Growing up the boys were athletes. Their focus was on getting better, getting focused, getting to the pros. They are surprised now to wake up and find themselves role models.
Olivia Goodkin and Lee Schwartz should have known the direction their life would take, since their first meeting was at a UCLA softball game in 1974. Schwartz was playing first base, and there was something about his serious stance, sandy blond hair, and blue eyes that caught Goodkin’s attention. Together, they made a striking pair. Olivia stood at 5’10”, with flowing blonde hair and a dancer’s legs. Lee was over 6’1 1/2”, with the solid build of an athlete. Both of them came from tall families.
But Judaism was something else that bonded them; Lee came from an observant Conservative home, Olivia was a “cultural Jew,” but neither of them had ever dated anyone who wasn’t Jewish. “My father was an atheist,” Olivia told me recently. “He taught me about Darwinism. I didn’t know there were Jewish holidays besides Passover and Hanukkah.” She yearned for more meaning. When the couple married on Sept. 4 1977, they pledged to make Judaism a central part of their lives.
“I wanted my children to have a religious upbringing,” says Olivia. “I think it’s helpful in life to have faith and ritual and community. I wanted to give them a foundation that was lacking in my own life.”
Nine years later, in July of 1986, Olivia gave birth to Geoffrey. He weighed 9 pounds 7 ounces. In 1989, Mitchell arrived at 8 pounds 12 ounces. Their differing personalities emerged from an early age. “Geoff was outgoing and verbal,” Olivia explained. “Mitchell was quieter, able to amuse himself.” But they were both big—and growing bigger by the day. At 4, they looked like they were 6. At 6, like 8.
Olivia began to worry. One day she told them that, unfair as it was, they had to live by a different code than their friends. Afraid that their children might inadvertently hurt one of their friends during a scuffle, the Schwartz parents raised Geoff and Mitch not to be aggressive—and to not fight back when provoked. “My mom told me that I have to act older than I was, because I look older than I am,” Geoff remembered recently.
And so they grew up playing noncontact sports—baseball and basketball. These games became their outlet, the place where they felt most comfortable—where their size was an asset and not purely a gossip point. And they were good, playing on the Little League All Star teams.
Football had never been a thought until one day when 14-year-old Geoff came to his parents and told them he wanted to try out for the team. Olivia panicked—“I worried I’d be a bad Jewish mother [if I let him play]”—but Lee’s thoughts floated back to his own high-school experience. “I grew up in the generation where Jewish mothers never allowed their children to play football,” he explained. “On the first day of P.E. class in high school, the football coach called out to me: ‘Schwartz, you gonna play football this year?’ There was no way I was going to tell him my mother said I couldn’t play. So I said, ‘Naah, I’m going to stick with baseball and basketball.’ He called me a pussy, but it would have been a lot worse if I’d told him my mother said I couldn’t play.” There was no way Lee was going to be the reason his own son had the same experience.
Pacific Palisades Charter High School is a public high school, located a half mile from the beach in Los Angeles County. Its football stadium is nicknamed the Stadium by the Sea, because you can see the ocean from the bleachers, and it’s known as the real-life setting of the Sweet Valley High School novels and as the background for the movie Old School, starring Will Ferrell. The school’s football team, the Pacific Palisades Dewey Dolphins, was not particularly great. “I think we went 1 and 8 my first year, 1 and 9, my second year,” I was told by Jason Blatt, the former varsity coach.
None of this bothered Geoff, who was happy to put on his Dolphins uniform—even if he had no real idea what he was doing. His primary football instruction up to that year came from his father’s commentary on the UCLA football games they attended every Saturday since Geoff was a small child. But by his sophomore year, Geoff dug into the game, spending lunchtime with his coach, and working out on the weekend with a trainer. He started to learn the pattern and rhythm of the game and how agile foot technique factors into winning.
By junior year, he was a starter on the offensive and defensive lines. Coaches began to base their whole game plans around Geoff, who was 6’7” and as solid as a brick house. “Our strategy was basically to run the ball behind Geoff the whole time,” Blatt said. “That was our basis for his last two years. He was such a dominant force in there, moving guys out of the way so our running back could get some major yards.” At the end of Geoff’s junior year, he began getting recruitment letters from places like UCLA, Oregon, and Stanford. But he still had a year left at Pacific Palisades—and he knew of one other person who could really help their team: his brother.
The only problem was that Mitch had no desire to play football. He was quite content playing baseball. “I didn’t see the reason to start another sport,” he told me. So, Geoff, Lee, and the coaches conspired to bribe Mitch—by offering him the part of quarterback.
The lure of playing the starring role of the team was enough to get Mitch to practice. Mitch, as his brother suspected, turned out to be a natural at the game. “Geoff had a real blue-collar approach to the game, it was all about working hard,” says coach Kelly Loftus. “With Mitch, he didn’t have to go out of his way. He studied film and read.” He was also perceptive—even about himself. He played quarterback for exactly one week before switching to offense and defense. “Mitch was a smart kid,” Lee said. “He knew watching the game who he was—and quarterback was just not in his future.”
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