Friday Night Lights
Cleveland Brown Mitchell Schwartz and his brother, Geoff, a Minnesota Viking, are Jewish boys in the NFL
During Geoff’s senior year, Mitch accompanied his brother to a few of his college visits. Coaches had a hard time distinguishing who was the freshman and who was the senior. “Recruits used to come to meetings every Friday to watch film,” recalled Oregon coach turned agent Deryk Gilmore. “Mitch comes first, and I’m like ‘Wow, what a big guy!’ His father’s like, ‘That’s the younger brother. His brother Geoff is even bigger.’ ”
“I was like, ‘We need to get this kid,’ ” Gilmore remembered thinking.
Geoff ended up signing with Oregon, and Mitch—still in high school—went on to rack up nearly every accolade the sport had to offer: L.A. City Offensive Lineman of the Year, Western League Lineman of the Year, and PrepStar All-West Region team.
Olivia managed to settle her stomach a little. “I started out worrying that they were going to get hurt—but then I realized it was the other players I should be worrying about. They were like trucks hitting small cars,” she said. “And I started to kind of feel like maybe this was their destiny.”
The jump between high school and college ball is a big one. Whereas there might be one other solidly built, feared player in high school, in Division I college football everyone is a solidly built, feared player. Arriving at Oregon, Geoff was one of the highest-rated and -conditioned line men in the league. Oregon started Geoff his freshman year, placing him in half a game against Washington State.
Meanwhile, Geoff was experiencing other battles for the first time as well: religion versus sports. “The hardest part for Geoff was what to do on high holidays when there were games,” Lee said. Growing up, the boys had observed all the Jewish holidays. As a freshman, Geoff’s second game of the year was on Yom Kippur, and he struggled with how to handle the holiday. Finally, he went to the offensive linesman coach, who was Greek Orthodox, who told Geoff to go to temple and fast.
But the battle got a lot harder sophomore year when Geoff was a starter. He decided to play. “Everyone talks about Sandy Koufax,” said his father. “But I think in some ways Koufax made it worse for other kids. When you’re Koufax, you can do what you want and no one says boo to you, but when you’re Geoff Schwartz at Oregon, and you say I’m not going to play, you’re treated differently.”
In the NFL today there are currently about seven Jewish players, says Bob Wechsler, the author of Day by Day in Jewish Sports. The problem, though, is determining what makes a player Jewish. “You’ll find out that one person has a Jewish parent, and you’ll get all excited, and then find out they follow Christianity,” said Wechsler. “You kind of want to ask the athletes: How Jewish are you?”
“In the football culture, it’s hard to miss a game for religion—especially when people don’t understand the religion,” added Geoff. Over the years, he found different ways to adapt. He would never miss a game or a practice—but he would leave a team meeting early to search out a synagogue in whatever city he was in. In 2008, Geoff was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the seventh round of the draft. He arrived in Charlotte, excited to meet his teammates, who were welcoming—and curious about this green-eyed, gentle giant with the shaggy beard.
“I got a lot of questions. They didn’t understand things about Judaism which to me are a no brainer,” Geoff said. “One kid asked if I celebrated Thanksgiving. I said, ‘Yes. I’m an American.’ But they just didn’t know.”
As Geoff was navigating his career, Mitch started looking at colleges. For him, choosing Cal Berkeley was an easy decision: “I knew going pro was a real possibility,” Mitch said. “I knew their offensive style would mesh well going into the pros. They also put a good number of guys in the NFL.” After red-shirting freshman year, Mitch started every game for the rest of his college career. Watching his brother, Geoff made a prediction to his father: Mitch is going to be a first- or second-round draft pick.
He was right. On April 27, the Schwartz family gathered in the family room of their West L.A. home. Their eyes were glued to the TV, waiting for Mitchell’s name to be called. Mitch’s cell phone rang during the fourth pick of the second round. Mitch picked it up, and “we started to see a smile on his face,” Lee said. “We’d never seen him look so happy.” The Cleveland Browns had decided to take Mitchell as their second pick. “We were ecstatic, just trying to contain ourselves while Mitch talked to the coaches,” Lee said.
Meanwhile, 2,500 miles away, Clevelanders were having very different reactions. At a draft party in Cleveland Heights, a suburb outside of Cleveland, jaws dropped at the team’s pick. “Who the fuck is Mitchell Schwartz?” one partygoer asked in disgust. “That sounds like my accountant’s name.”
Jake Iselin, the host of the party and a Browns season-ticket holder for the past eight years, was just as shocked. “I knew championship teams draft offense and defense early. I knew we needed to do that too,” he said. “But Mitchell Schwartz? There were, like, seven other guys who were rated higher than him.”
But Iselin, like many other Browns fans, soon changed their minds. “I was listening to Pat Kirwin and he was praising the pick,” Iselin told me. “He said you wait and see. The best thing by far the Browns have done is pick Mitchell Schwartz.” Kirwin noted that Schwartz was the most versatile offensive linesman in the whole draft. The Browns needed a right tackle and a suitable substitute for their pro-Bowl-playing left tackle. Schwartz was the only one on the field who could play both positions well.
At the end of May, Mitchell signed a $5.1 million dollar deal with the Browns, and Geoff signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings. The brothers, who consider each other their best friend, talk or text most days.
“I try to prepare Mitch mentally,” Geoff said. “He has the physical tools already. He’s probably going to start, and as a first year, there’s a lot more pressure on you. I’ve been helping him get settled in.”
Minnesota and Cleveland are not scheduled to play each other this season—and even if they did Mitchell points out, as offensive linesmen the brothers would never be on the field at the same time. But if circumstances changed, and Minnesota and Cleveland did compete against each other, Geoff would be a giant ball of nerves. “I get more nervous watching [Mitch] play than I do when I’m playing myself,” he said. “I guess I’d be nervous the whole game.”
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