GEOFF AND MITCHELL SCHWARTZ

Let’s be honest.

No male of the Jewish faith plays in the National Football League.

Why would one? How could one?

This would be the dictionary definition of an oxymoron.

It is patently absurd. It defies logic, rational thought.

Owners? Certainly. Executives? Of course. Coaches? Ask Sid Gillman. Or Marv Levy. Marc Trestman. There have been a handful.

But players?

Well, please forgive me for my uninformed and off-base rant, steeped in and dripping with stereotype. I sincerely apologize.

To Benny Friedman for starters.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1905 Friedman was elected (posthumously) to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in February of 2005 and inducted that August. Named one of the 300 Greatest Players of All-Time by Total Sports: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League, he was also elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, the University of Michigan Hall of Honor, the State of Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

I feel like a bit of a fool.

Because Benny Friedman was not alone; hardly.

He was the leader of the pack (1927–1934) and it is widely acknowledged that as football’s first great forward passer, he revolutionized both the college and professional games. Football moved from a three- yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust running strategy to the modern pass-and-run, courtesy of his right arm.

And Michigan Stadium, known as The Big House, was built in 1926 with Friedman’s remarkable gridiron exploits credited for catalyzing the “need.” Today’s largest capacity stadium in the country holds 109,901 (a palindrome to boot).

Apologies to many others would be in order as well.

To wit: Sid Luckman, “The Master of the T-Formation” (1939–1950); Marshall Goldberg (1939–1948); Ron Mix (1960–1972); Gary Wood (1964–1969); Lyle Alzado (1971–1985); Randy Grossman (1974–1981); Andre Tippett (1982–1993); John Frank (1984–1989); Adam Schreiber (1984–1999); Alan Veingrad (1985–1992); Bill Goldberg (1990–1995); David Binn (1994–2011); Josh Miller (1994–2008); Jay Fiedler (1994–2006); Noah Cantor (CFL 1995–2006); Josh Taves (1995–2002); Scott Slutzker (1996–2000); Lennie Friedman (1999–2008); Mike Rosenthal (1999–2007); Andrew Kline (2000–2003); Sage Rosenfels (2001–2012); Kyle Kosier (2002–2011); Hayden Epstein (2002); Adam Goldberg (2003–2011); Mike Seidman (2003–2007); Igor Olshansky (2004–2011); and Geoff Schwartz (2008–2016).

Then of course there are the active players.

The American Jewish Historical Society named New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman (2009-) the fourth-best Jewish NFL player of all time behind Luckman, Mix and Friedman all of whom competed well before Edelman was born.

Alzado, Ed Newman, Harris Barton, Harry Newman, Fiedler and Kosier round out — in order — the Society’s top ten.

Antonio Garay (2003-); Greg Camarillo (2005-); Adam Podlesh (2007-); Brian de la Puente (2008-); Erik Lorig (2010-); Taylor Mays (2010-); Gabe Carimi (2011-); Nate Ebner (2012-); and Mitchell Schwartz (2012-) all no doubt yearn to be considered as candidates for such accolades.

In the Fall of 2012 Geoff and Mitchell Schwartz became the first pair of Jewish brothers to play in the National Football League since Ralph and Arnold Horween in 1923. The Horweens were All-Americans at Harvard and were members of the undefeated (but once-tied) 1920 Crimson team which won the Rose Bowl. Both men played professionally for the Racine and then Chicago Cardinals and in fact were saluted in an excerpt from the Schwartz brothers’ book entitled, “Eat My Schwartz.

The Schwartz boys know a thing or two about eating and are blessed with plenty of size — together they measure almost 13 feet tall and well over a quarter-of-a-ton. (Older brother Geoff is 6’6” tall and weighs 340 lbs.; Mitchell is 6’5” and 320 lbs.).

They are practicing conservative Jews with Hebrew names; Geoff’s is Gedalia Yitzhak and Mitchell’s is Mendel. Both were bar mitzvahed and each to this day honor their heritage, grateful for the moral compass it provides.

Says Geoff, “I like how Judaism focuses on the positive. You do things not out of fear of something bad happening to you, but because you want to do good, for its own sake.”

Echoing his older brother, Mitchell added, “It teaches you about being a good person in society — how to be a good family member and community member.”

The brothers learned how to be good at an early age because physically they dwarfed their peers from day one and unfair as it may have been, they were taught by their parents that they had to live by a different credo than their friends.

Turn the other cheek when provoked; don’t fight back. Don’t be too aggressive. And no football until later on. Tough to hear as a kid. So they grew up playing baseball and basketball and were quite proficient. But it was only a matter of time before two very large and very good athletes would want to throw their weight around a little.

Geoff, three years his brother’s senior, paved the way for Mitchell. When Geoff signed with Oregon out of Pacific Palisades Charter High School in L.A. Mitchell was beginning to attract his own attention. He became the L.A. City Offensive Lineman of the Year; Western League Lineman of the Year; and was selected to the PrepStar All-West Region team by the time his high school career had concluded.

In 2008 when Geoff was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the seventh round, Mitchell was at Cal. Berkeley. The decision to become a Golden Bear was an easy one for him. “I knew going pro was a real possibility [and] I knew their offensive style would mesh well going into the pros,” he said modestly and matter-of-factly. “They also put a good number of guys in the NFL.”

After being redshirted his freshman year, Mitchell started every game for his entire college career and was so dominant on the offensive line, grading out so well, that brother Geoff predicted to their father that he would be a first-or-second-round NFL draft choice. He was correct. In the 2012 Draft the Cleveland Browns selected him with the fourth pick of the second round, the 37th. overall choice.

To Geoff, “when Mitch arrived in the league, we instantly accounted for at least 20 percent of all Jewish players in the NFL, or probably more.”

As Mitchell recounts, “neither of us realized it at the time, but my arrival in the league was a historic event for ethnographically inclined students of the game…it turns out Geoff and I were the first fraternal ‘members of the tribe’ to roam the fields of the NFL since Ralph and Arnold Horween played in 1923.”

He continued. “According to the U.S. Census, Jews make up about 2.2 percent of the U.S. population. Assuming that metric is accurate, Jews as a demographic group are underrepresented in pro sports. That fact leads to a joke every Jewish kid knows: What’s the shortest book ever written? Jewish Sports Legends.”

The brothers have an ability to laugh at themselves but remain serious about their heritage. They are well-versed in Jewish sports history from Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, Al Rosen and Shawn Green to Mark Spitz, Jason Lezak and Dara Torres to Max Baer and Barney Ross and to Dolph Schayes, Red Auerbach and Red Holzman.

They have done some homework and remain curious about those Jewish athletes who have preceded them. Of course, the Horween story captivated them.

When Mitchell, an American Studies major at Berkeley, decided to delve more deeply into the Horweens’ saga he unearthed some information which produced more questions than answers.

“Interestingly, they played using an Irish last name, McMahon. It is not clear to me exactly why they used an alias. I’ve read one theory that they wanted to protect the family name. But since the family name had been changed from Horowitz when they first arrived in the United States, you have to wonder what was going on there. Was football looked down upon? Was their family ashamed? Or were they concerned about anti-Semitism? I’m not sure what the motive was.

The name game gets even stranger when you read the obituary notice for Ralph that ran in the Chicago Tribune — it mentions that Ralph was the first NFL player to live to be over one hundred years old — and discover that Ralph’s two sons have the last name Stow. Were they his stepsons? That’s another mystery.”

With five (0.31%) or ten (0.625%) Jewish players in the league at a time — of 1,600 active players — peer knowledge and understanding of the ethnicity and its rich history is sparse if not non-existent.

No problem for Geoff Schwartz who loves his culture and educating those who are unfamiliar with it. He remembers fielding a number of questions at Oregon about Thanksgiving — ‘does your family celebrate?’ — and Hanukkah — ‘do you get a present every night?’

All well and good enough for the most tolerant, until ignorance and insensitivity surface. During his sophomore year in college, a freshman performed a song during a ritual rookie show which somehow referenced “Jews burning in ovens.”

Reconciled Geoff upon reflection, “I think that some people don’t really realize that the Holocaust is not something to joke about. Back then I was just disappointed that people can be so unaware and unfeeling.”

So rather than pancaking and kicking the life out of those who may not understand or care not to get it, Geoff “actively share[s] the Jewish traditions I can with my teammates…During Hanukkah, I’ve traveled with a menorah and lit candles in the hotel room, once with a coach who was Jewish…”

Although they grew up learning how to make latkes the labor-intensive way — all the peeling and grating, etc. — Geoff and Mitchell have shared the bounty with teammates of a recipe which takes the heavy lifting out of the preparation while preserving the great flavor. [They] “many of whom have never seen or heard of a potato pancake have scarfed them down.” No surprise.

As both brothers recognize and heartily embrace, they are whom they are. Proudly.

To mirror another’s behavior or philosophy so as to more seamlessly assimilate or ‘fit in’ is not what the Schwartz brothers — all 660+ lbs. of them — are about.

Credit their parents, their forebears and their intellect.

Most of all, credit them.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in December 2017.]

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store