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.”
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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