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Tenacious D

Igor Olshansky’s path to the NFL

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Igor Olshansky
Olshansky on the field

In Knocked Up, Seth Rogen extols Steven Spielberg’s Munich for so demonstratively debunking the myth of the Semitic Wimp. “Every movie with Jews, we’re the ones getting killed,” he says. “Munich flips it on its ear. We’re capping motherfuckers!” When reminded of the quote, Igor Olshansky, the laconic football player for the San Diego Chargers, grunts out a giggle of approval in his hushed baritone. That’s because this intimidating, Ukraine-born defensive end knows he’s the antithesis of that stereotype. You see, Olshansky is not just Jewish huge; at 6-foot-6 and 309 pounds, he’s homo sapien huge.

“In the early 1920s, there were a lot of badass mofos in boxing who were Jewish. In wrestling, too,” says the 26-year-old, who has a Star of David tattooed near each shoulder. But despite the NFL’s strides in diversity, Olshansky is still hard pressed to name any Jewish players who’ve been drafted since the dogged days of famed New York Giants quarterback Benny Friedman. “I can’t think of any,” he says. “I guess there’s just not a lot of my people that are my size.” (For the record, there are at least a handful currently in the league, among them the St. Louis Rams’ Adam Goldberg, the Cleveland Browns’ Lennie Friedman, and the Houston Texans’ Sage Rosenfels.)

photo of Igor Olshansky
Olshansky at Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy in 2004

The Olshansky clan left the Eastern Bloc for San Francisco when Igor was six. With assistance from the Jewish community—who’d help find jobs, housing, and schools for immigrants—Igor attended a Hebrew academy on scholarship, which stoked his ethnic enthusiasm. It was his athletic dad, meanwhile, who egged him on to play basketball at the JCC. As his physique swelled, he switched over to football, which meant leaving his familiar enclave to attend a Catholic school. “I always lifted weights when I was young. It created a temperament in me,” Olshansky says. “You need a certain amount of controlled aggression to be a football player. You have to like hitting people, you have to like people hitting you. And when you fall down, you have to have that in you to get up and fight again…. Not a lot of people would come up to my face and discriminate against me.”

In 2004, Olshansky graduated from the University of Oregon, joined the NFL, and fast became a poster boy for his cultural awareness. “I know Jewish people take pride in me, and I’m comfortable with that. But I don’t consider myself religious…. I play for myself and my teammates and my family. And I’m relentless.” Yet he’s also conscientious about paying visits to kids at synagogues and Jewish schools (they like to ask him how much he benches, which is reportedly as much as 505 pounds), perks up while pondering a visit to Israel, and points out that he found it “important to marry a Jewish woman and Russian-speaking, too.” (He wed Liya Rubinshteyn in 2005.) And if there’s ever a moment when the iron man melts, it’s when he’s talking about his nine-month-old son, Lorence. “He’s going to be another badass mofo like his dad,” he says. “Yeah!”

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Tenacious D

Igor Olshansky’s path to the NFL

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