Fans swarm NFL players at Jerusalem meet and greet
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Fans swarm NFL players at Jerusalem meet and greet

5 remaining players on controversial Israel trip take selfies, sign footballs for eager admirers at Kraft Stadium

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The five NFL players who came to Israel visited briefly at Jerusalem's Kraft Stadium Saturday night, February 18, 2017. From left to right, they are Dan Williams, Calais Campbell, Cameron Jordan, Delanie Walker and Mychal Kendricks, with AFI founder Steve Leibowitz in the foreground (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
The five NFL players who came to Israel visited briefly at Jerusalem's Kraft Stadium Saturday night, February 18, 2017. From left to right, they are Dan Williams, Calais Campbell, Cameron Jordan, Delanie Walker and Mychal Kendricks, with AFI founder Steve Leibowitz in the foreground (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Five National Football League players who spent the last week traveling in Israel — without the six who pulled out after expressing discomfort with the expressed goals of the government-sponsored trip — finally met local fans Saturday night in Jerusalem.

The five — Calais Campbell (Arizona Cardinals), Dan Williams (Oakland Raiders), Cameron Jordan (New Orleans Saints), Delanie Walker (Tennessee Titans) and Mychal Kendricks (Philadelphia Eagles) — were introduced by Steve Leibowitz, president and founder of the American Football League in Israel.

The fans — mostly young, male American yeshiva students — were thrilled, occasionally yelling out the name of one of the players or one of the teams represented.

Someone called out, “Where is Michael Bennett?” naming the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive end who pulled out of the trip late last week, saying he felt he was being “used” by the Israeli government.

Bennett’s decision to drop out came after he read comments about the trip made by Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in a press release published by the Tourism Ministry on February 5, Super Bowl Sunday, and reported by The Times of Israel.

Bennett’s exit was followed by that of several other players. There were also pressures on the football players from the anti-Israel BDS movement, which issued a public letter and posted on the players’ Twitter profiles.

After the public storm over the decision of some of the players to cancel their participation, trip organizers in Israel canceled any press coverage, and most of the players who made the trip have limited their Twitter and Instagram comments to the more spiritual and touristy aspects of their visit.

But on Saturday night, after the brief introduction, Leibowitz invited the fans to storm the field for selfies and autographs from the players.

The players wouldn’t answer questions, although Tia, who identified herself as Dan Williams’s girlfriend, said that getting baptized in the “freezing cold” Jordan River was a highlight of the trip.

She declined to comment on how the trip had progressed without the players who canceled, but said she was surprised by the lack of visible conflict.

“It’s much calmer in Israel than we expected,” she said. “We’re getting closer to God and spirituality.”

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