A number of National Football League Hall of Famers on a visit to Israel on Sunday hailed the sense of “family” shared by Israelis and their love of country.
Eighteen NFL “Gold Jackets” were in Israel for the week-long trip hosted by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, as part of an effort to promote the sport in a country that primarily sees “football” as soccer. Still, over the past two decades, “American football” has found its niche in Israel, and currently boasts over 2,000 active players in various leagues.
On Sunday evening, over 1,000 fans flocked to Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem for a ceremony honoring the Patriots owner, followed by a meet-and-greet with the all-time greats. The star-studded lineup included Roger Staubach, Jim Brown, Eric Dickerson, and “Mean” Joe Greene.
“The people here are wonderful,” said four-time Super Bowl champion Joe Montana.
During a short address to attendees, Kraft said he was fortunate to have been alive during the establishment of Israel in 1948. Listing characteristics he admired about the Jewish state, the Patriots owner cited “great hope, great preparation, never giving up, and winning — and you know we like that one,” he quipped.
Six-time pro-bowler Jerome Bettis went even further, praising the “love affair that Israelis have with their country.” He said that he and his wife stayed up late discussing their experience in Jerusalem, and that the visit had “changed our lives.”
“Here, it feels like family,” Staubach said, going on to praise what he described as the country’s “resilience” on the battlefield.
The fans, almost exclusively of American background, appeared no less excited. Little Hebrew could be heard and quite a few attendees were wearing jerseys of their favorite NFL players. Some, however, had shirts representing Israel’s eight tackle football teams.
Meir Goldstein of Modiin said driving in to Jerusalem for the event was an easy decision. “I stay up late every Sunday during football season to watch games live, so I was not going to miss an opportunity to meet some of the greatest to ever play the game.”
On Thursday, the NFL greats watched scrimmages between various high school teams, including the six-time defending league champions Kfar Saba Hawks, who have become an unlikely breeding ground of future commandos in the Israeli military. Together with the eight flag football leagues for men, women and youth, there are currently some 80 teams playing football in Israel.
The latest football mission came on the heels of the Israeli government’s bungled attempt earlier this year to arrange a goodwill visit of current NFL players, half of whom eventually pulled out amid pressure from pro-Palestinian boycott activists.
Kraft, who is Jewish, has brought some of his Patriots on visits before, and in 2015 arranged for a group of 19 lesser-known Hall of Famers to come promote the sport. But nothing came close to the star power of the delegation currently in Israel.
“The Israeli government was not at all involved in planning this trip,” said one of the event’s organizers, Ruthie Lieberman. “The players are not the mouthpieces of Israeli hasbara (advocacy), but they are definitely enjoying the positive aspects of Israel while here.”
Lieberman added that the delegation would be meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before returning home on Tuesday.
Asked if he felt that he was receiving a balanced view of the conflict on the trip, Super Bowl XX champion Mike Singletary admitted, “You’re never going to get the full picture.” However, he added, they had spoken with a group of young Palestinians earlier that day and he felt that “both sides” had been presented.
Speaking with The Times of Israel after the ceremony, Kraft addressed his decision to hold a moment of silence prior to a November 2015 game in memory of Ezra Schwartz, a native of Sharon, Massachusetts, who had been killed in a West Bank terror attack.
“I heard he used to put on a Gronk (Rob Gronkowski) jersey and FaceTime with his family for the whole game. It just resonated… and we wanted to recognize him as a great symbol of what shouldn’t happen,” he said.
AP contributed to this report.