'Throughout Shabbos I was just praying that we make it'

After forfeiting Shabbat match, Israel goes on to win flag football championship

Despite a rocky start against Serbia, Israel’s newly formed U17 flag football team proceeded to take gold in the second-ever European youth tourney for the sport

The Israeli under-17 flag football team poses for photo after winning first place in European championship on Sunday, September 3, 2023. (Courtesy)
The Israeli under-17 flag football team poses for photo after winning first place in European championship on Sunday, September 3, 2023. (Courtesy)

After a major setback that threatened their spot in the playoffs, Israel’s under-17 flag football team won gold last Sunday in the Flag Football European Youth Championships held in Italy.

Made up of mostly Orthodox youth, the nascent team only narrowly made it into the championship playoffs after forfeiting a match against Serbia slated to take place on Shabbat. Serbia won by default, 35-0.

“We weren’t entirely sure we were going to make it,” said Nate Fried, who plays receiver for the team. “Throughout Shabbos I was just davening really hard, praying that we make it. When we actually made the playoffs, I was like, ‘Great, we’re gonna take this thing,’ because so much went right leading up to this event, we just couldn’t fail here.”

Since they scored so many points in the tournament’s first game, the team made it into the playoffs and proceeded to win against Italy in the semifinals, moving on to the finals in a much-anticipated rematch against Serbia. Israel emerged as the decisive victor, winning 34-13.

The triumph was cathartic for Fried, who says that his team did everything it could to be respectful while requesting that its opponent agree to change the game’s time.

The team, which assembled only a month before the competition, trained under Gideon Reiz and Dani Eastman, both senior players for the Israeli men’s national team.

“We started our tryouts in May, and from there we had over 60 kids come and try out, and then we slowly narrowed down to the roster size, which is only 15 kids,” Reiz said.

“We didn’t know the final cut [of the tryouts] until a few weeks before we flew,” team safety Eitan Kirshner said.

Israeli players at the 2023 European Junior Flag Football Championships in Italy. (Giulio Busi via JTA)

With little time remaining, the team began intensive practice at Kraft Family Stadium, named after the team’s primary sponsor New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

Although this is the second year that the International Federation of American Football is holding an under-17 championship, it is the first time Israel has competed.

Reiz has spent his entire adult life playing football. The Maryland native started out playing for Oberlin College while still an undergraduate, but immigrated after graduating and was soon drafted by the Israeli national team.

“He’s the best coach I’ve ever had. He’s always calm, very thorough,” said Fried on Reiz’s coaching style.

The high schooler plans to continue playing for the Israeli team, and is looking forward to competing with his fellow athletes next year in Finland in the Flag Football World Championship.

As of late, flag football tournaments have experienced an upsurge in participation since the International Olympic Committee signaled that it may incorporate the sport into the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

Fried hopes to train enough to eventually represent Israel on its flag football team at the Olympics.

“Knowing that you’re representing something so big, and still coming out with the win. I felt in a way like we were the underdogs,” said Kirshner. Next year, Kirshner will graduate out of the U17 league and plans to compete for a spot on the senior men’s team.

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