The social hall of the Queens Jewish Center, an Orthodox congregation in Forest Hills, will be filled with football fans watching the Super Bowl Sunday evening. But only one will be wearing a Super Bowl ring — Alan Veingrad earned it as a member of the Dallas Cowboys, who won the 1993 National Football League championship.
Veingrad, an offensive lineman during seven NFL seasons, will attend the synagogue’s pre-game program to tell his life’s story, with a focus on his life after football, when he underwent a spiritual metamorphosis from secular Jew to chasidic Jew.
A bearded, Sabbath-observant, kipa-wearing member of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement for four years, Veingrad is, as far as is known, the only Jewish athlete on a team sport in the country who has ever adopted an Orthodox lifestyle.
Veingrad, 44, lives in Coral Springs, Fla., and works in the commercial real estate lending field. In his off hours he gives frequent motivational speeches to Jewish groups around the country, using his unique background to attract people who might hold little interest in a standard religious pitch.
“It helps people relate to me. It helps people connect to me,” he says in a telephone interview.
A self-described mediocre high school football player in Miami, he attended East Texas State University (now Texas A&M – Commerce) and “never aspired to play in the National Football League.” Veingrad set his sights on the NFL when a college coach said he had the size (6-foot-5, 240 pounds; he later bulked up to 277) and the skills for a professional career. He signed as a free agent (he was not drafted) with the Green Bay Packers, played five years with Green Bay then two more with Dallas.
Then, after wining his Super Bowl ring, he left football.
“Enough was enough,” he says. “My body was aching.” He lacked his earlier “passion” for the game. And he had other priorities — he got married the week after the Super Bowl.
Still, he says, “it was a very hard decision. Who walks away from that kind of money?”
Financially set, working in the business world, he sensed a “void.”
A cousin, an Orthodox Jewish radiologist who had offered free medical advice during Veingrad’s playing career, invited Veingrad and his family for a Friday night meal.
“I went as an obligation,” Veingrad says. Veingrad’s cousin suggested a Torah class at a local synagogue. Again, he went “as an obligation” to his cousin.
A remark about “materialism” in the last minute of the rabbi’s speech intrigued Veingrad, who had grown tired of friends’ conversations about pricey possessions and vacations.
He started to read the Five Books of Moses, which he had largely skipped while growing up. “I was raised like most Jews in this country,” Veingrad says. His Jewish education had ended at bar mitzvah. “I skipped most of Hebrew school.” As an adult, “I didn’t know when Rosh HaShanah was half of the time.”
The Torah, he now realized, was “filled with inspirational messages,” the type he had once found in sports biographies.
Slowly, he started attending classes and Shabbat meals under Chabad aegis.
“I wanted to feel all the time the inspiration I felt on Friday nights,” he says. After a trip to Israel four years ago, when he started wearing a kipah and tzitzit, he and his wife and three children decided to commit themselves to an observant life. Their kitchen was kashered, the children were enrolled in Jewish day schools. Alan became Shlomo, the Hebrew name he had received at birth.
“I never looked back,” Veingrad says.
A regular in shul, where he shows up early for services as a carryover from his schedule of NFL team meetings, he is a gabbai’s frequent choice for hagbah, the honor of lifting the Torah scroll by its wooden staves during services when the sefer Torah is read.
The Veingrad home has no television. Unless he is at a Super Bowl event, like this Sunday in Queens, he doesn’t watch the game. Last year, “I didn’t know the score till the next day.
“A lot of players who are retired don’t watch it,” Veingrad says. “Over the years I watch less and less. The game doesn’t excite me. My passion is for Judaism.”
The pre-Super Bowl program at the Queens Jewish Center, 66-05 108th St., starts Sunday at 4:30 p.m. For information, call (718) 459-8432.