More than 70 years ago, a young quarterback named Benny Friedman was dubbed “the greatest football player in the world” by the renowned Daily News sportswriter Paul Gallico.
Last week the Pro Football Hall of Fame certified that Friedman, who played for the New York Giants and three other NFL teams, ranks among the sport’s greats.
On the eve of the Super Bowl, the hall announced that Friedman was among four 2005 inductees.
Friedman, who died in 1982 at 77, will be enshrined in the Canton, Ohio, institution in August along with two modern quarterbacks, Joe Montana and Steve Young, and a former coach, Fritz Pollard. Friedman will become the fifth Jewish member of the Hall of Fame, joining players Ron Mix and Sid Luckman, owner Al Davis and coach Marv Levy.
Friedman was an outstanding example of first-generation American Jews who became standouts early in the 20th century in such sports as baseball, boxing and, to a lesser degree, football, said Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University and author of the forthcoming book “Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports.”
“These guys were the stars of the ghetto — they were able to use this form of activity to make it in America,” Gurock said, adding that “[Jewish] football heroes were relatively few in number.” The sport requires more open space than is available in the urban cities where American Jews typically congregate, he noted.
Friedman, Gurock said, was “an exception within an exceptional group.”
A Cleveland-born son of immigrant parents and a graduate of the University of Michigan, Friedman rivaled the legendary Red Grange in popularity when he turned pro. In the early days of the National Football League, from 1927 to 1934, he earned the reputation as the league’s first great passer. At 5-10, 183 pounds, he led the NFL in touchdown passes four straight years. His 66 career TD passes stood as a record for several years.
After retiring, Friedman served as the head coach at the City College of New York, the U.S. Naval Academy and Brandeis University.
He is already in the College Football Hall of Fame, the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.
The gridiron once served as an escape from poverty for Jews, as it does now for blacks and other minorities, Gurock said. Today, few Jews look to the NFL. “In the last 30, 40 years, there are other avenues for success,” he said.About a half-dozen Jews played in the NFL this season. One reached the zenith of team success on Sunday — Josh Miller was the punter for the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.