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The Hebrew quarterback who changed football forever
By Murray Greenberg
For Jewish boys in Cleveland and other cities, football had an added
element of cool. Playing football was a great way to fit in. It was also a perfect
antidote to the anti-Semitism and vulgar stereotypes that accompanied
the influx of European Jews into American cities. Jews were “the polar opposites
of our pioneer breed,” wrote E. A. Ross, a noted sociologist of the
day. “Not only are they undersized and weak-muscled, but they also shun
bodily activity and are extremely sensitive to pain.” What better way to debunk
such venomous stereotypes than to embrace the physicality and violence
that football offered? No matter that the violence of the game was
precisely what the parents of these boys found most offensive. Shooting a
few baskets or taking a casual swim at the Jewish Center was fine as far as it
went, but these boys needed more.
The football genie began to woo young Benjamin Friedman while he was
in grammar school, just another neighborhood runt with grandiose dreams
of all-American glory. For him and other inner city boys, because fields and
parks weren’t always available, the road to the all-American team sometimes
began, quite literally, on a road. On narrow side streets, in the cold
mist blowing in off Lake Erie just a mile or so uptown, the boys practiced
the moves they imagined had been used by such college football legends
as the University of Chicago’s Walter Eckersall and Michigan Wolverine
Willie Heston. Depending on the particular street, sometimes the best interference,
or blocking, for these future stars was a tree trunk sitting on a
lawn on the side of the road.
Poor facilities weren’t the only obstacles these young Jewish kids had
to deal with. Unlike their gentile counterparts who were more or less free to
grab a football the moment school let out, Jewish boys spent the better part
of their afternoons in Hebrew school—cheder in Yiddish. Hebrew school provided
the kids, who were quickly adapting to secular culture, with a little
religious balance. But many of them, Benny included, weren’t particularly
interested in that, as he recalled years later: “I couldn’t wait to get over
[Hebrew school] so that I could be free and play with the rest of the kids.”
What active adolescent boy wouldn’t prefer pickup football to cramming
into a small, unventilated room to learn Hebrew from a rabbi who tended
to discipline misbehaving students with the business end of a stick?
Benny’s Hebrew school crucible ended mercifully, if somewhat painfully,
when he was twelve, thanks to a fellow student’s prank. One day, as the
class stood up to recite prayers, a loud thud interrupted the proceedings.
The kid next to Benny had knocked his prayer book out of his hand. A
moment later there was the sound of another thud. It wasn’t another book.
It was the sound of the teacher’s stick smashing into Benny’s back.
“Pick it up,” the teacher barked at Benny.
“I didn’t knock it down,” Benny said.
Benny’s reply didn’t mollify the old rabbi. Once again his stick crashed
against the boy’s back. “Pick it up,” he again commanded.
Benny wouldn’t give in, despite the two painful blows and the promise
of more to come.
“I won’t pick it up,” the boy cried. The old man rained down his stick
on Benny’s back a third time.
The rabbi’s brutality didn’t persuade Benny to pick up the book. But
the three welts that Lewis and Mayme saw on their son’s back when he
came home persuaded them to remove him from the Hebrew school.
If Benny had known that the rabbi’s corporal punishment would have
prematurely ended his formal religious education, he gladly would have taken
another three cracks to the back. Now he had more time for after-school
He also had more time to pursue his other passion—bodybuilding. Becoming
the next Jim Thorpe, the Olympic track and field champion and
superstar footballer, wasn’t enough of a dream for young Friedman. He also
wanted to become the world’s strongest man. The boy was a fanatic. He
read magazines on bodybuilding techniques. He attended traveling strongman
shows. He entered and won local strongman tournaments.
Mostly, though, Benny exercised indefatigably, crafting a unique regimen
that included but went far beyond the usual barbells and dumbbells
and medicine balls. “We had an iron brick that weighed forty-nine
pounds and it was a trick to be able to pick that up by the side and turn it
over and hang onto it and muscle it up,” Benny said later. The other part of
the “we” was a big Irishman named Sweeney, a janitor in Benny’s grammar
school. Sweeney worked with Benny in the school’s cellar and taught
Benny the trick.
Benny also learned to lift a heavy chair by the tip of a leg and toss the
chair from hand to hand. Sometimes he’d lift a heavy broom from the tip
of the handle. One particularly unorthodox move in Benny’s repertoire involved
his right hand and a one-armed desk. “I’d stretch my hand and
stretch my hand till I could get it all the way across [the desk] so that I was
able to make a 180-degree spread between my thumb and my little finger
and have this big spread between my first finger and my thumb,” Benny
Benny liked these unusual exercises not only because they began to
produce a strongman’s power and muscles, but also because—maybe more
so because—there was an intellectual component to them. He was a smart
kid and liked figuring out the “tricks” involved, in thinking through the
leverage and angles that were as necessary to the performance of the maneuvers
as was brute strength.
When Benny entered Fairmount Junior High, he received some formal
football instruction for the first time. There was no football team at Fairmount,
but there was Howard Gehrke, a gym teacher who was happy to
teach the boys certain fundamentals that in later years he’d display as a
Harvard fullback. Gehrke gave Benny and his classmates their first lessons
on how to fall on the football, how to tackle, and other fine points they’d
given little or no thought to while playing in the street. (Less than a decade
later, another Fairmount student named Jesse Owens would catch the eye
of a Fairmount coach and receive his first instruction in his chosen sport.)
Gehrke’s emphasis on fundamentals literally and figuratively took the
game off of the street for Benny. The gym teacher gave Benny his first
glimpse at the technique and strategy of the game. The boy began to understand
that football, as violent and physical as it is, was also a thinking
man’s game, and he liked that. The game was far more intellectually stimulating
than the challenges involved in becoming a strongman, which, aside
from a creative exercise here and there, were limited to endless chin-ups
and the repetitive hoisting of heavy weights. As high school beckoned,
Benny abandoned his strongman ambitions to devote himself to football.
He entered the ninth grade at East Tech High, and he entered a new world
when he came out for coach Sam Willaman’s football team.
Willaman’s football pedigree was impressive. He’d been a star fullback
for the mighty Ohio State Buckeyes. Now, as East Tech’s coach, he played
professionally in his spare time with the Canton Bulldogs alongside none
other than Jim Thorpe. “Sad” Sam Willaman (so known for the naturally
dour expression branded on his face) had built East Tech into the scourge
of the Senate, and he had multiple championship trophies sitting in his office
to prove it. And his 1919 group had enough talent to field two all-star teams.
It didn’t take Benny long to realize that the East Tech football scene
wasn’t Mr. Gehrke’s gym class. The second coming of Walter Eckersall and
Pudge Heffelfinger and Jim Thorpe and Willie Heston would have to wait.
Friedman would need to watch and learn, and he’d have to grow, too,
because even with his strength he was still, as he would say, “just a little
kid,” about five foot six and not even 150 pounds. So Benny spent his ninth
and tenth grade seasons on the scrub team, watching East Tech’s talented
varsity players, eagerly learning fundamentals, and building up his body.
With the wisdom of a dedicated apprentice and a bit more size and
muscle, Benny, now a junior, reported for tryouts for East Tech’s 1921
team. He was developing into a fast and agile player, clever with the ball,
and strong, much stronger and tougher than his modest frame suggested.
He was also good, unusually good, at passing the big round watermelon
they called a football in those days. All the weight training and chair tossing
and hand stretching he’d done had unwittingly paid off: Benny could
wrap his hand around the ball, cock it behind his ear, and throw it, accurately.
He didn’t merely place the ball in his palm and heave it like most
Unfortunately, Sam Willaman couldn’t see past Benny’s size, or, more
to the point, lack of size. A year earlier, Willaman’s undefeated team had
steamrolled its way to the Cleveland city championship and into a national
championship game against Washington state’s Everett High School. The
boys from Washington were bigger than the invaders from Ohio by about
twenty pounds per player, and they asserted that advantage to bang out a
bruising 16–7 victory. Willaman was determined to “get bigger” for the
following season. The still-undersized Friedman wasn’t what the coach had
“You’re too small to play for us,” he told Friedman. “You should transfer
to Glenville High if you want to play football.”
Willaman might have thought he was doing the youngster a favor by
steering the young Jewish player to Glenville, a far weaker team than East
Tech with a roster liberally sprinkled with Jewish players.
Sad Sam Willaman didn’t realize he’d also just made the biggest mistake
of his coaching life. Many years later, a high-school basketball coach
in North Carolina would make a similar mistake, cutting a sophomore
who was “too small” to play. The boy’s name was Michael Jordan.
In 1922, Friedman humbled his old team with passes, embarrassed
it with trick plays, and buried it with four touchdown runs that
included jaunts of forty-two and thirty-five yards. The long scoring runs
dazzled East Tech, but for pure devastation there was his shortest touchdown,
a one-yard exclamation point to a ninety-nine-yard drive that saw
the Tarblooders bully the six-time Senate champs from goal line to goal
line. It was the drive that signified a change in the balance of power in
Cleveland high-school football, a drive that just a year earlier would have
Benny’s performance once and for all debunked Sam Willaman’s
gloomy forecast of his football future. It also erased any lingering doubts
about the Tarblooders’ bona fides. They were for real, undefeated and
nearly unscored upon, and in first place in the Senate.
Next for the kid who was too small to play for East Tech would be a game
against longtime Illinois power Oak Park for the mythical national high school
championship. Glenville was new to such rarified
air and had every reason to be skittish. But the scoreboard
at the end of a hard-fought game read Glenville 13, Oak Park 7.
Benny had done what the great Red Grange of Wheaton couldn’t do. The
upstart school from the Jewish ghetto was a national champion.
From the book Passing Game by Murray Greenberg. Excerpted by
arrangement with PublicAffairs (www.publicaffairsbooks.com), a member of
the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2008.
from the Februrary 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine