As a football player, Alan Veingrad followed a strict training regiment to get himself from 215 pounds at the end of high school – undersized for an offensive lineman – to a solid 290 pounds during the prime of his career in the National Football League.
"Everything was laid out. How many repetitions [to do], how much weight goes on the bar," said the 6-foot, 5-inch Veingrad of the daily workout regimen that ensured football success for him. "I [now] take that same approach to Yiddishkeit."
Veingrad, 42, who played for five years for the Green Bay Packers and won a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys, now keeps kosher, is Shomer Shabbat, wears a yarmulke and tzitzit, and sports a long, bushy beard.
Speaking to 35 people at the Merion Tribute House on Jan. 31 in an event sponsored by Chabad of the Main Line, Veingrad discussed his journey from non-observance to Orthodoxy.
Born in Brooklyn, his family moved first to New Jersey and finally to Miami in his childhood years; at no time was being Jewish all that important. In fact, when his parents dropped him off at Hebrew school, he didn't even go to class.
"I'd walk in the front door, and I'd walk right out the back door. I didn't connect," said Veingrad, who now resides in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "There was a great lake behind this particular shul, and I used to go back there and skip rocks for two hours."
After high school, he played ball for East Texas State University (now Texas A&M University-Commerce), and many of his teammates had never met a Jew before. He said he felt no hostility, but teammates did ask him questions about the religion.
"Occasionally, I had an answer; occasionally, I made up an answer," he admitted.
In the NFL, Veingrad was one of only a handful of Jews, but he was drawn to other Jewish players, like San Francisco 49ers all-pro tackle Harris Barton.
After retiring from the game in 1993, he still had little interest in Judaism until, at his cousin's insistence, he attended an Orthodox Torah class.
The session took place at a wealthy home outside of Fort Lauderdale, where Veingrad marveled at the structure's high ceilings, massive doors and huge living room. "I kept thinking, 'Is this house worth $4 million or $5 million or $6 million. Is this 20,000 square feet?' "
In the final minutes, the rabbi began to talk about the dangers of being materialistic, and how it can end up taking over a person's life. The lesson struck a chord with Veingrad.
"I felt like I got smacked in the head," said the former football player, who at that time was 33, and two years retired from the league. "I found it piercing because that was what I was thinking about."
Then, in 2003, a Fort Worth newspaper wrote a "Where Are They Now?" piece about Veingrad, highlighting his various activities, like fishing, scuba diving and playing with his three young kids. "I thought, 'What a shallow life you got, Veingrad; something's missing – real meaning.' "
He decided to delve deeper into Judaism and keep Shabbat, a decision his family took well, he said, even though his daughters and son could no longer do weekend activities.
His wife also became "well-entrenched in the Chabad community," though they have since divorced.
He believes his life has more meaning now, and that religion's helped him to overcome what he misses most about football – the bond between players. "You miss the camaraderie. [But] that void has been filled with Jewish community. Wherever I am, the community just absorbs you."