Most of the football world is savoring the high and lows of the Steelers' Super Bowl romp over the Seahawks, but two unlikely Jewish athletes have their own gridiron memories to relish from this past season.
Jimmy Rotstein and Brian Rubinstein had never played in a college football game, but the 72nd annual Vitalis Sun Bowl on Dec. 30 proved to be a tale of two walk-ons for these UCLA Bruins. The second-string players not only came off the bench, they collaborated on an extra point play. UCLA beat Northwestern and, in their own way, these two athletes made a larger point about hard work and good sportsmanship.
Rotstein's football career began with his big mouth. As a freshman at Brentwood High, he took a weight-lifting class taught by the assistant football coach. In between sets, Rotstein bragged that kicking a field goal looked easy.
The coach told him that if he could kick a 40-yard field goal, he could get out of gym for the day. Rotstein's kick was good -- as was his second, 45-yard kick. Suddenly, he had a spot on the football team.
Four years later, the UCLA freshman is thrilled just to be a part of a Division 1A team.
"Being offered a walk-on spot at UCLA was the perfect package. It's close to home, my dad went here and I've always been a huge Bruin fan," said Rotstein, 19.
Which isn't to say that the 6-foot, 160-pound freshman expected to play in a game this year. But on Dec 11, UCLA's starting kicker, Justin Medlock, was suspended from the team as a result of a driving under the influence charge. (Medlock has since pleaded not guilty in his ongoing court case.)
After a few weeks of intense, competitive practice, UCLA head football coach Karl Dorell decided his two backup kickers would split the work in the Sun Bowl. Rotstein would take point after touchdown kicks, while fellow walk-on, Brian Malette, would handle kickoffs.
Rotstein was beyond excited. He wasn't just going to see some action, he was going into a nationally televised bowl game. "I waited all season, I practiced hard and suddenly I was in front of 50,000 people," said Rotstein. "But I was ready to do it."
Rotstein admits to getting nervous on the bus ride from the hotel to Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, but "after the first extra-point kick, I felt great." Rotstein completed all five of his extra-point attempts in his first college game. "That game was the best experience I have ever had."
Rubenstein would have to rank as an even more unlikely success story. The red-shirt sophomore had spent three seasons with the Bruins, countless hours of practice and had yet to play a single down. Undersized for a center, the 5-foot-11, 265-pound Yorba Linda native watched as other players moved ahead of him on the roster. But Rubenstein, who's also a member of Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, enjoyed being part of the team and didn't mind that years of practice hadn't translated into game time.
"Coming out of high school, I didn't think I'd be on the UCLA team, so the fact that I'm still here is amazing," said Rubenstein, who explored playing in the Ivy League before enrolling at UCLA and walking onto the Bruins' team. Between practices and studying, Rubenstein has little free time, but he wouldn't want it any other way.
"I wouldn't know what to do if I wasn't playing football, so I just keep working hard," said Rubenstein, 21.
On Dec 30, his hard work paid off. The starting UCLA long snapper suffered a concussion in the last minutes of the Sun Bowl, so Rubenstein was called into his first NCAA game.
"It all happened pretty quickly, so I didn't have much time to feel the pressure" said the political science major, who is already back in off-season practice.
In the final extra-point play of the game, Rubenstein snapped the football and Rotstein kicked it. The two walk-on Bruins, who sometimes joke among themselves about being Jewish athletes, got UCLA another point on the board.
"With that last kick, I looked up, saw that Rubenstein was in, and got this big smile on my face," Rotstein said.
It was a winning day, and not just because 16th-ranked UCLA defeated 25th-ranked Northwestern 50-38.
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