With less than a minute to play in the biggest football game of his life, Jewish punter Josh Miller wanted a ham sandwich.
“I was hungry,” he said in an interview, recalling one of his many thoughts from Super Bowl XXXIX, when his New England Patriots edged the Philadelphia Eagles, 24-21.
Miller played an important role in the Patriots’ third NFL championship. With time running out, he booted the ball with enough backspin that it was downed at the Eagles’ 4-yard line with 46 seconds left in the game. Before such a pressure-filled moment, Miller recalled the advice of head coach Bill Belichick, long regarded as one of the NFL’s top minds.
“He called me over and said, ‘Hey, man, just catch [the snap] and get rid of it,’ ” Miller said.
As his old club prepares to take on the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5 in Indianapolis, Miller recalled his big-game moments with New England and his pride in being able to achieve such heights as a Jewish athlete.
“It’s the greatest game you’ll ever play in, but it’s the worst game you’ll ever play in,” Miller said. “Nothing is fun about it. The pressure is unbelievable. When we won, and I hadn’t done anything that would be on ‘Sports Center’ for the next 50 years, I was very happy.”
Miller enjoyed the ultimate thrill that only a select few athletes ever experience: being part of a Super Bowl-winning team. The list of Jews to win the big game is even smaller, including Miller, Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Randy “The Rabbi” Grossman (who won a Jewish-record four times, in 1975, ’76, ’77, ’78), San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Harris Barton (1989, ’90, ’95), 49ers tight end John Frank (1985, ’89), Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Alan “Shlomo” Veingrad (1993), Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Bobby Stein (1970) and Los Angeles Raiders defensive end Lyle Alzado (1984).
Grossman grew up Conservative in the Philadelphia suburb of Haverford, earning his fitting nickname from defensive end Dwight White.
“He was the primary nicknamer back then,” said Grossman, who now works as a financial adviser for Wealth Management Strategies, in an interview. “Being Jewish, there weren’t a lot of people who would be nicknamed ‘The Rabbi.’ It caught on. What choice did I have? What else are you gonna to call a Jewish kid from Philadelphia?”
Veingrad, who now tours the country speaking about his personal transformation (he embraced the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic movement), began observing the Sabbath after his playing days. In an interview last September on the topic of Sabbath-observant Jews in high-profile careers, Veingrad said he has given the prospect of being Orthodox in the NFL “a tremendous amount of thought.”
“I don’t think it would be a possible thing for me to say to the coaching staff or the ownership of the team that I am shomer Shabbos and therefore I can’t make the team meetings on Friday because I have to travel Friday and I can’t travel with the team on Saturday and keep Shabbos,” Veingrad said. “I think if I took that approach, I would no longer be in the National Football League.”
However, Veingrad said that if “you’re one of the greatest players to play in the game,” the team and ownership “would make certain exceptions for you, as you’re the franchise and you’re the guy, and if they wouldn’t, there’d be some other team to make those exceptions, and I think it’s black and white like that.”
In a 12-year NFL career also spent with the Steelers and Tennessee Titans, Miller made just the one trip.
Miller, 41, recalls with embarrassment an on-field meeting with Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton while stretching. As the two leaders of the free world walked by, Miller nervously said something unprintable that he now laughingly regrets, though it provided comedy for him during the game.
“I panicked,” Miller said. “The whole first half, I would talk to random guys on the sidelines and say, ‘Can you believe what I said to two presidents?’ ”
Miller has been a much better talker since. He anchors a drive-time sports talk show in Pittsburgh. Additionally, he often speaks to kids’ groups, and one of his favorite topics is embracing his Jewishness. He’s even working on a book, “Who Let Jew In?” that features interviews with other Jewish athletes.
While Miller’s sharp sense of humor will likely permeate the book, the message is simply to teach children to be proud of their heritage.
“I can’t tell you who to fall in love with, but I can tell you what you are,” said Miller, who was raised Conservative in East Brunswick, N.J. “Kids would like to hang their hats on somebody who’s the same. There are a lot more Jewish athletes out there, and I think that’s why this book is going to be good.”
Grossman went undrafted after a fine career at Temple University, but was viewed as “undersized” by NFL teams. He overcame long odds and eventually stuck with Pittsburgh. The Steelers won the Super Bowl in Grossman’s rookie season of 1974, and he caught a touchdown pass in his second trip.
Grossman said he felt the pull of the city’s Jewish community almost immediately.
“Every kid who is growing up may gravitate to a person for a different reason,” said Grossman, who still lives in the area. “If you have some sort of connection, it makes for a strong bond. Being a young Jewish man at that point in time — and Pittsburgh has an active Jewish community — it was nice for them to have somebody of their own. It’s far from a good comparison, but when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, the African-American community took to him.”
A 1999 inductee into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, Grossman jokingly refers to himself as a “Manischewitz Jew.”
“It’s like being a ‘Chef Boyardee Italian,’ ” he said with a laugh. “I grew up in a Conservative congregation but would consider myself Reform. The rabbi at my bar mitzvah [wasn’t] sure I was going to get there, but he said if they didn’t know where I was, they could look at the back of the synagogue and find me playing football.”