Abigail Klein Leichman
June 19, 2017, Updated June 21, 2017

Last night, a cheering crowd at Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem showed the love to the most prestigious group of Pro Football Hall of Famers (“Gold Jackets”) ever to appear outside the United States.

The 18 Gold Jackets included Lem Barney, Jerome “The Bus” Bettis, Jim Brown, Cris Carter, Dave Casper, Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, “Mean” Joe Greene, Willie Lanier, Joe Montana, Andre Reed, Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, John Stallworth, Roger “Captain America” Staubach, Andre Tippett, Aeneas Williams and Ron Yary.

And the love went both ways. The players signed footballs and jerseys for the mostly American expat fans, threw a few passes and posed for selfies.

Former NFL wide receiver Cris Carter accepting a jersey from a young fan with his name written in Hebrew. Photo by Abigail K. Leichman

Several of them shared their impressions of Israel with about 1,000 invitees, speaking about their experiences five days into the trip led by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker.

“I hope our being here will inspire some Israeli kid who wants to be the first to come over to play in the NFL, because I do believe that’s possible,” said former Pittsburgh Steelers great Bettis.

He was accompanied by his wife and said that “being in Israel has changed our lives. Coming to Jerusalem, we had no idea what it was going to look like. We just stayed up talking about how incredible the city was, but even more important than that, the people,” said Bettis.

“The resolve of the Jewish people resonated with me. Now we understand what it means to be a community, because that’s what it feels like here: one giant community who believes in each other and who works together for each other. It’s an amazing sight to see.”

Legendary halfback Jerome Bettis speaking with Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker at Kraft Family Stadium. Photo by Abigail K. Leichman

With the exception of Tippett, none of the visiting Gold Jackets is Jewish.

Legendary quarterback Joe Montana said this was his second time in Israel with his wife, Jennifer, and the first time their two sons accompanied them.

“We’ve been in Israel for five days, and the one thing we’re always so surprised at is that the people here are wonderful. It feels like family and you feel that everywhere you go,” said Montana.

Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach recalled that while serving as a naval officer in Vietnam in 1967, he heard about the existential danger Israel faced in the Six-Day War.

Sometimes called “Captain Comeback” for his fourth quarter game-winning heroics with the Dallas Cowboys, Staubach said that he sees parallels between team sports and the Israeli spirit.

“In sports, it takes a lot of unspectacular preparation to get spectacular results and you have to just work at it, and it takes trust in your teammates. Sports has taught me a lot about the teamwork aspect and also the adversity. And there’s nobody more than the great people of Israel who understand that adversity reveals and prosperity conceals. You find out the best of people when times are tough,” said Staubach.

Lucky charm

Baker first brought 19 Gold Jackets to Israel two years ago.

“It was an experience that changed everybody’s life who touched the holy land and touched the spirit of the Israeli people,” he said. “It was so incredible that we have now brought 18 more this year.”

During the week long “Touchdown in Israel II” mission this month, Kraft will inaugurate the Kraft Family Sports Campus, to which he contributed $6 million. It is to open in time for the Maccabiah Games starting on July 4.

“This will be the first regulation-size American football field in this part of the world, and will certainly be another milestone in the development of football in Israel,” said Steve Leibowitz, president and founder of the American Football Federation in Israel, the official federation for all football activities in the country, including men’s and youth tackle leagues and men’s, women’s and youth flag football leagues.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (center) with two IAF pilots and Pro Football Hall of Famers at Tel Nof air base, June 15, 2017. Photo by Scally Photography

Kraft built the stadium in which the ceremony was taking place, in a section of the city’s Sacher Park, completed in the year 2000.

He said that advancing American football in Israel has been a sort of lucky charm.

“I first came to Israel 54 years ago on my honeymoon,” Kraft told the crowd. “I’ve been supporting Israel for 50 years, but my sweetheart, Myra, said, ‘You’re never going to win with the Patriots until you get football involved here.’ And she was right, as usual. In 1999 we got involved here, and won our first Super Bowl in ’01.”

Since then, the Patriots have won Super Bowl competitions four more times.

Kraft compared his team’s fourth-quarter victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the latest Super Bowl to “the history of this great country,” Israel.

“It’s about great preparation, never giving up and winning,” said Kraft. “In that spirit, I wanted to bring the best people here and give them the best experiences in this country. Tonight we have the greatest players in the 97-year history of football in America, sitting right here in Jerusalem.”

18 “Gold Jackets” at Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem, June 18, 2017. Photo by Abigail K. Leichman

Leibowitz presented two footballs signed by each of the Gold Jackets to the Israeli company ElMindA, a pioneer in neuroscience-based technology for analyzing brain network functionality.

“The issue of concussions and brain health has been very concerning for the sport of football,” said Leibowitz. “The Israeli company ElMindA has been on the cutting edge of technology toward finding solutions relating to this problem and helped sponsor tonight’s event.”

Check out the first three episodes of our series “We All Speak Ball,” on American football in Israel.


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