Bnai Brith Magazine - Fall 2010

Igor Olshansky: Samson Of The Gridiron

David Elfin 0000-00-00 00:00:00

Dallas Cowboys defensive end Igor Olshansky is the first National Football League player to have been born in the former Soviet Union. That in itself makes him unique. But the 28-year-old Olshansky is also almost certainly the first NFL player to sport a large pair of Star of David tattoos on his upper body and to say the Shema, quietly to himself, before every game. “I am proud that I am a Jewish football player,” said Olshansky, one of at least six Jewish NFL players, including teammate and guard Kyle Kosier. “I got the tattoos [in college] because it’s who I am. That’s the image I wanted to portray. It’s a misconception that Jews aren’t tough. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, not long after they came to this country, a lot of Jews were great boxers. Maybe I’m just reminding people that Jews are tough.” Any opponent who has tried to block the 6-foot-6, 315-pound Olshansky can attest to his toughness. So can those who have been on his side. “Igor has mental toughness,” said Todd Grantham, his position coach last season. “He’s a true professional. He takes a lot of pride in his work and in being in top condition. He’s probably the strongest player in the NFL. And Igor’s very smart. He studies the game. He really helped our run defense. He responds to coaching and wants to do things the right way. He’s also a better athlete than people give him credit for. He’s a fun guy to be around. He should be able to play for a long time.” Among Jews in professional football, he has some illustrious predecessors. Two of the NFL’s first star quarterbacks, Benny Friedman and Sid Luckman, were Jewish. So were great off ensive mind Sid Gillman and fellow championship coach Marv Levy. They are all enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, along with offensive lineman Ron Mix and coach-turned-owner Al Davis, one of 11 NFL franchise owners who are Jewish. While Olshansky has yet to achieve such immortal status in the game, his presence has already earned him a distinctive nickname: Samson of the Gridiron. Olshansky, who joined his parents and sister in leaving Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, for San Francisco as a 7-year-old in 1989, comes by his size naturally. His father, Yury, a fine multi-sport athlete who excelled especially at basketball while in the Red Army, is a solidly built 6-foot tall former butcher and machinist. His mother, Alexandra, a former accountant and bank clerk, and older sister Marina, a chiropractor, are both at least 5-foot-9. Growing up in San Francisco, Olshansky—always tall for his age—loved basketball. However, football wasn’t part of his life for many years, although he had zoomed from not speaking English to fluency in three months after arriving as a second grader. Two years later, Olshansky’s parents sent him to the Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox school where the vast majority of students were also immigrants from the former USSR. That’s where he was really exposed to Judaism for the first time. “In my family, being Jewish wasn’t like a lifestyle, it was like a nationality,” Olshansky said. “Maybe [you celebrate] some holidays, maybe you marry someone Jewish. That was about the extent of Judaism. We might have some Jewish dishes like gefilte fish or matzo ball soup, but we didn’t light Shabbat candles or keep kosher.” So Olshansky had to catch up on Judaism at the Hebrew Academy and as usual, he was an eager student. “Igor was a very well-behaved young man, a model student,” said Rabbi Pinchas Lipner, the Hebrew Academy’s founder and Judaic Studies director. “He studied Torah and davened every day. He came here not knowing much about Judaism. By the time he left, being Jewish was so much a part of him that he married one of our girls [Liya Rubinshteyn, also an immigrant from the Ukraine]. Igor is a wonderful young man. I’m very proud of him. He’s connected to the Jewish people with his ethics and morals and he has a Jewish home.” But since the Hebrew Academy— where Edward Teller, inventor of the hydrogen bomb, taught for two decades—didn’t have athletics, Olshansky, a recreation league basketball standout with dreams of a college scholarship and an NBA contract, felt he needed to find another scholastic home for high school. He enrolled at nearby St. Ignatius College Preparatory School, a Catholic institution. “The Hebrew Academy kind of developed who I was,” Olshansky said. “Being Jewish was something I embraced. The teachers at St. Ignatius were mostly priests, but there was a Jewish teacher and maybe four or five Jewish students, and we started a Jewish club. There were crosses everywhere, but that didn’t bother me. I find religion interesting. I went to chapel, but I didn’t have to take communion. San Francisco’s a pretty liberal city, so no one at St. Ignatius gave me a hard time about being Jewish.” By his junior year, Olshansky was 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds. He tried out for the football team at the behest of the school’s former coach Vince Tringalli, who had tutored Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts at St. Ignatius. Olshansky said that the old-school coach “lit a fi re in me” for the sport. Although Olshansky was still learning the game, the University of Oregon, Fouts’ alma mater, offered him a scholarship before his senior year of high school after being wowed with his athletic ability during a summer football camp in Eugene. Olshansky improved greatly that season and at 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, he could run 40 yards in just 4.85 seconds. “Igor hadn’t played very much football, but it was easy to see all his athletic tools,” recalled Oregon defensive line coach steve Greatwood. “He was just a physical specimen. We don’t get that many blue-chip athletes. We take kids with potential and try to project where they’ll be two years down the road. “ So Olshansky spent his first year at Oregon on the sidelines in order to learn football’s nuances. “I didn’t fall in love with football until later,” Olshansky said. “I played it because I was good at it. Slowly, it became a part of me, a part of who I am, something I took pride in and wanted to be good at.” Olshansky was picked for Sports Illustrated’s All-Bowl Game team at the end of his first college season, and his confi dence just blossomed. “We had a very talented group of kids with Igor, Haloti Ngata [now a Baltimore Ravens standout] and Junior Siavii [who’s trying to restart his career with the Cowboys],” Greatwood said. “It was great competition, and Igor always wanted to be the best, whether that was on the field or in the weight room. He got the other kids similarly motivated. Igor was very prideful. He didn’t need a lot of direction. He did what he was supposed to do. He was very focused on helping his family by making it to the NFL.” After two seasons as a full-time starter for Oregon, Olshansky’s determination paid off when the San Diego Chargers chose him in the second round of the 2004 NFL draft. “Igor’s physical presence, his strength, that’s the first thing everybody noticed,” said Dallas coach Wade Phillips, then San Diego’s defensive coordinator. “He’s such a hard worker, really dedicated to what he’s doing.” After a happy fi rst four years in San Diego capped by career highs of 69 tackles and 3.5 sacks for the AFC finalists in 2007, Olshansky felt ill-treated the next season with his contract expiring. “I started right away in San Diego and things were pretty cool,” he said. “We won a lot of games and I had a lot of fans. I got Qualcomm Stadium cheering, ‘Igor! Igor!’ quite a few times. But my last year there, they went with [younger defensive tackle] Luis Castillo. I wanted to stay in San Diego because moving is so much anxiety and stress, but they said they were going to let me be a free agent.” Not that Olshansky was worried about finding a new home with fi ve years as an NFL starter behind him, although he had yet to turn 27. Phillips, his defensive coordinator from 2004– 2006, was now in charge in Dallas, where Olshansky would move to end in the Cowboys’ 3-4 alignment. “I was really pumped to play for Wade again,” said Olshansky, who signed a four-year $18 million contract. “I knew that he liked my game. I was one of his guys. Things have turned out great for me in Dallas.” And for the Cowboys, who not only won the formidable NFC East during Olshansky’s debut season but also captured their fi rst playoff victory in 13 years. “Igor’s gotten better every year and I think he’ll keep developing,” Phillips said. “He’s got a great attitude. That’s one of the reasons we tried to get him. I knew we could count on Igor. He’s going to be a hard worker. He’s going to try to get better all the time. And he’s a smart guy with a lot of ability.” Although Olshansky’s background, whether the Ukraine, the Hebrew Academy, or the streets of San Francisco, is so diff erent from that of most of his teammates, he quickly became a leader in Dallas. “Igor pushes everybody in the weight room and on the field by his work ethic,” Phillips said. “That’s hard to do in your first year with a team, but he did that for us last year, giving us that type of attitude. In the weight room, everybody sees how hard Igor works. He’s kind of a dominant player in there. He can fit in with any group because of his personality and the way he treats people.” San Francisco remains home, but Olshansky is happy with his decision to relocate to Texas. “What I bring to the Cowboys is an oldschool tough, hard-working, physical player,” he said. “I bring it every play, every game consistently. There are a lot of guys who are very flashy and will make a great play, but they’re not consistent in the way they play or the way they work off the field. There are a lot of lazy people in the National Football League, believe it or not. I outwork almost everybody, so when I line up, I know I’m going to win. I’m in better shape. I’m stronger. And I’m mentally tougher.” Olshansky is so focused on football and doing his job to the best of his ability that he hasn’t really considered what career he might pursue after his playing days end. “I hope I won’t have to work,” said Olshansky, who’s a year shy of a degree in psychology. “I might get into some kind of training. I would rather raise my son [Lourence Lev] and live my life. And my wife and I hope to have more children.” Proud Jewish children, of course Sid Luckman: A Football Legend College and Pro Football Hall of Famer Sid Luckman, considered by many to be the finest T-formation quarterback in the National Football League, revolutionized professional football. In 1965, he became the first Jew elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A member of the Columbia College class of 1939, he was a passing tailback and punter for the Ivy League school in New York City. Even though he was chosen second overall for that year’s professional draft, he stayed in school to graduate and had no plans to continue playing after that. But George Halas, owner-coach of the Chicago Bears, changed his mind. The Brooklyn-born son of German- Jewish immigrants, Luckman was an all-pro quarterback with the Chicago Bears for 12 seasons (1939–50). Luckman helped the Bears win five Western Conference championships and four world championships in seven years. As quarterback in the 1940 NFL championship game, Luckman used the T-formation to help the Bears crush the Washington Redskins, 73-0, the most lopsided victory in NFL history. Luckman’s best game statistically was on November 14, 1943, when he passed for a record of seven touchdowns and 443 yards. During that season, Luckman set the league record for touchdown passes in a 10-game season with 28.

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