Anthony Firkser opens up about being one of the few Jewish NFL players

Anthony Firkser didn’t start playing soccer until his sophomore year of high school. That may not sound strange to the average person, but for someone who is now a professional NFL player, it’s a much later start than most of his peers.

The reason? His Jewish mother, suspicious of the dangers of gambling.

Although her parents Alex and Donna are now supportive of her career, her mother still “always watches documentaries, and that makes things worse for her, on everything related to concussions.”

“But they are happy for me, and they are very supportive, and they try to make as many games as they can to be there for me,” Firkser told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Despite family fears, the 26-year-old Firkser has built a quietly stable career as an NFL tight end. He has at times started for the Tennessee Titans, the team he has played for since 2018.

He is also one of the few Jewish players in the league. He hasn’t experienced any anti-Semitism in the NFL, but said he’s often the first Jewish person some of his teammates meet.

“It’s great to talk about … sharing a slightly different background than a lot of guys are used to in the league,” Firkser said. “Boys learn about [Judaism] they have never experienced it. “

Last year, in the wake of DeSean Jackson’s anti-Semitic comments, Firkser and some other Jewish soccer players spoke publicly about being Jewish. Firkser was one of nine Jewish NFL players who participated in an online conversation about Jews and professional soccer. In the wake of the controversy, Firkser became an ambassador for Unity Through Sport, a non-profit organization dedicated to “using sports as a vehicle to take a stand against discrimination and hatred in our society.”

Anthony Firkser executes a pass for a touchdown during a game against the New York Jets at Nissan Stadium in Nashville on December 2, 2018 (Credit: WESLEY HITT / GETTY IMAGES)

“Unity Through Sport is an initiative that tries to unite everyone. It’s like a locker room where nobody sees differences, ”says Firkser. “We are all working towards a common goal. That was a good thing to back up and be able to use my Jewish background as something that could be seen as different that people don’t understand, but show them how similar everything is. ”

Firkser grew up in Manalapan, New Jersey, where he attended Hebrew school as a child and had a bar mitzvah.

“We had a lot of bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs in the family, we always had a good time,” he said. “We celebrate the main holidays: Hanukkah, Easter, we try to get together to spend time together.”

One of the highlights of Jewish growth was playing in the Maccabiah Games in 2013, the international competition for Jewish athletes, in basketball.

“I was able to go to Israel for three weeks, do a lot of sightseeing and spend time with other Jewish athletes. To learn more about them and their backgrounds and traditions, it was a great experience to learn about religion and heritage and Israel as a whole, ”he said.

The Maccabiah Games was also the last organized basketball tournament in which he played. In Manalapan High School, he was a multi-sport athlete: he played basketball, ice hockey, and eventually soccer. He decided to focus on soccer, although he never thought he would play professionally.

“I always had hopes and dreams, but it felt like something that was a long shot,” Firkser said. “All children dream of playing sports. I didn’t set my goals too high and I took them step by step. “

He was drafted to play for Harvard, not exactly an NFL high school. Firkser is one of only five Harvard football players on an active NFL roster, and one of 12 total to play at an Ivy League school.

“In college, seeing the guys in front of me get those opportunities [to play in the NFL], it started to get a little more realistic in my eyes, “he said. “In my second and third years, I was playing a lot more and I started to focus on how I could get to the next level.”

Firkser was not drafted when he graduated, but he signed with the New York Jets as a free agent in May 2017, only to be released in September. Two months later, the Kansas City Chiefs signed him with their practice squad, offering a future contract in January 2018, but then released him in April 2018. The Titans signed Firkser as a free agent in May 2018, and he entered on your active team. list in October of that year.

His rocky road to play was difficult.

“The speed is definitely different,” he said of the university in front of the professionals. “The type of athletes that are there, the size and strength that you face is very different.”

He made his NFL debut in September 2018 and scored his first career touchdown in December 2018 against the Jets. Last year was a standout season for Firkser – he appeared in all 16 regular-season games for the Titans.

A career highlight came in the postseason, in a 2020 playoff game against the New England Patriots, when Firkser scored a touchdown in the Titans’ first series.

Going back to New England for that playoff game was meaningful to him.

“I had a group of family members there, a group of colleagues from the university came in,” recalls Firkser. “It was a great experience to have them all there and to be able to share that with them and to know that they have supported me along the way and that they lived it together.”

“Being able to go against Tom Brady and that team and have some big plays was definitely something I’ll always remember.”

Firkser hasn’t met many other Jewish players in the NFL, but he did play with Greg Joseph, a Jewish kicker who was on the Titans in 2019. They came together to “share similar experiences.”

“You get a little stronger connection, coming from the same background and with those same traditions,” Firkser said of Joseph. “He did things with Maccabiah [Games] also in soccer, so we were able to share stories about that. “

In the face of Hanukkah, Firkser usually tries to celebrate with the family. He is a huge fan of latkes, which he pronounces in the old-fashioned way, like “lat-keys”. (He also loves matzo ball soup, although that staple is associated with a different holiday.)

But this year, Hanukkah falls very early, making his schedule difficult.

“I’ll light some candles,” says Firkser. “We will do something to maintain that tradition [going]. ”

The Titans play the Patriots in Foxborough, just 45 minutes from Harvard campus, on the first night of Hanukkah, Sunday, November 28. After all, he will be in a kind of home during the holidays.

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