Greg Joseph, the only Jewish kicker in the NFL, talks about soccer and Judaism

Greg Joseph, the only Jewish kicker in the NFL in years, is used to how mentally exhausting position can be. On Sunday, he found himself in another of his life and death situations.

With two seconds left in a tied game against the division-leading Green Bay Packers on Sunday, Joseph kicked his Minnesota Vikings to victory with a 29-yard field goal, keeping the team’s playoff hopes alive. He was taken off the field by his teammates.

Joseph, who attended Jewish schools in Florida after emigrating from South Africa, said he deals with the pressure of being a kicker by working to have “confidence and faith in my abilities.”

“I know that on my worst day, I am still good enough, and my underlying technique and fundamentals are still good enough,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last week.

Joseph’s kick Sunday night dates back to a similar moment three years ago, when he kicked a game winner for the Cleveland Browns in just his third game as a professional, hours after attaching a mezuzah to the doorpost. from your apartment.

Joseph with Rabbi Yossi Friedman of the Chabad of downtown Cleveland in 2018, along with the mezuzah that Friedman helped Joseph place outside his apartment. (credit: GLEN JOSEPH)

Since then, the 27-year-old’s career as one of the league’s few Jewish players has been a roller coaster ride, ranging from the lows of being released by multiple teams in one year to the highs of a stable starting role. This season, he is the starting kicker for the Minnesota Vikings, making 84% of field goal attempts so far on a team trying to fight its way to a playoff spot.

Through it all, five teams in three years, he has remained committed to the local Jewish communities in the cities he has traveled through. In Cleveland, he showed up to a 5-year-old boy’s birthday party at a Jewish school and set up his mezuzah with the help of a local Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi. Last year, about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he joked, “I think we had three league-leading Jews on one team” – himself, quarterback Josh Rosen and offensive lineman Ali Marpet.

“That sense of community, no matter where you’ve been, has people who come up and offer their support: Shabbat dinners, whatever you need, homemade meals. … Just because they hear I’m Jewish, which is crazy, because they don’t even know me that well, and I don’t even know them, ”he told JTA. “I’ve always thought it is an interesting aspect of the community and the support system it brings.”

Joseph is also comfortable being a symbol of Jewish pride in the NFL – see his pose in a Hanukkah sweater with other Browns players for an Instagram post in 2018.

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The NFL kicker may not seem like the natural target of a Jewish boy born in South Africa, on a continent obsessed with other “football.” In fact, his first dream was to become a professional soccer player, specifically to play for his beloved club Manchester United and “follow in the footsteps of David Beckham.” (He wore a Man United jersey at his post-game conference this week.)

His family moved from Johannesburg to Boca Raton, Florida, when he was 7 years old. Most of what he remembers from his early childhood in South Africa centers on Sydenham Shul, the congregation to which his family belonged and where he attended day school with his two siblings.

“Growing up in South Africa, I remember having a pretty decent-sized Jewish community and going to synagogue every Saturday with my parents,” he said. “All my education is basically based on religion and sports.”

But those two worlds rarely overlap for Joseph in the United States, where he attended Donna Klein Jewish Academy day school through ninth grade.

“When my soccer got more serious and I played soccer on the road, I was usually the only Jewish kid there was, or one of two. And the same when I started playing soccer, ”he said.

The exceptions were the Maccabiah Games, which are held every four years, known as the “Jewish Olympics”. He played soccer with the Boca Raton delegation, participating in Maccabiah youth games in Baltimore, San Diego and Israel.

“I had a good time each time, getting to know different parts of the country and meeting so many other Jewish athletes that you end up keeping in touch with for years,” Joseph said.

Traveling to Israel for its last Maccabiah Games is a treasured memory.

“I love Israel, it is beautiful. To all who will listen to me, I say that you must come visit me at some point. It was an incredible experience, ”he says. “At that point, it becomes bigger than sport: it’s about connection, discovery and learning, and building lifelong relationships with people of the same religion” as you.

He switched to football very late in the game, during his senior year at the American Heritage School in Delray Beach, Florida.

“I got tired of running,” he joked. The real story, he said, was more pragmatic.

“I realized that in this country there are more opportunities to get a scholarship and be a professional in football than in soccer,” he said. “I looked at both options, it was at that moment that kicking was something new for me, it was exciting and something I wanted to continue.”

After attending Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton on a soccer scholarship, Joseph was not selected in the 2018 NFL Draft, but the Miami Dolphins signed him as a free agent and then released him at the start of the season. The Cleveland Browns signed him quickly, and he made his first winning field goal in the fifth week of the season. Throughout the season, his NFL debut, he made 17 of his 20 field goal attempts and 25 of 29 extra points.

Still, the Browns released Joseph prior to the 2019 season. After a brief season with the Carolina Panthers, he joined the Tennessee Titans practice team, playing five games, before moving on to the Tampa Bay practice team. Buccaneers. In February 2021, he finally landed in Minnesota.

In Tennessee, he became close to Jewish tight end Anthony Firkser, who also played in Maccabiah tournaments. In the wake of the controversy over DeSean Jackson’s anti-Semitism, Joseph participated in a panel alongside Firkser and other Jewish players Mitch and Geoff Schwartz on the education of NFL players.

Despite the fallout from Jackson’s infamous Instagram post, in which the then-wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles posted quotes attributed to Adolf Hitler, Joseph said he never feels marked as a Jew in the NFL. The support from the Jewish community that he has felt in each of his teams’ cities is proof, he said.

But it’s his family, Joseph said, that’s the “best base of support” he has, with their backing at times in the form of Jewish food.

“Probably no one will beat my grandmother’s matzo ball soup,” he said.

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