It all started in 1989 with a bunch of guys who just wanted to play American football.
Football isn’t a top sport in Israel. In fact, when you say football in Israel, it’s understood as soccer, which is arguably the country’s number one sport.
“At the beginning when we had a touch football league, it was eight teams, about ten on each team,” Steve Leibowitz, the President of American Football in Israel (AFI), explains. “So it was about 80 guys that just got together and played and we got t-shirts and found referees and, you know, started figuring it all out.”
Then, about ten years ago, Leibowitz, who founded the organization with a friend, heard of some Israelis who play in the park. The groups got together and formed the IFL, the Israel Football League, operating under the AFI.
Eventually the league drew the attention of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. An IFL player was working as a concierge at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem when he happened to recognize the Patriots owner. He approached Kraft and told him about the league. Now Robert Kraft sponsors several programs on a regular basis, including the IFL, the high school league and the women’s national flag football team. He built the first football field in Israel, appropriately named Kraft Family Stadium, and funded the construction of a major sports complex in Jerusalem that features a regulation size football field.
This past June, Kraft brought a delegation of 18 Hall of Fame players to see the progress being made in Israel. The trip, called Touchdown in Israel, marked the second time Kraft arrived in the Jewish State with Hall of Famers.
The group that arrived two years ago decided to donate to the team.
“A number of them got together, anonymously really, and sent us a donation for our national team,” Leibowitz tells Sports Retriever. “So here are these former NFL players, these greats, they are the greatest players who ever lived, that thought enough of our program that they sent us a donation for our national team to help us go to our tournament last year.”
This time around, the Hall of Fame players said they didn’t get a chance to really see the Israeli players on the field, but from what they saw, there is a future for football in the country.
“They’ve got good players, it’s a matter of opportunity,” Cris Carter tells Sports Retriever. “Football is a, it’s a very physical game, it’s a repetition game, and it’s also a team game, but all the principles it teaches young people, they’re great.
“They’re used to that, Israelis they’re committed to the service, women doing two year commitment, men doing three year commitment, football teaches us the same thing, being committed to a team, working for a common goal and trying to win.”
Over the years, football in Israel expanded from 80 players who gathered to play touch football to around 2,000, comprising of youth, high school, men and women teams and both flag and tackle football. Israel’s men’s flag football team is ranked 8th in the world, the women are ranked 7th.
But the sport is not the billion dollar industry we know in the States. It doesn’t even have the funds to pay everyone.
“Coaching is a big issue, there is no way we can afford to pay full time coaches,” Leibowitz said. “Most of our coaches are pretty much volunteers and they come either as former college players themselves who move to Israel. So there isn’t a whole lot of coaching experience in the country, but it’s something we’re working on.”
One of the coaches, Harrison Shames, is a 25-year-old American who recently moved to Israel and is now the head coach of an IFL team and a high school team.
“It’s difficult,” Shames tells Sports Retriever. “You definitely become resourceful, trying to figure out the ways to kind of get done what you want to get done.”
Shames says the biggest thing is getting game equipment, everything else is secondary. Adding that they are lucky to have the support they have and most importantly, they’re playing.
“You make the best of what it is,” he says. “At the end of the day, when you strap on your pads, you’re playing.”
For him, the Jerusalem football field is a huge step. It’s an opportunity to play on a field with football markers, not a soccer field with cones as sidelines. The next step for the league is to create more fields around the country.
“If you have a home then you can really practice and develop your players and your program in a much more serious way,” Leibowitz explained.
With the equipment and facilities they do have, IFL coaches are trying to give players the best possible training to reach the next level: American universities.
Yaniv Kovalski, 22, did just that. The offensive tackle first started playing six years ago in high school, when the high school league started; beforehand, he had no idea what football was.
“I didn’t know what was tackle football, maybe I had seen something on YouTube,” Kovalski says. But once he started playing, there was no looking back. “I fell in love with the sport, I felt I belonged.”
This upcoming fall, Kovalski will be playing for Stonehill College, a DII school in Massachusetts. Getting the scholarship wasn’t an easy task, Kovalski spent a lot of his own time and money training, he even hired his own trainer. Kovalski says he would train more than 25 hours a week while serving as a day worker in the Israeli army. He would go to the gym on his own four times a week, twice with his trainer, would practice twice with the team and would play a flag football game and a tackle football game.
“When I actually signed that scholarship and knew where I’m going next, I have never felt that relief in years, since I started playing football,” Kovalski says. “I had never felt that relief in knowing that everything will be okay.”
Kovalski knows he still has to prove himself to his new coaches, and hopes to graduate early and get a chance to play for a DI school. But even so, his story is an example of the heights Israeli players can reach. Which is why for Leibowitz and the league it’s important to build a league of locals, and not to import talent.
“We have made progress, we don’t have the same kind of coaching they have in the United States, the same kind of training facilities and regime that they have in the US,” Leibowitz explains. “But it’s all home grown football, meaning we don’t bring American players and call that team Israel like baseball does, we grow our own players and it’s Hebrew in the huddle now.”
According to Leibowitz, about 70% of the players in the league are pure Israelis, meaning they didn’t emigrate to Israel from the US themselves and aren’t the children of American immigrants.
If you ask these players, their dream is very similar to those in America: going pro.
“I will do my best to get a shot at the NFL, it’s the dream. If there is a football guy who tells you that his dream is not to get to the NFL, he’s BSing,” Kovalski laughs. “Even though it might be out of reach, in my case it’s really, really, really close to zero for me to get there. But I was told the same thing about college, so I’m just taking it the furthest that I can.”
Big thanks to Sovrn and Ash who helped with this article