Ask a professional athlete what matters most and the answer might surprise you. It’s not the money (although that certainly is important); it’s “the ring,” the symbol of being a member of a championship team.
As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare to take on the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas this Sunday, it was time for Randy Grossman to reminisce.
Grossman was a tight end on the Steelers during their dynasty decade of the 1970s. He holds the “record” for most Super Bowl rings won by a Jewish player with four (1974, ’75, ’78, ’79). Next on the list is Barton Harris, who earned three with the San Francisco 49ers (1988, ’89, ’94), and Harris’ teammate, John Frank, who won two (1984, ’88). Other Jews who have the souvenirs include Bobby Stein, the first Jew to appear in a Super Bowl (Kansas City Chiefs, 1970), Lyle Alzado (Oakland Raiders, 1983), Alan “Shlomo” Veingrad (Dallas Cowboys, 1992), and Josh Miller (New England Patriots, 2004).
Grossman caught a very tidy 119 passes in 118 regular season games, good for 1,514 yards (12.7 yard-per-reception average) and five touchdowns over an eight-year career. He added another score in Super Bowl X against the Cowboys, catching a short pass from Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw in the 21-17 victory, 36 years ago.
“It’s exciting but one of the things I try to make people realize is that whatever level you’re at when you’re playing in a championship game — whether it’s in high school or college or professionally — it is the most exciting thing that could happen,” Grossman said in a telephone interview from his home in Pittsburgh. “Doing something great in high school wasn’t any less exciting than doing something as a professional. That was — at that point in time — a significant highlight.”
Grossman, 59, was born in Philadelphia and played football for the Temple University Owls from 1971 to ’74. He was named AP Third Team All-American in 1973 as he led the team in catches (39), yardage (683), and touchdowns (four).
One would think he would have been eager to play for the hometown Eagles, but, as a receiver, Grossman said he was more entranced with the pass-heavy offense of the American Football League than the grind-it-out rushing of the NFL (the two leagues merged in 1969).
“The AFL was where all the throwing action was,” he said. “My favorite teams were the Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Diego Chargers because they threw the ball.”
Grossman signed with the Steelers as a free agent the day after going unsigned in the 1974 draft. “If you didn’t get drafted, it was pretty much of a long shot,” he said.
Like many Jewish athletes in a predominantly non-Jewish industry, Grossman received the nickname “The Rabbi.”
“The fellow who pretty much nicknamed everyone was Dwight White, who recently passed away. He and I were locker neighbors and, yeah, what are you gonna call a white kid from Philadelphia who’s Jewish? Sparky?”
Steve Furness, one of their Steeler teammates, converted to Judaism but Grossman denied having a hand in the process. “His wife was Jewish and that was the primary catalyst for his conversion, for his children.”
Grossman, who was inducted into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1999, described himself as a “Manischewitz Jew.”
“The rabbi at my bar mitzva commented about me that I wasn’t always inside [the synagogue], but they always knew where to find me — outside playing football.”
Grossman said he could recall only one incident of anti-Semitism over his many levels in the sport. “An individual player on the field said something derogatory and as soon as he said it, from the look on his face, I think he realized how out of line he was.”
He shrugged off the comment. “In sports — in my era and currently — it really is the great melting pot. If you ‘bring game,’ you’re fine. If you’re an imposter, then they’ll run you out regardless of what your religious preferences are or ethnic background is. It was obviously different in the ’60s, ’50s, ’40s, but from the time that I’ve been involved, it’s been completely open and purely performance-based acceptance or non-acceptance.”
Unlike today’s multi-millionaire stars, Grossman played in an era when having an off-season job was a given. He has worked in the financial services industry for the past 21 years.
“The economics of the game from when I played…was significantly different. Once you were finished playing football, as [Steeler head coach] Chuck Knoll used to say, you got on with your life’s work. For a lot of us, our reputations as adults were started here, so a lot of people stayed here and found jobs, went into business, did what they did next.”
Asked to make his pick for Sunday’s game, Grossman could hardly get out his answer through his laughter. “The Steelers!” he said. Of course.
He will not be jetting off to Dallas, however. “There are two ways to see a game,” he said. “Obviously one is to go, and you have to go to experience it. But to see it, you watch it on TV or video. So I’m gonna be kicked-back and comfortable and watch it at home.”