Ethnic heroes are exalted, particularly among minority groups. This is understandable, for heroes play an important role in helping its members identify with the majority’s values and culture. “We have made it,” they make us feel, “and we are as good as everyone else.”
Often, these heroes contradict accepted stereotypes, so among Jews athletic heroes have been boxers who wore the Magen David in the ring, strong and fleet baseball players, and even criminals who in a perverse way were admired for their moxie. But football playing heroes were usually beyond the reach of the Jewish community for most of the last century.
One did stand out, not only for his excellence but also as a revolutionary figure. Before there was a Marino, or a Unitas, or even a Luckman, there was a Friedman. In his carefully researched book, Passing Game, Murray Greenberg recounts the sterling career and complicated life of Friedman, which spanned the Golden Age of Sports (the 1920’s), the growth of professional football (the 40’s and 50’s), and the development of Brandeis University (the 50’s). So outstanding was Friedman that in 1928 Tim Mara bought an entire team, the Detroit Wolverines, to acquire him to become the New York Giants’ quarterback when an offer to trade for him was rebuffed.
Friedman was an accomplished and accurate passer of what today we regard as a misshapen balloon, hardly recognizable as a football. The first great passer, he was an excellent football player — tough, fast, cerebral — whose prowess led to an aerodynamic reshaping of the football and a similar redesign of the game’s rules to permit forward passing.
Greenberg provides the football fan with rich material about many of the game’s legendary figures. He also explores the subtle anti-Semitism which pervaded society in Friedman’s time, and he conveys how Friedman embraced his Jewish roots. Comprehensively researched and cogently organized, this book provides a good introduction to an American hero whose increasing embitterment in his final years could not be eased by the earlier recognition he achieved as a transformational figure.
Noël Kriftcher was a professor and administrator at Polytechnic University, having previously served as Superintendent of New York City’s Brooklyn & Staten Island High Schools district.