Chiefs’ Schwartz balances football and his Jewish faith

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10/23/2013 1:35 PM

05/16/2014 10:08 AM

At the start of each football season, Chiefs offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz’s parents send him a spreadsheet mapping out important dates in the fall calendar.

The printout highlights the Chiefs’ schedule as well as that of the Cleveland Browns, where Schwartz’s younger brother Mitchell starts at right tackle.

And not to be overlooked, the spreadsheet pinpoints the Jewish High Holy Days, which begin at sundown tonight with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and conclude Sept. 13-14 with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

It’s a difficult balancing act for Schwartz and other Jewish athletes to fulfill their obligations to their teams and their commitments to their faith. Invariably, football practices, and sometimes games, conflict with observing the Jewish high holidays in synagogue.

“It’s important to me to honor my tradition,” said Schwartz, 27. “I try to figure out if I can make the high holiday services. Most years it’s tough, but I try to make it work somehow. But I know I have a job to do. I know I’ll have my job for only a certain number of years, and I’ll have the rest of my life to go to services and do all that.”

Schwartz’s parents and fiancée plan to come to Kansas City next weekend for Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown on Sept. 13 with the Kol Nidre service and includes 24 hours of fasting. And they’ll attend the Chiefs’ home opener against the Dallas Cowboys on Sept. 15.

Schwartz, who won’t fast the day before the game against Dallas, will be able to attend the Friday night service at a Johnson County congregation with his family but will spend Saturday with his teammates at meetings in the morning and at the team hotel that night.

“I like going to the services,” Schwartz said. “It’s the start of a new year, and that’s always enjoyable,” he said. “I like Yom Kippur, because it’s a day of atonement, a day of reflection.”

Because Judaism goes by a lunar calendar as opposed to the secular calendar, the dates of the High Holy Days vary from year to year. But they always fall sometime at the start of football season.

“I’ve never missed any football because of the holidays,” said Schwartz, who played collegiately at Oregon.

“In high school they might have even moved the game back on Rosh Hashana. In college, we had a game at Stanford on Yom Kippur, but it was a night game, so I went to services in the morning.

“It always seems to fall on the weekend. My dad has done a fast in Dallas, Palo Alto, San Diego. Now he’ll be here for the holidays in Kansas City.”

Schwartz grew up in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and heard the stories of how the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax refused to pitch game one of the 1965 World Series, and Detroit’s Hank Greenberg sat out a game during the 1934 pennant drive because the games were on Yom Kippur.

But Koufax and Greenberg were future Hall of Famers. Schwartz, with his third NFL team in five years, doesn’t have that kind of clout. Mostly a backup, Schwartz has started 19 games in four seasons, though he’s holding down the Chiefs’ starting right-guard position until Jon Asamoah returns from a calf injury.

“It’s tough to explain to people who ask, ‘Why can’t you take a game off? Koufax took a game off,’” Schwartz said. “It’s tough living up to that sometimes. But we’re in two different situations, two different points in our career. He missed game one, but he still pitched three times in the rest of the Series, and they won the series.

“I’m not Sandy Koufax. It would be hard for the sixth or seventh guy in the offensive line to tell Coach, ‘Hey, I’m going to sit this one out, because I have to go to services.’ Koufax did a great thing, and he’s an inspiration to Jewish athletes.”

Schwartz and his brother are the first Jewish siblings to play in the NFL since Ralph and Arnold Horween (also known as Horowitz) played for the Bears during 1921-23. They are among a handful of active Jewish players in the NFL, including Tampa Bay fullback Erik Lorig and offensive tackle Gabe Carimi, Chicago punter Adam Podlesh and Cincinnati safety Taylor Mays.

“We can’t have a minion,” Schwartz laughed, referring to the Jewish requirement of 10 adults to conduct a service.

“You’re definitely proud because there are not many of us. It’s a small club, and I know how much it means to young kids. As much as I don’t feel like I’m a role model or my brother is a role model, I take pride in that and try to be the best role model I can be.”

While Schwartz does not celebrate Christmas, he has often invited teammates to celebrate Hanukkah, an eight-day Festival of Lights, when the two holidays coincide in December.

“I’ve had teammates over to celebrate Hanukkah in college and in the NFL,” said Schwartz, who has played three seasons in Carolina and one at Minnesota. “They seem to enjoy the latkes (potato pancakes) and beef brisket and all that stuff. You try to integrate it a little bit.

“They ask, ‘Oh, you get a (Hanukkah) present every night?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I did when I was 7.’”

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