30 under 30: Josh Rosen

Passing the competition

The Jewish quarterback in the modern era of the NFL is a rare breed. There have only been two: Jay Fiedler, a mostly unheralded eight-year veteran, and Sage Rosenfels, a career second-stringer. Not exactly the types to pile up records and invade living rooms with commercial appearances.

That might change soon.

There has never been a Jewish football player with the promise and potential of UCLA’s current starting quarterback, Josh Rosen, who turns 20 in February.

Already a projected top-10 pick in the 2018 NFL draft, Rosen is the son of a Jewish father and Quaker-Christian mother. His father, Charles Rosen, a spine surgeon, was a nationally ranked ice skater who nearly qualified for the Winter Olympics in the 1970s. His mother, Liz Lippincott, is a former journalist who captained the Princeton lacrosse team.

The tall, sandy-haired Southern California teen attended St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower. Coming out of Bosco, Rosen was the top-ranked passer in the nation’s 2015 high school class, according to Rivals.com, and the second-ranked player overall. He entered training camp at UCLA in the fall of 2015 and won the starting job as a true freshman, beating out incumbent junior Jerry Neuheisel.

After a freshman season that saw him named Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year (60 percent completion percentage, 3,670 yards and 23 touchdowns), Rosen was squarely on the radar of NFL scouts.

The 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound gunslinger has the prototypical mold NFL coaches dream about playing under center: tall enough to see over defenses, a frame with enough bulk to absorb hits, smooth mechanics, a strong and deadly arm, and coolness under fire.

Near the end of his freshman campaign, NFL media analyst Daniel Jeremiah took to Twitter to call Rosen “the most gifted QB in college football.” After last April’s draft in which the Los Angeles Rams took former Cal quarterback Jared Goff with the top overall pick, Rosen’s coach at UCLA, Jim Mora, said that had Rosen been eligible, he would have been selected ahead of Goff. (Players must be three years removed from high school before being eligible to enter the NFL draft.)

“I’m not comparing him to Peyton Manning in the NFL, but at this stage of his career — essentially the same point — he’s the same guy in terms of football intelligence and work ethic,” Mora said in a 2016 Sports Illustrated profile on Rosen. As an assistant coach for the New Orleans Saints in the NFL, Mora got to know Manning well during his high school playing days in the city.

Rosen’s sophomore season kicked off with realistic hopes of a Pac-12 title and Heisman Trophy consideration. However, all that optimism went out the window last October during a game against Arizona State when Rosen suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. The Bruins tumbled to a disappointing 4-8 record while Rosen went through intensive rehab.

The 2017 season is still months away, but Rosen will have a chance to reclaim his place among the top performers in the college ranks. With a big season, Rosen will up his profile just in time to ride some momentum all the way to the grand stage of the 2018 NFL draft, should he choose to forgo a senior season at UCLA.

Whether it’s in 2018 or 2019, Rosen hearing his name called by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on draft day and being handed the reins of an NFL franchise instantly could make him the highest-profile Jewish football star since … well, ever.

Two short of a Minyan—The 1951 UCLA football team

This football season, UCLA’s Jewish quarterback, Josh Rosen, is the talk of the chosen, especially considering he was named the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame Male High School Athlete of the year for 2015. But forgotten today is that, in 1951, UCLA’s football team had eight Jewish players, including two full-fledged inductees into the hall — Myron Berliner and Ira Pauly — making the team just two short of a minyan, from among the 47 or so players.

“That’s significant, especially in an era when college football rosters were smaller than today,” said Ephraim Moxson, co-editor of the Jewish Sports Review, which names Jewish athletes from the high school level to pro. “It says a lot for [Coach] Red Sanders,” Moxson said.

The list of players’ names reads like a synagogue phone directory, with Berliner, Jerry Fields, Dan Laidman, Herb Lane, Pauly, Alan Raffee, Julie Weisstein, Bob Zelinka and Gerry Okuneff — the last being a red-shirt player at the time, who would go on to play on the 1954 National Champion team.

Recently, Brown University’s football team was noted in the New Jersey Jewish News by sports columnist Ron Kaplan for the “five Jewish players on its squad, three upper-classmen and two freshmen,” with one player a starter. But that 1951 UCLA team was in the by-far more competitive Pacific Coast Conference (forerunner to the Pac-12), in an era when players played with minimal protective pads and mouth guards. Four of the eight Jewish players — Weisstein, as co-captain, Lane, Zelinka and Berliner — all were starters, and the team finished 5-3-1, beat USC, and was ranked 17th nationally at season’s end.

Berliner, a defensive end who played for the varsity squad in the last four games of the ’51 season, said recently that it was not a big deal in that era to have so many Jewish players on the team. Having grown up in the heavily Jewish City Terrace neighborhood of East Los Angeles, where he played football for Wilson High School, there were “a lot of Jewish guys,” Berliner, now 83, said.

Myron Berliner (L) and Ira Pauly (R)

Other Jewish UCLA players were also from area high schools in heavily Jewish neighborhoods. Zelinka, as well as Fields — who, after college, helped manage Mark C. Bloom, a tire and automotive repair chain — went to Fairfax, and players Pauly, Raffee (who owned a carpet company and died in a plane crash in the late 1970s) and Weisstein, were all graduates of Beverly Hills High School. Some knew one another even longer; Pauly and Weisstein (who later changed his name to Elliott) were “best friends from kindergarten,” Pauly said.

Although their Jewish heritage was not often mentioned during practice or at game time, one place where the Jewish players could meet, study, and enjoy camaraderie was in their fraternities. Berliner and Zelinka belonged to Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT), a nationally chartered Jewish house, and Pauly, Raffee, Weisstein and Lane — a weak-side end — belonged to Tau Epsilon Phi (TEP), another Jewish house.

“Berliner was a little guy [5 feet 9, 173 pounds] who played like he weighed 250,” Laidman said of his teammate.

Laidman, often called “kamikaze” by some of his teammates for his own style of fearless play, recalled Berliner making a key block in a game against Wisconsin fullback Alan Ameche (6 feet, 218 pounds), the Heisman Trophy winner in 1954 and future player for the Baltimore Colts. “Ameche must have taken the much smaller Berliner for granted,” said Laidman, who went on to become an engineer and then an attorney. Berliner, Laidman remembered, grabbed Ameche, “twirled him around like a rag doll, then threw him to the ground.” 

To team member Pauly, one of the Bruins’ long snappers in ’51, both Laidman, 5 feet 9 and 169 pounds, and Berliner were the “personification of the undersized overachievers that made up the UCLA squad,” he said. “Danny was the smallest, and he would go up against players who weighed 100 pounds more than him. He was always bloody,” said Pauly, who graduated the UCLA medical school in 1958. Pauly, “one of the team’s brainier players,” according to Berliner, later became a psychiatrist, and eventually a professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Nevada School of Medicine in Reno.

“I wanted to show that it didn’t matter what size you were,” Laidman said.

Pauly, who describes himself as not religious but proud to be Jewish, remembers a team incident that highlighted religious differences on the team. “At the time, there was a Youth for Christ Movement,” and Donn Moomah, a star UCLA player and All-American, became very active in it.

Before a UCLA home game in 1952 at the L.A. Coliseum, Pauly remembers the team gathering before the game and Moomah, with head coach Red Sanders’ blessing, leading the team in prayer.

“Everybody was bowing their heads, and I was confused,” Pauly said, recalling the gist of the prayer as, “God help us to win this football game.” When Moomah suddenly concluded the prayer with, “in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ,” Pauly, thrown even further, “wasn’t able to utter those words at the end like everybody else,” he said.

UCLA won the game, but just barely.

The following week, during practice, Sanders, who Pauly didn’t even think knew his name, approached him and asked what he thought about the team prayer.

“I told him I don’t pray to Jesus Christ, I’m Jewish,” Pauly said, adding that though he didn’t want to participate, he didn’t mind if others did.

Later during practice, Pauly was surprised when Moomah came up and grabbed him by the shirt. “No one is going to prevent me from praying to my God. Coach told me that you weren’t in favor of the team prayer. Because of you, we aren’t going to have team prayer anymore,” Pauly recalled Moomah saying. It was then that Pauly realized he was being used as the “scapegoat” for the coach’s decision to put an end to team prayer, he said.

Despite that episode, Pauly, who was named the B’nai B’rith Los Angeles Jewish Collegiate Athlete of the Year in 1953, said he feels that on the team, “Everybody was treated equally.”

Born and raised in the South, Sanders came to UCLA from a head-coaching job at Vanderbilt, where he had coached a star Jewish player, Herb Rich. Apparently, he’d also picked up enough about Jewish observance to chide one of the Jewish players for showing up to practice on Yom Kippur, said Berliner, who was named first team All-Pacific Coast Conference in 1952 and, in 1953, ZBT’s athlete of the year. 

Later this month, Berliner said, he is looking forward to the UCLA reunion of players of the Sanders era (1949-57) known as the Red Sanders Single Wingers, after the offensive team formation he favored. Berliner, during his career as a computer programmer, worked for Hughes and then in Israel for two years on Golem Aleph, a computer for the Weizmann Institute. 

Zelinka, an offensive guard on the 1950 and ’51 teams, remembers Coach Sanders as a model for his own coaching career. “It didn’t make any difference whether you were Black or Jewish or Catholic, everybody was equal. All that mattered was how good of a football player you were,” said Zelinka, whose 1951 team, included about six Black players and eight Jewish ones – close to equal in number — perhaps also a first for a major college team.

After a stint playing football for the Navy, Zelinka retuned to UCLA as the freshman coach. “I was one of the first Jewish coaches of football at UCLA,” Zelinka said.

Having grown up in Boyle Heights, where you “grew up tough,” Zelinka said, he would become the line coach and then assistant head coach at Oregon State, under Tommy Prothro, who in ’51 was the backfield coach at UCLA.

How did their parents — often immigrants -— respond to them playing football? “They didn’t like it,” Berliner said.

“My mother wasn’t that crazy about it, though she never forbade me,” Pauly said. “In those days, the Jewish son was supposed to be a doctor, not a football player,” the doctor said.

“They didn’t mind at all. They were very proud of the fact,” Zelinka said of his parents. Playing football, we learned “how to get up off the ground when you got knocked down.”

Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon Rodman at edmojace@gmail.com.


For the record (11/6/2015):

An earlier version of this story stated that Josh Rosen had been inducted into the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, when actually he was named by the hall as the Male High School Athlete of the Year for 2015 and is not an inductee.

Bruins Prep for Tense Tournament

It’s March Madness, so brush off your brackets, enter your office pool and cheer for two Jewish UCLA Bruins, one male, one female, as they head into the big dance.

Sophomore point guard Jordan Farmar led UCLA to their most successful regular season play since the season leading up to the team’s 1995 National Championship. The 13th-ranked Bruins (27-6) nabbed the Pac-10 Conference regular season title, won the Pac-10 Conference Tournament title and are headed into the national championship tournament as a No. 2 seed.

Last year, the Bruins fell in the first round of March Madness to Texas Tech. But this year, the team is playing much improved basketball, and Farmar considers himself a better team leader.

“I’m just more mature,” said Farmar, who gritted through a season plagued with severely sprained right and left ankles. “When you step up in big situations and do the little things, your teammates respond to you better as a leader. I just had time to improve on that from last year to this year.”

The 6-foot-2, 180-pound guard, averages 30.1 minutes, 2.7 rebounds and 13.6 points per game. He has 164 assists on the season. He started in 31 games. Considered one of the elite point guards in the nation, he was named to the all Pac-10 team, the all Pac-10 Tournament team and is a John Wooden Award, Bob Cousy Award and Naismith Trophy candidate.

In conversation, Farmar is polite, bright and courteous. On the court, he runs a successful offense, plays aggressive defense and can steer his team to victory in tight game situations. He’s fiercely competitive and stays focused, even when his team falls behind.

“It’s not nerve-wracking at all. We just have to stay composed and keep doing what we’ve been doing. When we play defense, rebound and play together, good things happen,” said Farmar, whose Bruins let their 16-point lead slip to just 3 points at the half, before coming back to a 71-59 victory over the Cal Bears in last Saturday’s Pac-10 Tournament Championship. Farmar scored 19 points in the game.

Although he doesn’t consider himself religious, Farmer says he is proud of his Jewish heritage and is happy to speak about his Jewish upbringing. He was bar mitzvahed at Temple Judea and is very close to his mother and stepfather, Melinda and Yehuda Kolani, who raised him in a Jewish home and took him to Israel on family vacations. He is also tight with his father, former pro-baseball player Damon Farmar, who mentored his son in sports.

“My family always comes out to the games; it’s the main reason I stayed at home. It’s great to be able to play in front of them,” Farmar said with a smile.

A Van Nuys native and Taft High School graduate, Farmar enjoys playing for UCLA, especially in front of his hometown crowd.

“I love it. To always have some people behind you is a great thing. It helps you out defensively, with intensity, and gives you that extra edge,” Farmar said.

The Bruins will kick off this week’s NCAA tournament playing close to home, meeting No. 15 seed Belmont in San Diego.

Next year, Ortal Oren will return home to play professional basketball in Israel. But this year, the UCLA guard is thrilled to be playing in the NCAA tournament. On March 6, the Bruins (20-10) rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit to win its first-ever Pac-10 Women’s Basketball Tournament title over the 11th-ranked Stanford. With their 85-76 overtime win, the Bruins clinched an automatic NCAA Tournament bid. “Nobody expected us to win; we went in as the underdogs. The win feels great,” said Oren, who wears the number 00 because it doubles as her initials.

Oren and the Bruins are under more pressure than other teams in the national tournament, whose schools run on the semester system. UCLA, which runs on the quarter system, starts winter finals next week. Both the men’s and women’s teams will take their exams and are expected to juggle studying for finals with intense pre-tournament practice.

“This week, I don’t have time for anything but basketball and school,” said Oren, a psychology major. “I have to do well in both.”

Oren comes from a family of athletes. Her father, Ronen Oren, is the director of the Maccabi Tel Aviv Basketball Academy, and her mother, Ronit Gazit, was a competitive Israeli high jumper. Oren was heavily recruited by colleges after leading Kiriat-Sharet High School to back-to-back Israeli championship teams, and says she is proud to have spent four years as a Bruin.

“I would never trade this UCLA experience for anything in the world. It’s the place I matured as a player, in personality, in everything, and the relationships I created with my teammates — I couldn’t ask for anything else,” the 5-foot-9, Rishon-Lezion native said. “It’s my second home.”

She hopes to return to the United States to play in the WNBA.

The No. 5 seed UCLA will meet No. 12 seed Bowling Green in the first round of tournament play. Going far in the NCAA tournament means a lot to Oren, not just as a graduating senior, but also as an Israeli.

“Israel is my home. And when I play, I’m not just representing my family, but my whole country,” said Oren, who averages 11.1 minutes, 1.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 3 points per game.

For UCLA fans, it’s a treat to follow two Bruin teams, both featuring Jewish players, in March Madness 2006.

“It’s nice to have both the men’s and women’s programs at UCLA sweep the conference tournaments this year,” UCLA men’s coach Ben Howland said. “That’s a fun thing for our program and our school.”


Two Bruins Get Big Kick Out of Sun Bowl

Most of the football world is savoring the high and lows of the Steelers’ Super Bowl romp over the Seahawks, but two unlikely Jewish athletes have their own gridiron memories to relish from this past season.

Jimmy Rotstein and Brian Rubinstein had never played in a college football game, but the 72nd annual Vitalis Sun Bowl on Dec. 30 proved to be a tale of two walk-ons for these UCLA Bruins. The second-string players not only came off the bench, they collaborated on an extra point play. UCLA beat Northwestern and, in their own way, these two athletes made a larger point about hard work and good sportsmanship.

Rotstein’s football career began with his big mouth. As a freshman at Brentwood High, he took a weight-lifting class taught by the assistant football coach. In between sets, Rotstein bragged that kicking a field goal looked easy.

The coach told him that if he could kick a 40-yard field goal, he could get out of gym for the day. Rotstein’s kick was good — as was his second, 45-yard kick. Suddenly, he had a spot on the football team.

Four years later, the UCLA freshman is thrilled just to be a part of a Division 1A team.

“Being offered a walk-on spot at UCLA was the perfect package. It’s close to home, my dad went here and I’ve always been a huge Bruin fan,” said Rotstein, 19.

Which isn’t to say that the 6-foot, 160-pound freshman expected to play in a game this year. But on Dec 11, UCLA’s starting kicker, Justin Medlock, was suspended from the team as a result of a driving under the influence charge. (Medlock has since pleaded not guilty in his ongoing court case.)

After a few weeks of intense, competitive practice, UCLA head football coach Karl Dorell decided his two backup kickers would split the work in the Sun Bowl. Rotstein would take point after touchdown kicks, while fellow walk-on, Brian Malette, would handle kickoffs.

Rotstein was beyond excited. He wasn’t just going to see some action, he was going into a nationally televised bowl game. “I waited all season, I practiced hard and suddenly I was in front of 50,000 people,” said Rotstein. “But I was ready to do it.”

Rotstein admits to getting nervous on the bus ride from the hotel to Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, but “after the first extra-point kick, I felt great.” Rotstein completed all five of his extra-point attempts in his first college game. “That game was the best experience I have ever had.”

Rubenstein would have to rank as an even more unlikely success story. The red-shirt sophomore had spent three seasons with the Bruins, countless hours of practice and had yet to play a single down. Undersized for a center, the 5-foot-11, 265-pound Yorba Linda native watched as other players moved ahead of him on the roster. But Rubenstein, who’s also a member of Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, enjoyed being part of the team and didn’t mind that years of practice hadn’t translated into game time.

“Coming out of high school, I didn’t think I’d be on the UCLA team, so the fact that I’m still here is amazing,” said Rubenstein, who explored playing in the Ivy League before enrolling at UCLA and walking onto the Bruins’ team. Between practices and studying, Rubenstein has little free time, but he wouldn’t want it any other way.

“I wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t playing football, so I just keep working hard,” said Rubenstein, 21.

On Dec 30, his hard work paid off. The starting UCLA long snapper suffered a concussion in the last minutes of the Sun Bowl, so Rubenstein was called into his first NCAA game.

“It all happened pretty quickly, so I didn’t have much time to feel the pressure” said the political science major, who is already back in off-season practice.

In the final extra-point play of the game, Rubenstein snapped the football and Rotstein kicked it. The two walk-on Bruins, who sometimes joke among themselves about being Jewish athletes, got UCLA another point on the board.

“With that last kick, I looked up, saw that Rubenstein was in, and got this big smile on my face,” Rotstein said.

It was a winning day, and not just because 16th-ranked UCLA defeated 25th-ranked Northwestern 50-38.