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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.