October 20, 2019

Nothing trivial about these Jews on the gridiron

Trivia question: What family soon will represent 20 percent of the Jews in the National Football League?

Answer: The one with Geoff and Mitchell Schwartz. Older son Geoff has played two seasons with the Carolina Panthers and now is under contract with the Minnesota Vikings. Younger brother Mitchell, who will almost surely be drafted this week, will join him.

Making any professional league is a long shot, so to have two in the same family borders on the incredible.

“Obviously, it’s a pretty cool thing,” Mitchell said. “We graduated from pretty good colleges. It’s a really cool thing. I’m looking forward to it.”

Geoff played at Oregon, Mitchell at Cal. Both play on the offensive line. Geoff stands about 6-foot-6, 331 pounds; Mitchell about 6-foot-5, 318.

Geoff, who said he didn’t consider himself NFL caliber until his sophomore year, was drafted in the seventh round in 2008. Mitchell, who knew he could play since his freshman year, is projected from anywhere between the end of the first round and the third round.

Geoff and his father, Lee, freely admit that Mitchell is the more talented of the two. In fact, Mitchell has met with officials from four teams, something Geoff never did. But Geoff has the experience, having started in 19 of 32 games in which he has played, so he has some idea of what his brother is about to undergo.

“We talk a lot about football,” Geoff said. “We watch games together.”

Start with the draft. While everyone’s experience differs slightly, one universal aspect is the excitement and anxiety about when and where one ends up, followed by relief and excitement once it’s known.

For Geoff, draft day five years ago was not fun. He said he knew he was a midlevel pick, but after eight offensive linemen went in the first round and 11 in the first three rounds, he got his hopes up and started actively watching the draft. As the picks went by and his name wasn’t called, he found it disheartening and stopped watching.

When he got the call from Carolina informing him that they were going to take him (with the 241st pick out of 252), “[T]hat anger and frustration of not being drafted just disappeared,” he said.

Geoff has told his brother to have fun on draft day. He will join Mitchell and the family in watching the proceedings, which begin on April 26.

Mitchell said he knows he’ll be drafted higher than his brother. He doesn’t care when or by whom.

“It’s more about being drafted,” he said. “Of course, you want to go as high as you can, but in the end it doesn’t matter where you’re drafted as long as you can show what you can do.”

Once the name is called and the contract details are hammered out, a player needs to understand that the NFL is a job that requires dedication. Ten-hour days are common.

“Six months [the length of season from training camp to Super Bowl] is long,” Geoff said. “You have to prepare your body. … There’ll be days you don’t want to work out and you just have to suck it up.”

What Geoff said he had to get used to was how much time he needed to devote to football. In college, there are rules that regulate how much time one can devote to it. The NFL has no such thing. You watch more game film in the NFL, you attend more team meetings, and you spend more time working out.

“Another thing for me was making sure I got enough rest,” he said. “Physically, you might get beat up a little bit more [in the NFL]. “You’re sore, you’re banged up, you might have a sprain here or there, but you’re not going out there with broken bones.”

On top of that, Geoff said, his brother will have to learn to manage his own domestic affairs, including shopping and bill paying.

Finally, there’s the Jewish question. Players must decide if they’re a Jewish football player or a football player who’s Jewish.

Both Schwartzes said they are Jewish football players, having celebrated their bar mitzvahs and observing many of the holidays. However, the High Holy Days occur during the season, and both brothers must ponder the question: “Do I follow Sandy Koufax’s example and not play?”

For the brothers, the answer is no.

“I can’t tell my coaches, ‘I can’t go this week, I’ve got to fast,’ ” Geoff said. “It’s not accepted. I’ve accepted that. You only have 16 games. I do feel bad about it.”

Mitchell agreed, saying he’d want to be there for his teammates.

“When it falls on a game day, you struggle with what to do,” he said. “You make a decision and go with it.”

It’s a decision the only pair of NFL Jewish brothers must make. It’s not easy, and the demands of the NFL are (for Geoff) and will be (for Mitchell) more than enough to adjust to.

But the reward of seeing the brothers play is plenty for their father.

“I just kvell,” Lee Schwartz said. “It’s a surreal experience to see my kids on the field, on TV.”