Bob Ford: Peace in the Mideast? Yes, on football team

Sabres running back Tamir Elterman follows the blocking of Jeremy Sable (60) in a win over Jerusalem last season in the championship game of the Israel Football League.
Sabres running back Tamir Elterman follows the blocking of Jeremy Sable (60) in a win over Jerusalem last season in the championship game of the Israel Football League.
Posted: December 24, 2010

When the offensive line takes its stance sometimes, there will be muttering in Russian as the blocking assignments are called out in a way the opponent can't possibly understand. When the defense is on the field, there could be a quick exchange in Arabic along the line as the burly Muslims from Jaffa decide their routes to the quarterback. And in the huddle, of course, only Hebrew, with a smattering of English just for effect.

Just another average day for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Sabres of the Israel Football League, a team that is functioning proof that different religions, ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities can get along in the spirit of sportsmanship, competition, and knocking the slobber out of rival teams.

"There's a Hebrew saying: 'Your mind's messed up. You're living in a movie.' Well, I actually do live in a movie," said Jeremy Sable, a 24-year-old Cheltenham High grad who is the proud starting middle linebacker for the Sabres. "It's the craziest thing. My closest friends on this team, none of them are Jews. That's not what I would have expected when I came to Israel."

Of course, Sable, whose family was originally from the Fox Chase neighborhood in the Northeast, didn't expect to be playing football when he went overseas to pursue a master's degree in counterterrorism. That happened by accident when a friend excused himself, saying he had to leave for football practice, and Sable's eyes lit up.

"I said to myself, 'This is my destiny,' " Sable said.

At that point in his football career, Sable had just one year of high school freshman ball on his resumé. He played for Cheltenham without problem because the games were all during the week. The junior varsity and varsity teams played on Friday night, however, the Jewish Sabbath, and it was also the only night of the week his family could gather together.

"It wasn't something that was negotiable," Sable said.

So he played some basketball and was the catcher and captain of the varsity baseball team, and football - his true passion - was put away until the somewhat forgiving requirements of the Israel Football League came along.

It is an amateur league founded by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. None of the players is paid, and there isn't much in it for the coaching staff. Most of the coaches are expatriate Americans, including one assistant, Mike Ross, an African American from Compton, Calif., whose day job is as the head of the Missile Defense Agency.

The 10-game regular season stretches from November to March, and the Sabres, currently 5-0, practice twice a week in a local park and play their home games on a spare practice field of a Tel Aviv soccer team. Earlier this year, the Sabres won the 2010 championship game, with a 26-22 win over the Jerusalem Lions, a game that was clinched on a goal-line interception by a defensive back who grew up playing in Oklahoma.

Sable's studies were complete after last season and his original intention was to return to the United States and find a job employing his skills either in the government or the private sector. But then he thought about the Sabres, and, well, maybe just one more season of football.

"I'll have this forever," Sable said. "I'm like Rudy. I'm 5-foot-nothing, 100-and-nothing. That's essentially how it feels. The goal is that we're going to win it all again."

He's actually 5-10 and 190 pounds, undersize for a middle linebacker in most of football, but on the Sabres it all works out. The players range from 17 years old to 35, and there is every body type imaginable. There are Israelis, transplanted Jews serving in the Army, military workers, students, professionals, Christians, Muslims - almost everything that can be stuffed inside shoulder pads and a helmet.

Some of the players arrive for tryouts having never played the game, but there is a universal ambassador of football, one ubiquitous textbook that imparts the basic lessons and strategies.

"Madden," Sable said. "Everyone, everywhere plays Madden football. That's how they know what to do."

Maybe all border disputes should be settled with video games, or at least in real football games played with rosters that are mixed like confetti.

"If we didn't play football, there's no way we would have met each other," Sable said. "I just wouldn't hang out where these guys normally hang out, but now our circles overlap. I never thought I'd be going to Jaffa to sit in a coffee shop where they're smoking that water-pipe thingie. But off the field, I'm with the Arab guys more than anyone. They're my closest friends. Once you're in with them, they've got your back."

Between practicing, games, and pursuing various forms of underemployment to get him through the season, Sable - who wears No. 60 in honor of Chuck Bednarik - watches every Eagles game, whether on a Christian television station out of Lebanon or streamed onto a computer. Keeping up with the Phillies during the fall, particularly when they were on the American West Coast, played havoc with his sleep, but he didn't miss a game.

The Sabres' next game is Thursday, when they play the hated Judean Rebels in a grudge match. The Rebels are quite good, but a little dirty, according to Sable, and last season's game ended in a fight.

"We want to beat them bad, and if we do I like our chances again this season," Sable said. "I've played on sports teams in America all my life, and I've never seen team camaraderie like this. We eat together, we drink together, some of us live together. And it's all because of football."

Maybe it can't happen everywhere. Maybe it can't really happen anywhere. But football is a small world in this small country, and somehow the game is bringing them together, all of them - Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Madden.


Contact columnist Bob Ford

at 215-854-5842

or bford@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work

at http://go.philly.com/bobford.

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