NFL star: Judaism is part of me
At 6"6 and more than 300 pounds, Igor Olshansky is among the NFL's strongest players. He also went to a Chabad high school, doesn't eat pork, and wants to visit Israel after the current season ends. Not your typical nice Jewish boy
One of the lesser known sons of the Maccabees, the famous family of Chanukah fame, is Elazar the Maccabee.
Yehuda's brother did not share the same glory as the rest of his renowned family, despite having made the ultimate sacrifice: According to the legend, Elazar charged an elephant brigade of the Greek conquerors and killed one of them. Unfortunately for him, the elephant collapsed on top of the brave warrior and crushed him to death.
Igor Olshansky, another lesser known Jewish hero, also charges elephants… human elephants. It may not be the most American name you'll find on an NFL roster, but the San-Diego Chargers' defensive lineman has made a name for himself as one of the NFL's leading lights.
Olshansky in action (Photo: Mike Nowak, San Diego Chargers)
At nearly two meters tall (6"6) and 140 kilograms (308 lbs) its not exactly the look that comes to mind when one thinks of a nice Jewish boy.
Nonetheless, Olshansky is proud to be Jewish. In his first couple of years as a pro, he has established himself as a force to be reckoned with, and shattered stereotypes about the so-called "weak Jew." He has also made himself a model for the Jewish community.
"I have never paid any attention to the prejudices attributed to Jews," Olshansky, 23, told Ynet. "I concentrate on my own affairs and do my job. If I manage to change people's perceptions, that's excellent, but I have never seen that as a goal."
From Ukraine with love
Olshansky was born in 1982 in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, to a hard-working Jewish family. After the fall of the Iron Curtain the family tried its luck in the United States, settling in San Francisco where Igor was exposed to traditional immigrant hardships.
"It is not easy to relocate from a place like the Ukraine to the United States. My parents did not know any English and had a hard time settling in financially and culturally. Personally, I remember kids putting me down because I didn't know the language, but that quickly came to a stop. Since I was bigger and stronger than most of the kids, they had no choice so they quit harassing me," he says.
The Jewish community in San Francisco assisted the family, helping it adapt to a new life. He attended the local Chabad-run Hebrew Academy, where he says he developed a strong Jewish identity.
"I learned a great deal about myself and about what it means to be a Jew. My identity has come together as a man of faith. I have learned to read and write in Hebrew, I learned Torah and prayed two or three times a day. It unveiled a new world to me, some of which I still keep until today.
"I am not really a religious man, but I believe in God, and it is important for me to lead a Jewish life and build a Jewish home. I married a Jewish girl, I celebrate the holidays, and although I don't keep kosher, I would never eat pork," he says.
Always a football player
Unsurprisingly, given his physique and a father who played basketball for the Red Army, Olshansky was drawn to sports from an early age. To further his sports activities he left the Hebrew Academy for the Catholic St. Ignatius high school. Although he excelled as a basketball player, and even participated at the Maccabiah games in St. Louis and Milwaukee, after a while the football coach couldn't ignore him anymore.
"My father did not like it, but I think I was always a football player, I just didn't know it," he says.
After three successful years on scholarship at the University of Oregon, it was clear to all that Igor Olshansky was a football player, but it wasn't until the 2004 draft that people realized just how strong the young guy with the impossible name really was.
With the rabbi (Photo: Corey Goldstein)
In early try-outs for the draft, Olshansky officially became one of the strongest rookies ever, bench-pressing 103 kilograms (227 lbs) 41 times on one occasion, and 43 times on a second try (two presses away from the rookie record.)
Supporting his parents
His powerful demonstration impressed many of the NFL scouts and eventually brought him to San Diego, after being picked at the outset of the second round, and he signed a six year contract for USD 7.5 million. Olshansky sees the big money as an opportunity to repay his parents for their support.
"Now I can take care of them. They went through a lot, they had to work very hard and we didn't have it easy. I will buy them a new house, and help my sister Marina open a chiropractic clinic," he said.
Olshansky says it's tough to make the switch from professional athlete to "civilian" life.
"You go through many things on the field, and when you go home you need time to relax, to release all that energy out, just like radiation. It's like a car engine - even after it stops running, the system is still boiling and needs to cool off.
"Everyone learns in his own way how to separate the intensity on the field from life away from the game. Overall I am a pleasant person. I spend time at home with both of my Schnauzer dogs, and once in a while I go to a restaurant or a movie with my wife. It's funny, but my life apart from football is pretty calm."
In this stage of his career, Olshansky's life can remain calm because he is still not famous enough to become a real celebrity outside San Diego or San Francisco's Jewish community that yearn for a sports figure to identify with. Leigh Steinberg, Olshansky's Jewish agent, says, "I am a father of three boys and they also need a role model. There is something special about a Jewish kid being the toughest guy in the most physical sport there is."
Olshansky claims he tries to best represent his people through his performances on the field.
"I play as hard as possible, to try my best and to be a role model, regardless of the demands of those around me," says Olshansky. He also says he has never encountered anti-Semitic harassments on or off the field. "It could be because I am so big and strong. From the start, people avoid harassing me."
Still, Olshansky is definitely aware of the anti-Semitism his parents suffered in the Ukraine. His grandfather, Abraham Rubshevsky, fought in World War II for the Red Army and was injured 11 times. That could be the reason his grandson defines military history as his favored subject matter.
"I have always been interested in the history of wars," says Olshansky, who refuses to comment on the Middle East conflict.
Israel not an option
He also says Israel was never an option for the Olshansky family.
"We followed my mother's family to the United States. Nonetheless, I have relatives in Israel and I want to visit for the first time this coming summer."
When he does, Israelis will likely be as impressed by his tattoo collection as they are by his size.
"I like tattoos. I've probably had about 30 hours work done on my body," says Olshansky. "I've got a bull, scorpion, dragon, tribal tattoos and also two Stars of David.
"They represent who I am. Judaism is a part of me."