Back in the summer of 2005, the wife, daughter and I spent 2 1/2 months living in a cabin in West Milford, N.J. Catherine had been hired as the director of a sleep-away camp named Vacamas, where children from low-income families were given some rightly deserved rural bliss. Vacamas was wonderful, blissful, amazing. There was a lake, and boats, and bug juice, and drama, and … love. Lots and lots of love.
This is the place where I first learned the improbable story of Lennie Friedman.
The two heads of the camp, Mike and Sandi Friedman, had a son who, word had it, played as an offensive lineman in the NFL. Which made no sense, because:
• Lennie was raised at a summer camp.
• Lennie was Jewish.
• Lennie didn’t exactly emerge from a win-at-all-costs background.
But, alas, it was true. Not only did Lennie play in the NFL, but he played in the NFL for a decade. A second round pick by the Broncos out of Duke, Lennie spent time with Denver, the Redskins, the Bears and the Browns before retiring after the 2008 season to attend business school.
Here, Lennie offers an inside glance at life in the NFL, talking motivation, pain and why his greatest thrill came on an otherwise nondescript day with the Chicago Bears. Oh, and he’s not so keen on the New Kids on the Block.
Lennie Friedman, welcome to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Lennie, you played eight years as an NFL offensive lineman, but started only 34 out of a possible 124 games. I’ve been waiting to ask a retired athlete this question, so I’m going to fire it at you: During your time in the league, did it ever occur to you (did it always occur to you?) that you were 8,000 times better off on the bench? I mean, less long-term physical toll, less immediate pain—and you still get to wear the uniform and collect a nice check. Am I off on this? And are there many athletes who share this take?
LENNIE FRIEDMAN: Jeff you are off on this. Athletes whose end goal is to be a backup quickly find alternative careers. Your question, while very logical, Misses a key point. Professional athletes make the NFL because they were: (1) Gifted athletically (2) Extremely competitive and (3) Had a great work ethic. While it is easier on the body not to be a starter, it doesn’t sit well with an athlete’s competitive nature. While I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule, given a choice between starting and being a backup just about every athlete I know would rather start. I certainly would have. Beyond the competitive desires to be the best and therefore be the starter—there are other things to consider. (1) Backups are much closer to being the next one cut from the roster and (2) They make much less money.
J.P.: You’re a Jewish kid from New Jersey. You grew up on the grounds of Camp Vacamas, a summer camp for children from low-income families. Your mother is short, your father is gangly. How the hell did you become an NFL offensive lineman? Being serious—what was your path?
L.F.: OK, you brought up Vacamas. I can’t help but talk about it. One of the most enjoyable things about sports at any level is that they are a great equalizer. My father always said that you can’t tell the best basketball player on the court by how expensive his sneakers are. Often it is the kid who wears his brother’s hand-me-downs. The same can be said for being a Jewish kid from a non-profit summer camp. On the field no one cares about where you are from or what your background is. All that matters is whether or not you can play.
Camp Vacamas was a wonderful place to grow up and every summer I played ball (basketball mostly) with great ball players for New York and New Jersey. My father taught me the skills to be a good athlete, but playing ball at summer camp taught me to tough ball player—no blood, no foul. Add to that the great support (parentally and genetically) from my mom and dad and the opportunity to succeed was mine to take.
In high school I had great coaches who supported me and got me on the radar of college recruiters. I was a good-but-not-great ball-player. However, with a combination of size, ability and being a good student, several colleges/universities were willing to take a chance on me. Duke University offered me a full ride and a great education. It was a no-brainer.
My first two years as a college athlete were unremarkable. I had ability but never really stood out. I played as a true freshman and started as a sophomore. However, going into my junior year the head coach told me that I did not have a starting position and would fight for it like everyone else. In other words, he was looking for someone better. Enter: Coach Joe D’Alessandris. Coach D’Alessandris is a terrific man, a great coach and lifelong mentor. He came into Duke and lit a fire under me. I would never have made the NFL without him.
From there my career is public record. The Denver Broncos drafted me in 1999 after they won two Super Bowls. John Elway must have seen me coming and decided to retire right before I showed up. I played four years with the Broncos, three with the ‘Skins, half a season with the Bears and three years with the Browns. I certainly was no star, but I enjoyed my role as a journeyman. My family and I lived in great cities, made awesome friends and I got to play a game for a living.
J.P.: The last time I spoke with you you had just retired and were starting work on your MBA. You’ve since received your degree. I’m fascinated—what was the transition like, going from football player to student? How hard was it, physically? How much weight did you lose. And what sort of mental/life adjustments came with suddenly being an ex-athlete?
L.F.: Great question. The transition is tough for everyone. I was an athlete my entire life and much of my identity was wrapped up in it. However, I was also more fortunate than most in this regard. Every football player wants to make the NFL. But I certainly never planned on it. I never anticipated or relied on it as my entire life’s work. About five years into my career I started thinking about what I would do when my career ended. After 10 years I had a defined path and goal set in front of me. I was going to Duke University’s the Fuqua School of Business and prepare for my next career.
Athletes who have the hardest time with the transition are those that don’t have their next steps planned out. I highly encourage all athletes to prepare for the day their careers end. It usually ends much earlier than anyone anticipates.
That being said, the first year between retirement and business school was tough. What was I supposed to do every day? Could any career provide the same pride and excitement that football did? Would I be proud of what I did next? Tough questions to ask …
Fortunately, I had the great support of my wonderful wife Katie and our three children. And I needed it. To take my mind off the tough questions, the first few months I put a lot of effort into taking the football weight off. That became my No. 1 short-term goal. I dropped 70 pounds in three months and have kept 60 of it off. At my heaviest I weighed 305—but my typical playing weight was 285. I now weigh about 220 depending how much pizza I just ate.
J.P.: How important is winning in professional sports? What I mean is, I’ve always been somewhat skeptical when I hear athletes say, “It’s all about winning!” It seems to me it’s all about securing the best possible contract, then about playing time (with obvious exceptions), then about lifestyle, then about winning.
L.F.: You skeptical? I could never tell by your questions …
I view winning through two different lenses. (1) The big picture of winning the game and (2) Winning your personal battle. As an offensive lineman and, specifically a center—I have direct impact on the other offensive lineman, blocking for the running backs and quarterbacks. However, beyond that I cannot control how well a quarterback throws, a running back runs or a wide receiver catches. And I have no control over my own team’s defense. However, if I can win my personal battle, then I help my team win. I approached all games like that. I focused on my battles and what part I can play in helping the team win. If we lost the game but I won my battles, well, I could live with that. If we won the game, but I lost my battles, I felt like S#&%.
If I had my choice, I would be a great ball-player on a Super Bowl-winning team. However, if I had to choose between (a) Being a backup on a Super Bowl-winning team, and (b) Being a starter and playing well on a non-winning team—I’ll take the latter.
J.P.: I’m a fan of diversity. I think it’s one of the reasons I was initially drawn to sports—the different colors, different ethnicities. But is professional sports truly diverse, or do the different races and cultures self-segregate? What I mean is, do people mingle with others the same way we do (generally) in regular society, or is the locker room truly a rainbow coalition of unity and understanding?
L.F.: The truth is always somewhere in the middle. Locker rooms are much more diverse than general society. Interactions and personal ties are stronger. It is cliché but teams are families, albeit for short periods of time. We go through intense training, long hours and stressful games. It brings people together.
Self-segregation is more positional than cultural. The offensive line tends to hang out with the offensive line, defensive backs with defensive backs, etc. Out of the locker room, and in non-football interactions, athletes often return to the societal mean. I wish this was not the case.
J.P.: What was your absolute greatest moment as a professional player? Your absolute lowest?
L.F.: Greatest moment? When I read that question, two games came to mind. Since I have the power of the pen (keyboard) …
(1) During my second year, playing with the Broncos in 2000, I started the last nine games of the season. We made the playoffs and played the Baltimore Ravens at Baltimore for the Wild Card game. Baltimore was the No. 1 defense in the league (maybe ever) at that time. This was when Ray Lewis, Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa were at their best. It was an unbelievable atmosphere, stadium and experience. That was the year Baltimore won the Super Bowl, so you can figure out how the game went.
(2) I was a backup (your favorite) in Chicago. We locked down the division championship heading into our last game against the Minnesota Vikings at Minnesota. As is often done, the coaches wanted to rest some starters to be fresh for the playoff run.
I was backing up Ruben Brown (a great ballplayer) at the time and early in the second quarter I was asked to go in for him. About a series later, Lovie Smith, the Bears’ head coach, asked if I had any interest in playing defensive line. The defense needed to rest their starters and they didn’t have enough backups. My thoughts? Absolutely!
So for nearly three quarters in an NFL game I was a two-way starter. Offensive and defensive line. I even had a quarterback hit—not a good one, though. I don’t want to over-dramatize this, but two-way starters are very rare in NFL. I’m proud of that.
Unfortunately, either in the second or third quarter—while playing defense—I tore the cartilage in my knee. You ask about what is important to an athlete? We had the division championship won, this game was essentially meaningless. However, as a backup my main contribution that day was to give the starters a rest. If I bowed out when I could have kept playing, then I didn’t do my job. I would have let myself and my team down. I finished the game and had a micro-fracture surgery—nine-month rehab—two weeks later.
Worst moment? I am definitely not going to over-dramatize this one. But I started Monday Night against the Giants my third year in the league. We won in a very tough game. But I lost my personal battles. It was by far the worst game of my short career. I never forgot that one.
J.P.: I used to cover the Major Leagues, and it was always funny watching Shawn Green come to a new town and inevitably have the editor of the local Jewish weekly/monthly newspaper waiting for an interview. What was your experience as a Jewish athlete like? Did other players ever ask you about it, or try selling you on Jesus? And what did it mean to you to be inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame?
L.F.: Being a Jewish athlete? Interesting question. Certainly not a lot of Jewish football players. When I went to Duke, one of my lifelong best friends told me that I was the first Jewish kid he ever met. (Jews are not uncommon at Duke, just uncommon on the football team). I was also asked several times about what form of Christianity Judaism actually was.
All my “Jewish” experiences as an athlete were very positive. I played on teams with very strong Jewish communities and those communities were always very supportive of me. (Washington, Cleveland, Chicago and Denver). I can certainly relate to Shawn Green’s experience.
If anything, being Jewish is a great way to get to know your teammates. Many teammates had questions about Judaism and what it meant. It was a fun way to have a meaningful discussion.
Being selected to the Jewish Hall of Fame was truly an honor. Everyone tends to get lost in day-to-day moments. What’s my job, what do I have to get done today etc… Then someone or some organization recognizes something you have done. That pulls you out of your day to day and allows you to reflect a little bit. As I discussed up above, on the field no one cares where you came from or what your background was. But, Jewish professional athletes and inductees into the National Jewish Hall of Fame form a select group, and I am honored to part of it.
J.P.: How would you characterize the violence of an NFL game? I’ve heard some ex-players describe it as getting hit by a car 100 times. That seems like an exaggeration, but maybe I’m wrong. Does your body still hurt? And what was the hardest hit you ever received?
L.F.: The NFL is an incredibly violent sport. For much of my career I was the wedge blocker on kickoff return. My job was to sprint 30 yards as fast as I could and drive my helmet through the chest of a 250-pound linebacker. At the same time that 250-pound linebacker was running 50 yards as fast as he could to do the same to me. If you blink, you lose your job. That’s pretty violent. The hardest I have been hit was always during kickoff return. At Cleveland we played Pittsburgh twice a year and they had great kickoff cover people. After a big hit I started running to the Pittsburgh sideline instead of Cleveland’s because I was knocked silly.
I think what can get lost on TV is the size and power of the men in the NFL. At 285 pounds I was one of the five or 10 smallest linemen in the game. But at 285 I was still a big athlete. I played against defensive tackles who literally could lift me off the ground from one side to the other without breaking stride, trying to get a quarterback sack. That is an incredible amount of power generated in quick short bursts.
L.F.: I did not play football until I was in sixth grade. I do not want my son playing until potentially high school. It is a tough and violent game, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. However, so is hockey, lacrosse, wrestling, getting hit in the head with a baseball, etc. So it is up to the individual parent to decide where to draw the line.
There are certainly poor coaches in the world. I was fortunate not to have many. As a parent you should be very diligent about whom you allow to help guide and develop your children.
However, I believe the work ethic and the learned ability to overcome adversity is very difficult to replicate outside of sports (football, specifically, from my experiences). I don’t ever advocate for the “don’t think, do approach.” But I do advocate for being challenged and pushed to your limits physically and mentally. From my experience in business school and the start of my second career, the ability to work through challenging times and adversity is a key to success.
J.P.: Why do you think so many professional athletes have tattoos? I’m being serious. Does it have something to do with a sheep mentality? A God complex? Or is there simply a correlation between athleticism, size and the need to have your ex-girlfriend’s name inked on your thigh?
L.F.: No idea. I think it is just part of the NFL culture and self-expression.
• The world wants to know—what was it like playing with Ladell Betts?: Good solid running back and teammate. Do you know something I don’t?
• Do you think an openly gay player would be accepted in an NFL locker room?: Don’t know. But he should be.
• Rank in order: Panera, Rock Cartwright, Nelson Mandela, Coolio, iced tea, Celine Dion, your cell phone, winter in Denver, New Kids on the Block: Nelson Mandela, cell phone, winter in Denver, Rock Cartwright (heck of special teams player), Panera, iced tea, Celine Dion, Coolio and New Kids on the Block.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash. If so, please tell us about it: Yes. Flying through a hurricane my first year in college. Gave me a fear of flying for a little while.
• The New York Jets call right now and offer you a guaranteed two-year, $20 million deal to play next season. You in?: I’m in the car before the ink is dry.
• Five most talented football players you ever had as teammates: Trevor Pryce, Sean Taylor, Shaun Rogers, Chris Samuels, Joe Thomas.
• Who will win the GOP primary? And will he beat Obama?: Mitt Romney. Who wins or loses has less to do with the individual candidate and more to do with unemployment. I don’t know what the tipping point is, but less than 8 percent and Obama wins. But 8.5 percent and higher, Mitt wins.
• Would you rather permanently lose all of your teeth or streak naked across the field before the upcoming Super Bowl?: Streak naked.
• Would you rather live forever or die at 65?: Live forever.
• Best NFL unis? Worst?: I would have to look them all up. No clue.