Articles > Life on the (Offensive) Line: A Conversation with Lennie Friedman
Seventh year NFL veteran Lennie Friedman, an offensive lineman with the Washington Redskins, spoke recently with the Center for Sport and Jewish Life, about his team's season, the rewards and challenges of life in the NFL, being a Jewish professional athlete, and his Jewish involvements in the community. Here is what he had to say:
The season has gone better than many expected. At the moment the Redskins are 5-3. What are your thoughts going into the remaining games?
We're in a position where we have a chance to make the playoffs, if we keep winning games and keep playing good football. Tampa Bay is in the same position - so this is a big game coming up. We control our own destiny. If we do the right things, we can make the playoffs. So that's a good place to be in right now.
You demolished the 49'ers 52-17 one week, and got trounced by the Giants the next week 36-0. What's the story?
That's just life in the NFL. On any week any team can beat any other team. If you're not playing at the top of your game - what happened to us against the Giants is going to happen. We have to make sure we're prepared the best we can be, make sure we're out there and ready to play our game.
After being booed by fans last year for inconsistent performance, QB Mark Brunell has returned to the rotation following Patrick Ramsey's injury early in the season, this time with notable success. What does Brunell bring to the team that Ramsey didn't that is helping the team at this point?
I think the big difference is age; Mark's been around a long time. (35-year-old Brunell is in his 13th season). He's confident when he goes in there and he's seen a lot of things in his career that have benefited him. It's about the experience, and it's a great opportunity right now for Patrick to learn behind Mark.
What is Brunell like in the huddle? Does he settle players down? Or fire them up?
He's very calm, very relaxed, making jokes. He just keeps everybody in the moment, reminds everybody that it's a game and that we're having fun, and to go out there, relax and win.
On a similar note, LaVar Arrington called the team together recently in Philadelphia before the game against the Eagles, and talked about coming together as a team and playing for the love of the game like in college. With players who are professional, many seasoned veterans, do those kinds of meetings make a difference?
There's no question. What it's about is team leaders getting the team together and reminding you that it's a game that you've been playing your whole life and the object is to go out there and do your assignment and have fun, and everything will take care of itself. Like anything else, don't let the game become too big, and realize that you're out there because you love the sport and you're having fun, and winning will take care of itself. Football is a long season, and it's a very tough sport. Your body gets beat up, your mind gets beat up, and sometimes you lose sight of what you're doing. You're out there playing the sport with a bunch of friends, and you're trying to make it to the Super Bowl, to become the best in the world, and it's a rare opportunity, and you don't want to lose sight of that.
You talked about playing with a bunch of friends. With all the talk these days of Terrell Owens, if he were your teammate, what would your response have been?
It's hard to comment when you're not in that situation. You certainly don't want anybody on the team that's dividing the team. You want to be out on the field with a bunch of guys that you enjoy playing the game with. You certainly don't want to be on a team where there is someone who is a divisive element. You want to be on a team where nobody is in it just for themselves, where everybody's in it together and has the same goal, which is to get to the playoffs and go to the Super Bowl.
The Redskins have a history of a strong offensive line; it's been their hallmark, like the "Hogs" in the 80's. What is it like for you to be on a team where there is such respect for your position, and with a coach that has emphasized the offensive line?
The best aspect of it is having a chance to play for (Redskins assistant head coach) Joe Bugel, who is one of the best and most famous offensive line coaches in NFL history. He had the (legendary offensive line known as the) "Hogs" back in the 80's when they won three Super Bowls, and it's a chance to learn from one of the greatest offensive line coaches there has ever been. He brings an intensity, he brings knowledge that - as a player - you crave to have in this league, so it's been terrific. He is a great technician coach, and we work on our technique every day. There is no off-day. Every day perfection is demanded and perfection is expected, and that's what you try to give the coaches. I think his energy, his enthusiasm, his professionalism, just rubs off on everybody.
The offensive line are often the "unsung heroes" of the team; they don't really garner the stats that can measure their contribution. What's it like to be in the locker room after a game where the media's attention is focused on other players?
That comes with the job. There might not be a lot of stats for offensive linemen, but at the end of the game, your teammates know how you did - if your guys ran the ball for 200 yards, if there were no sacks on the quarterback, they know how you did, and there's certainly no lack of respect for the offensive line. Statistics are good and well, and awards are great, but our job is to protect the quarterback and make holes for the running back, and when we win, we know we did a good job.
What's it like for you to wake up on game day?
This is a dream job. This something most kids think about when they're five, six, seven years old, to be a professional football player, professional basketball player, or whatever. We're living out a dream. You get up, and you realize you're going out to play a sport for a living. I'm almost 30 years old, and it's an exciting life to have.
How well do you sleep the night before a game?
Well, that's the negative side of it, I guess. You're going over your assignments, you're going over your techniques. You run the game through in your mind, so obviously I don't sleep as well as I do the rest of the week.
Is it hard to wind down afterwards?
At the end of a game, if you're exhausted, if you feel like you gave it your all, you're usually so tired you can just crash at night. Afterwards, if you made 100 plays and you had one bad one, that's the one that sticks in your mind, that's the one you re-play over and over again. But when you walk off that field and you're feeling completely exhausted, it's a good feeling, and you have a good night's sleep.
Who is the toughest opposing lineman for you to go up against?
I've always had a lot of respect for La'Roi Glover of the Cowboys. I think he's a phenomenal defensive tackle. He's the whole package. He's strong, he's fast, he's athletic, and he goes hard every down - never takes a play off. Doesn't talk, he's just out there and does his job, and does it 100 miles an hour. And I have a lot of respect for that.
You're listed at 6'3" and 283 pounds, which some might consider "undersized" at your spot. With the increased demand for size on the line, what challenges does that present to guys coming up, as far as the pressure to use steroids?
I think the size thing is over-rated. If you're getting the job done, that is what matters. If you can be big and athletic you can handle bull rushes more and going against guys who are 330 pounds. But I think it is about the techniques you have, the quickness you have, and your mental toughness, and if you have all that, well, take for example the Denver line. When I was with Denver, their offense line goes around 280, there are other guys that size around the league, and we all play well, so it's just a matter of doing your job. If you can get your job done at that weight, that's all that coaches really care about. As far as the pressure to use steroids, I think that steroid use is a horrendous thing. Steroids don't make you a better football player. Actually, they probably hurt you in the long run, because they weaken your joints, they're going to weaken your tendons and ligaments, and they're just going to make you more prone to injury, and the quickest way out of the NFL is through injury. Of course, we (linemen) are large men, there are guys 350, 370 pounds. And the common perception is that the only way to get that big is through steroids. I don't personally know of any players that take steroids, although there are people every year that fail the drug test. I don't think there should be second or third chances; I think if you fail it you should be out. There's no reason to take steroids, there's no reason for kids to take steroids. They're not going to make you a better ball player in any way, shape or form.
You have spoken to a variety of Jewish groups. What are the questions you are most frequently asked?
They usually want to know things like if I know any other Jewish players in the NFL, or if there has ever been a situation where you felt uncomfortable because of being a Jewish player in the league. I do know some of the other Jewish players in the league, like Mike Rosenthal (Minnesota) or Jay Fiedler, now with the Jets, and some of the other Jewish players in the NFL. Being Jewish has not impacted my NFL career in any way. It's been a positive experience for me, because a lot of players are fascinated about my being Jewish since there aren't a lot of Jewish people that they see. A lot of players in the locker room want to know about the difference between Judaism and Christianity and things like that. For me it's been a tremendously positive experience. I think that religion plays a big part in life in general, and there are a lot of conversations about religion in the locker room, and there's always curiosity from both side; guys ask me questions about my beliefs, and I ask them questions about theirs'.
Teams in the NFL, as in most of the professional leagues, have chaplains, hold chapel services before games, and things like that. From Reggie White on down, there is a lot of high profile Christianity in your sport. Has that ever proved uncomfortable for you?
I was with the Broncos for 4 years, I've been with the Redskins for three years, and (Coach) Mike Shanahan (of the Broncos), Coach Spurrier and Coach Gibbs have all made it clear to me that if I want a rabbi here I am more than welcome to bring one in. But I've never been made to feel that I had to participate in any religious event. If there is Bible study, 99% of the time it is over at someone's house. If people want to go, that's fine; I've never been to one.
What special memories do you have growing up of the Jewish holidays?
Passover has always been my favorite. We went through the entire story of the Exodus, and my parents always made it fun - they would do things like dyeing a pan of water red with food coloring to simulate the plague of the Nile being turned to blood. Thney would always make it interesting for us. Of course, Hanukkah was fun. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, we pretty much celebrated all the holidays.
When I came out of college, coaches asked if (my religious observance of the holidays) would affect my playing in the NFL. They wanted to know, "Are you going to be part of the team when the team needs you, or are you going to miss games because of your religious beliefs." I think that is a legitimate question for a coach to have, and they would have the same question of Christian players regarding playing games on Christmas Day. If a player feels that they need to miss a game because it is Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, I absolutely respect that. That is a personal choice.
Can you tell us something about your involvement in the Jewish community?
Wherever I've been, Denver or Washington, I've tried to be involved with the Jewish community as much as I can: talking to kids, being a keynote speaker at charitable events. When I am approached by the Jewish community to do something, if I can do it, I show up. I did something for Jewish Family Services in Denver, here in D.C. I was on a panel talking about Jewish athletes, I was at an auction one of the organizations ran where I helped sell the items up for auction, I appeared an a program honoring excellence among Jewish student athletes in northern Virginia.
How are you different as a player after 7 seasons in the league?
I think it's a matter of experience. You see a lot more. You've been through the ups, and you've been through the downs, and I think you're just calmer when you're out there. When you come in as a rookie and things seem to be going a million miles an hour, you tend to let the pressures get to you more. Now I take them for what they are and realize it's just part of the game, and your experience is what carries you through out there.
What is the hardest part of your job?
I would say just the physical nature of it. For six months of the year your body is going to feel terrible. You're going to be beat up, your back's going to hurt, your shoulders are going to hurt, your knees are going to hurt, and it's being able to mentally push through all of that that is so tough, and not everybody can do that.
What's the most rewarding part of your job?
You get to play a sport, and you get paid for it. It's an unbelievable thing. You go out on Sunday and you play a game with millions of people watching you play, and it's something you've been doing since you were 5 years old, and here you are a grown man playing a sport. I don't think there can be anything better.
What is the most important thing you have learned from this, whether as an athlete or just in general?
Work ethic is paramount. There are phenomenal athletes in the NFL - among the best athletes in the world. And what separates the great ones from the guys that are in the league one year and out the next is their work ethic. Guys that are willing to sacrifice time, and work hard, those are the guys who make it. Ray Brown is a prime example. He's been in the league for 20 years, and he's in here before practice every day watching film. Those are the guys who make it - the ones who are willing to do things over and above what the coaches ask you to do. More than anything, that's the number one lesson I have taken from my time in the NFL.
As one of a number of NFL players who are giving attention to life after the NFL, Friedman, a graduate of Duke University where he majored in psychology, spent time as a page/observer in the U.S. Senate during the off-season. He commented that this opportunity reaffirmed his sense of having something to contribute off the field as well as on it. When it comes to giving back to the community, Lennie Friedman embodies the Yiddish expression "de apfele fallt nicht veit fun de boemele", i.e. the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. His parents run a non-profit organization called Vacamas Programs for Youth (www.vacamas.org) which includes a summer camp for children of low income families in the New York-New Jersey area, originally founded in 1924 to provide opportunities for the children of immigrant workers from the Lower East Side.
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