Julian Edelman is the only Jewish player ever to be named Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl, earning the honor last February when the Patriots beat the Los Angeles Rams, 13-3. He spoke to the Journal about what being Jewish means to him.
Happy New Year, Julian! Do you have any plans this year for Rosh Hashanah?
Well this year, Rosh Hashanah falls on a game day so it’ll be understated, but for Yom Kippur I plan to head up to Swampscott for services with some friends.
What’s your favorite Jewish holiday, and Jewish food?
Favorite holiday: Chanukah; Favorite food: Schnitzel in a pita with some hummus and some of that spicy stuff … z’houg, I think it’s called.
You were a seventh round pick originally. What does it take to succeed in the NFL?
That’s tricky, because you know everyone has a different path. I took the long road. Went to a JuCo [junior college] out of high school, then played QB at Kent State. Didn’t get invited to the NFL combine. Switched positions. Drafted late as a punt returner/wide receiver [the 5-foot-10-inch Edelman, short by NFL standards, was taken by the Patriots in the seventh round of the 2009 draft]. I was really green at running routes. So for me it all boiled down to working on improving a piece of my game every day, and then when coaches needed players to do the little things I would always make myself available. Leaving your ego out of it, especially as a young guy, and doing anything and everything you can to help the team is so important. Always ask yourself, ‘What am I doing to want this team to keep me around?’ At the end of the day, they only keep guys around who are bringing value.
Who was your role model growing up, and what did you learn from that person?
It’s going to sound cliché, but it was always my dad, Frank. He was a huge force in my life. He coached pretty much every sport I played, and would take me to do extra hours of practice every single day after school. Then he would sit with me while I did homework. All of this after working a full day at his auto body shop. His work ethic is unparalleled. And that really set me up for success. No matter what I wanted to do, he showed me there was no substitute for being the hardest worker in the room. That’s really translated to my adult life more than anything. He always preaches about fundamentals … fundamentals and patience.
What’s it like to play with Tom Brady?
At first it was intimidating because you know, that’s the GOAT. I literally grew up pretending to be him in playground pickup football games. He grew up ten minutes away from me and was one of the people we all looked up to, thinking, ‘Wow, if a kid from the Bay can make it, drafted in the sixth round, why can’t I?’ But, after ten years of playing together and getting to know the guy, we’ve built a friendship off the field and a connection on the field. He works so hard and is so detail-oriented that you need to have that same work ethic or it becomes really hard to be on the same page. That’s what a lot of guys don’t understand – it doesn’t just happen on Sundays. We spend hours and hours together studying film and running routes so that it becomes second nature when we step on the field. That’s the goal at least.
You’re a role model for Jews across the world. Could you ever have dreamed that you would win Super Bowls and become a Super Bowl MVP?
I never really got that far in my dreams. Getting to the NFL was my goal, then once you get here, it all about how do I improve every day. That day was the same. Focus on my fundamentals, my part in the game plan, and go out there and execute. The MVP is a huge honor, but getting the win that day meant more than anything. The fact that I was the first Jewish MVP didn’t hit me until the next day. The Jewish community has been amazing in welcoming me, and I was happy to be able to bring them a sense of pride in our sport.
You’re proud of your Jewish heritage. What do you love about Judaism?
I think at the core of the Jewish identity is facing challenges and overcoming the odds. Doing what it takes to survive and thrive. I share that sentiment very strongly. The story of the Jewish people really resonated with me. I saw a lot of my journey within it.
You’ve been to Israel and documented your trips on social media. Could you tell us about what it means for you to visit the country and how it impacts you spiritually?
The first time I went, back in 2015, I was blown away. Getting to walk around Jerusalem, experiencing the culture, the people, the spirituality in a city build thousands of years ago, was crazy. You feel a connection to all of those who’ve come before. At that point I was really just getting in touch with my Judaism; after the 2015 trip, it really took hold. Israel changed my life, no doubt about it.
What were your impressions of Israel, and what were your favorite places to visit?
Vibrant, we spent some time in Tel Aviv and the second you step off the plane, you can feel the energy. The weather, the people, the look of the city, really just took a hold of me. I didn’t want to leave! We took a trip to Jerusalem as well, and placing a note in the Western Wall is one memory that sticks out. Everyone told me I would feel different after and I didn’t believe them until I actually went and did it.
You’re one of the most outspoken Jews in American sports: you’ve tweeted on Jewish holidays, wrote a children’s book that references Theodor Herzl, and spoke out after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting tragedy last year. Why do you feel so connected to Judaism?
As I said, I really feel like the Jewish story connects with me on a personal level, because it relates closely with my journey. Stories of adversity and overcoming the odds, David and Goliath, it all fit. As I learned more and more, took my trip to Israel, was able to meet and connect with the community, it really took a hold of me. Being able to represent the Jewish people is an honor, this group of people who have overcome so much, being a mouthpiece for them came naturally.