Tennessee Titans tight end Anthony Firkser and his teammates faced a challenge when they began the National Football League playoffs on Jan. 4. They had to go to Foxborough to play the defending champion New England Patriots, who had won three of the last five Super Bowls.
All in all, a tough assignment for the visitors. Yet the Titans got an early boost from Firkser to show the Pats they were for real. Firkser caught a touchdown pass as the Titans stunned the Patriots, 20-13, to advance to the next round of the playoffs.
It wasn’t the first time Firkser has come up big.
Firkser, who is Jewish, was part of the Team USA under-18 basketball team that won a gold medal at the Maccabiah Games in Israel in 2013. The Americans defeated an Israeli team in the finals. “I had a good experience with my teammates,” Firkser recalled in a phone conversation with the Jewish Journal last week. “A couple of those guys are playing professionally and in Israel now.”
Of the Games overall, Firkser said, “An experience like that, I couldn’t say no to. I met a ton of other Jewish people from America. I toured Israel to see sights of the country, [learn about my] background and heritage.”
Firkser grew up in New Jersey, where he was bar mitzvahed, which he said was “important in the family.” According to his Titans profile, he returns to Jersey in the offseason to mentor young football players, and “[his] personal interests include pencil drawings, jigsaw puzzles and playing online collectible card games.” Growing up, he showed prowess in sports such as basketball, roller hockey and ice hockey. Then, as a high school sophomore, he began playing football, a sport he would continue in college at Harvard.
Firkser is on the all-time list in multiple categories for the Ivy League university’s historic football program, which is over 100 years old. He graduated in 2017 with a degree in applied mathematics. He would set one more Harvard-related achievement in the Titans’ win over the Patriots, becoming the first Crimson alumnus to catch a touchdown pass in an NFL postseason game.
“I know a ton of great players are coming out of Harvard now,” he said. “I was just fortunate enough to get the opportunity. It was pretty exciting news.”
And, he reflected, “It was definitely an interesting time going back to New England. I had a bunch of family and friends in town,” including from Harvard. “I had a cool experience at Harvard watching the Patriots win the Super Bowl. To play against them in Foxborough was exciting.”
In their history, the Patriots have won a record-tying six Super Bowls – all of which came this century, under the leadership of quarterback Tom Brady. Although Brady is 42 years old now, he came into the game having guided the Pats to wins in three of the last five Super Bowls. Ironically, Brady’s teammate for the first three championships was the Titans’ current coach, Mike Vrabel.
“We knew the Patriots were going to be a tough matchup,” Firkser said. “They’ve been winning a lot of times in the playoffs. We knew it would be a tough encounter. We had to understand the game plan and execute on situations.” And, he said, the Titans had to play “a whole game.”
The Patriots took an early lead, but Tennessee moved ahead when Firkser caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
“I slipped inside, [Tannehill] made a great throw and I completed the catch,” Firkser recalled.
The Patriots countered to retake the lead on a trick play that resulted in a touchdown from their standout Julian Edelman, who last year became the first Jewish Super Bowl MVP.
“I think Julian Edelman is a great player for them,” Firkser said. “He always makes big plays for them. He’s a tough wide receiver … He’s pretty impressive to watch.”
Ultimately, the game belonged to the Titans and their running back Derrick Henry, who delivered a dominant performance. Firkser called the Tennessee offense in general “a close-knit group. They’re all team leaders out there who make sure everyone knows the play, and explain it. We play for the man next to us.”
That approach helped the Titans stun the Patriots and on Sunday they moved a step closer to the Super Bowl by defeating the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens. They will play for the league championship this Sunday in Kansas City.