Student athlete surmounts obstacles on and off the field

Avi Rosenblum took some of his first steps in the Oakland A’s dugout. As a youngster, he shot hoops with former NBA forward and Warriors general manger Chris Mullin. He also tossed the ball around with former A’s first-base coach Ron Washington.

The pros told Avi’s parents, Debby Graudenz and Rom Rosenblum (an audio engineer who worked on A’s and S.F. Giants broadcasts), to watch out for their son’s athletic prowess. They weren’t kidding.

Avi Rosenblum

“I’m fast, strong-willed, a bit of a headhunter,” 17-year-old Avi says of his playing style on the football field. “I play for the excitement of it, like when it’s fourth down, two minutes left, and I gotta score or stop someone.”

The varsity football and baseball player from Albany High School joins Rachel Baskin, Lana Buchbinder, Sarah Jacobs, Simon Jacobs, David Joseph-Goteiner, Jeremiah Kreisberg and Rachel Yarnold in the third class of student athletes to be inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California on Sunday, June 13.

Avi will receive a special honor: the Ariel Gilbert award, presented each year to a Jewish athlete who has overcome obstacles and is thus an inspiring role model for other athletes.

“It’s cool, but hasn’t really hasn’t hit me yet,” says Avi, who plays safety, wide receiver and outside linebacker for the Albany Cougars. “I think it will hit me that night.”

While Rom nominated Avi for the award, Don Collins, commissioner of athletics for the San Francisco Unified School District, walked Avi’s family through the process. Collins, who is on the scholarship committee for the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, is not allowed to submit nominees but can facilitate the application process.

“Normally, I’m just finding the San Francisco people,” says Collins, who will meet Avi for the first time at the ceremony. “Seldom do we find someone who makes me want to go outside San Francisco and track him down. You can hear the enthusiasm and energy [in Avi’s voice]. I’m glad we found him.”

Avi, who is African American, was adopted by white parents as an infant and raised in a Jewish home (his family attends Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley). He has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, in addition to language-based learning disabilities. He works diligently, receiving accommodations at school to help compensate for his distraction.

“We’re so incredibly proud of how hard he’s worked — not just on the baseball or football field,” says Debby, a child and adolescent psychotherapist. “He’s worked hard to overcome learning disabilities and the huge emotional hole in his gut around his adoption.

“It’s possible now to look at him and really imagine many options for the future. What else could a parent want for their kid?”

Upon hearing about Avi’s Hall of Fame award, Debby says, “We were speechless.”

Avi was just 12 days old when he was relinquished to an adoption agency and then a foster family in El Paso, Texas. When Debby and Rom took in Avi 17 years ago, they made local history as the first couple to transracially adopt in El Paso.

But they didn’t do it entirely on their own. Debby and Rom received guidance from Pact, An Adoption Alliance, which provides adoption services to children of color and offers continuing education to adoptive families and birth families on matters of race or adoption.

“If you’re going to adopt an African-American child, he cannot be the only African-American person in your life,” Debby says, citing one piece of advice. “I can’t teach Avi what it’s like to be a black teenage boy in society. He has [African-American] friends and role models to talk about that stuff. It’s important.”

Before Pact accepted Debby and Rom as clients, the organization trained them and conducted a series of interviews. Debby still remembers one of the first questions she was asked: How do you feel about being stared at?

Like many adopted children, Avi started asking questions about his past. Debby refers to that time in his life — between ages 5 and 7 — as “hitting a wall.”

“That wall is, ‘Where did I come from? Who do I look like?’ ” she says. “All those questions that kids start to ask. Avi had a very difficult time with that.”

At his birth mother’s request, Avi’s adoption was closed, meaning there was no exchange of information or contact of any kind between the adoptive and biological parents.

Requests for photos and information about his biological family were repeatedly denied, Debby says. So they sent letters and photos of Avi through the adoption agency. Still nothing. 

About two years ago, while the family was vacationing in Hawaii, Debby received a message on her cell phone from the El Paso Adoption Agency. Avi’s biological mother was trying to connect with him.

She had sent an e-mail to the agency with photos of Avi’s siblings and her contact information. She was living with Avi’s older brother, older sister and younger sister. The four siblings have different fathers.

“Avi was jumping from bed to bed in the hotel, so excited,” Debby recalls. “He said, ‘I knew I was a younger brother, but I never knew I was an older brother.’ Then he slid off the bed, and when he popped his head up, he asked, ‘Hey, why didn’t she keep me?’ That is what burns in him now.”

Today Avi says he understands the hardship his birth mother faced, but still grapples with the fact that he was given up for adoption instead of his younger sister. Though he’d like to find out about that one day, Avi says he doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the past. “I got a life and I like it,” he says.

Though he chose not to contact his birth mother, Avi has connected with his older half-brother through Facebook. He put Avi in touch with one of their uncles, James Battle, who has visited Avi and his family twice.

“He’s a jokester like me,” Avi says of his uncle. “He likes making fun of me a lot.”

Adds Debby, “The fact that James is a part of our lives and can fill Avi in is wonderful. They have a great relationship. It’s hysterical to watch them joke around with each other. James likes to say, ‘See this face? You’ll look like this in about 10 years.’”

Amanda Pazornik