Friday, April 30, 2004 | return to: news & features


I-Gor! I-Gor!: From Hebrew Academy playground to NFL playbook

by joe eskenazi, staff writer

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If Vince Tringali had taken the short route to the men's room, you wouldn't be reading this story.

A few years back, the septuagenarian former coach of St. Ignatius High's football team got up at halftime to "hit the head" but, for some reason, opted to take the long way.

There was a mountain in his way. A mountain named Igor Olshansky.

"So, I see this man there and I say, 'What number is your son?'" recalled Tringali, a fast-talking North Beach native who coached the Wildcats from 1959 to 1969.

But the oversized Olshanksy wasn't in the stands to watch his kid; he was one — a 15-year-old Jewish kid, a 6-foot-6, 240-pound San Francisco "kid" attending St. Ignatius on a basketball scholarship after four years at Hebrew Academy.

When the retired coach found out Igor was what he playfully called "a Rooski," he pushed even harder to get him out on the field.

"You Russians are related to Genghis Khan, the barbarian. And this game is made for barbarians. What's wrong with you? If you played for me, I'd never let you leave the field."

And, it turns out, Olshansky may not be leaving the field for a long, long time. After two years of terrorizing quarterbacks up and down the West Coast in a standout career with the University of Oregon, the 21-year-old from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, was selected in the second round of the National Football League draft Saturday, April 23 by the San Diego Chargers.

His first order of business: Buying his parents Yury and Alexandra a house, "wherever they want," so they can finally move out of their cramped apartment in the Sunset.

"After 30 years of representing athletes, I finally have someone of my own ethnic background," crowed Olshansky's agent, Leigh Steinberg, with a laugh. Steinberg is not only Jewish but his family hails from the same region of the former Soviet Union as Olshansky's, and signing the mammoth defensive tackle as a client was more than just a business decision.

"I'm the father of three young kids, and our children need role models, too. There's something about having a Jewish star in football; it's the toughest and most physical of all sports, and that makes it especially intriguing."

While a handful of Jews have played NFL football, the only other Russian-born Jew in league history is kicker Vitaly Pisetsky, who has been signed and released by several teams but has not yet appeared in a regular-season contest.

While Steinberg went out of his way to sign the Jewish superstar, Olshanksy's religion didn't come up much at Oregon. Most fans — or teammates — took a look at a name that would look more natural on the back of a hockey sweater than a football jersey and figured he was a Russian and that was that.

"If I was named O'Shaughnessy, they'd have assumed I was Irish," noted Olshanksy. "My name is not Gabriel Abromowitz or anything like that. When I say I'm Jewish, people just say, 'Oh, really?'"


In fact, Olshansky elevates the age-old phrase "Funny, you don't look Jewish" to dizzying new heights. He stands a massive 6-foot-6 and weighs 320 pounds, with arms so huge they look disproportionately large even on his gargantuan body. Put it this way: He makes Mark McGwire's limbs look like pipe-cleaners.

Olshanksy has closely cropped blond hair and piercing blue eyes. He speaks unaccented English at a remarkably rapid clip, pausing only to smile, laugh or say, "You know what I mean?" when explaining the more esoteric aspects of football — say, playing defensive tackle as opposed to defensive end (he far prefers the former).

Igor doesn't remember facing much anti-Semitism in Ukraine — his father, a butcher, "was pretty well-known and we had a lot of friends" — but the family still took advantage of opportunities for Jews to leave the country and immigrated to America in 1989.

"If we weren't Jewish, that would have been damn-near impossible," he noted.

Even at age 7, Olshansky was a self-described "big kid" and stood out on the Hebrew Academy schoolyard. Within a few years, he caught the eye of more than a few of San Francisco's high school basketball coaches. Transferring to St. Ignatius wasn't a difficult decision.

"Sports weren't really developed at Hebrew Academy, to say the least," he deadpanned. "They have P.E. like twice a week — you know what I mean?"

Olshansky's ascent to the NFL didn't come as a surprise to Rabbi Pinchas Lipner, Hebrew Academy's dean.

"He was built like a ton of bricks, as they say. Everyone figured he's going to end up playing ball; he was better than everyone else," Lipner said about Olshanksy, who went on to play on two Maccabiah Games basketball squads.

"He was a good kid, a very nice kid."

When Olshanksy first donned a helmet and shoulder pads at St. Ignatius, he did not have a Prince-Hal-takes-the-crown-and-is-enlightened type of epiphany, as in Shakespeare's "Henry IV." While far stronger than any of the other Wildcats players, he actually struggled with the techniques and minutiae of rules unappreciated by the casual football fan. But it was obvious to everyone that the big Russian kid was a keeper.

"Right when he started playing football, everyone could just see it," said Olshanksy's first cousin and lifelong friend, Andrew Kanterzhi, 20.

Kanterzhi, incidentally, is dwarfed by his cousin like a tugboat pushing a battleship, even though he stands over 6 feet tall. When Olshanksy is talking, at times Kanterzhi will rest his elbow on his cousin's shoulder like a man leaning on a car.

"You could sense it; it was an internal feeling that this was going to be a dream come true for him and everyone around him."

Since that time, Olshansky has developed into the kind of player that causes football coaches to smile in their sleep, and NFL analysts to spit out synonyms of "Nietzschean superman."

"They want you to be a normal guy off the field — a 'yes sir, no sir' kind of guy — but an animal on it. And they also want you to be able to control that. I think a lot of players get in trouble because they have this mean streak and they don't want to control it off the field," he said.

"You've got to be aggressive. You've got to go out there and give it all. I'm not going to say 'excuse me' on the field, but I might say it off the field. You're going to do whatever it takes to get your job done. My job is, if you're the offensive lineman, to go through you, into the backfield, and find that ball."

Part of "whatever it takes" includes book time and film sessions. Olshansky studies the linemen he'll be facing with the intensity of a lawyer preparing a case. If there are any cracks in his opponents' game, Olshansky is going to exploit them.

"You've got to know your opponent. Is he a high-hand guy or a low-hand guy? Is he a leaner?" he rattles off rapid-fire, referring to O-linemen's blocking techniques.

Olshansky has virtually always been the strongest player on both sides of the ball — and several former coaches agreed he's unquestionably the strongest football player to ever wear an Oregon Ducks uniform — but he knows that brute strength will only take him so far.

"You can be a big, strong player, but if you're not intelligent, a player who may not be as gifted as you might overtake you. Just because of technique," he said, an intense and serious look on his face.

"And intelligence football-wise isn't the same as rocket science-wise. A guy might not be able to multiply eight times eight, but could be a genius when to comes to football."

Olshanksy breaks his poker face and grins.

"That's a little bit of an exaggeration, obviously."

Igor, incidentally, is proficient at both the football and rocket science type of smarts, registering very good grades at U. of Oregon through three years of studies in psychology and acing the Wonderlic intelligence test given to all prospective NFL draftees.

And — don't tell anyone — he's also a big softy.

"He's never been a bully. He's one of the most gentle people I've ever met in my life, which is surprising with a man of his size. I watch the NFL and these guys are vicious. I see Warren Sapp take out Chad Clifton, and I don't see that in Igor," said Kanterzhi, referring to a controversial on-field incident that left Clifton temporarily unable to walk and threatened his career.

"The crowd chants his name, 'I-gor, I-gor,' and I know that really drives him, but I've never seen him take somebody out or stare some guy down. He doesn't dance around. He doesn't showboat. He just plays. He just gets the job done."

Olshansky, dressed in an NFL T-shirt and shorts with a thick gold chain dangling around his neck, makes the case that he's "just an average guy," even after being forced to duck his head to squeeze through the doors of a Daly City cafe.

"I'm no different from anybody else. I'm just a family guy," he said.

His girlfriend is Jewish, and that's not a coincidence. She's also beautiful, he said with a smile. He wants a big family — three kids, maybe — and he'd enjoy driving them to and from school. He'd like to help his older sister, Marina, a chiropractor, open up her own practice. He'd like a few dogs.

"I really think I was born to play this sport. I also love it," he said. "I love it because it's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. It's also the greatest thing I've ever done in my life.

"You know what I mean?"


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