new york | Benny Friedman has been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, perhaps with a little bit of help from his former players at Brandeis University.
When the late Jewish quarterback, who was a pioneer in developing the forward pass, was elected to football’s shrine last weekend, it came after several years of effort by those who knew Friedman as a coach at Brandeis from 1951 to 1959.
A group of alumni began the effort to gain recognition for Friedman as they developed a tribute to him at Brandeis’ 50th anniversary dinner in 1998. They looked into ways to get Friedman on the nominating slate for the Hall of Fame, but were told that would have to come from the hall’s seniors committee.
That finally happened last fall, when Friedman and Fritz Pollard were named as two of the 15 people eligible to be voted into the hall this year.
Friedman first starred for the University of Michigan, where in 1926 he became the first Jew to captain the football team. He is believed to have led the NFL in touchdown passes during the years he played, 1927-33, though statistics for the period are spotty.
A sportswriter for the New York Daily News, Paul Gallico, wrote that Friedman was the “greatest football player in the world.” He was named to the NFL’s All-Time team in 1951.
His lack of recognition at the hall has been attributed, at times, to anti-Semitism, his perceived arrogance or his battles with the NFL over several issues, including pensions for former players.
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Friedman was born in Cleveland and once attributed his good fortune to Judaism.
He remembered that his mother told him she would put 18 cents — the number 18 symbolizes life in Hebrew — into a tzedakah box for him.
“I never questioned whether it was my ability that kept me aloof from injury. I let it go that chai was working for me,” he said.
Friedman, Pollard and more recent stars such as Dan Marino and Steve Young were voted into the Hall of Fame this year. Friedman becomes one of only a few Jewish players in the hall, joining such luminaries as Sid Luckman.
Friedman left Brandeis a few years after the school disbanded its football program in 1960.
In later years, he suffered from declining health. Ill from diabetes and with an amputated leg, Friedman committed suicide in 1982.