Hitting won’t just be for the baseball players coming to Israel this summer.
On the heels of announcing the launch of a professional league in America’s national pastime, Israel will start a football association this fall.
The gridders in the Israel Football League won’t be pros, but they will be playing American-style tackle replete with helmets, pads and bodies pounding each other.
Steve Leibowitz, president of Israel’s flag football association, announced the formation of the new four-team league in a ceremony March 8 at Kraft Family Stadium.
On hand were Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots of the National Football League. Kraft donated the money for the stadium, the only one in Israel designed for American football.
Joining Kraft were former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, as well as 35 members of the Combined Jewish Federation of Greater Boston and many of the players from the flag football league, American Football in Israel.
“We’re looking for ways to link America to Israel every way we can,” Kraft said in remarks at the ceremony, “and when we come to this field we get goose bumps because we see Americana here and we want to be committed to doing everything we can to allow you players to continue to prosper and grow and flourish here.”
Tagliabue, who served as NFL commissioner for 15 years, said the IFL shows the growth of international interest in American football.
“But mostly it’s about kids kids having the chance to play a game that they haven’t played before,” he said. “And once they participate, and once they see how much fun it can be, and how competitive it is, and what kind of self esteem you can get when you succeed, it just catches on real fast.”
Before the ceremonial opening, Tagliabue and Kraft watched the girls’ team from the flag football league play an exhibition game. Afterward the two were mobbed by the crowd, and they signed autographs and posed for photos.
The AFI operates four leagues men’s contact, women, high school and coed featuring 88 teams and more than 1,000 players. Games are played at the Kraft stadium.
Tagliabue noted the international growth of football in a number of countries, and said what’s happening in Israel is especially exciting.
“They not only have boys out here playing but girls and they’re playing extremely well after only a few seasons,” he said. “So we’re excited about it, and hope it will become a model for what can be done in other parts of the world.”
One of the players from the men’s contact league, perennial all-star Yona Misha’an, said he was eagerly looking forward to playing in the IFL.
“I think the tackle league is a major step towards allowing a lot of talented players here in Israel to possibly fulfill their dream of playing in pro and semi-pro leagues in Europe and the U.S.,” Misha’an said. “On a personal level, 10 years ago it would have been a dream come true for me. Now I am just happy that my son and his friends will have the opportunity.”
The IFL plans to kick off with teams in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Kfar Saba.
Leibowitz said flag football in Israel has the largest number of teams playing in the world, but that tackle football “is the ultimate version of the game of American football,” he said.
“Helmets and pads make it into a real spectacle for fans, so we believe that there will be considerable fan interest in the development,” he said.
Leibowitz said many of the potential athletes in the IFL will be American immigrants, including some with college or high school football experience. Others will come from the contact league.
“Many have come up to me and said that their dream is to play real tackle football,” he said. “Many of these players are Israelis who may not have seen a real tackle football game, except on TV. But they’ve gotten the bug.
“I hope to make this dream come true for this group of Israeli amateur athletes, who will be making sports history in Israel when they take the field.”