Houston — As the college football season gets underway, two Jews in the South will soon exchange New Year’s greetings.
That’s not unusual. But their background is — both are or have been college students at Historically Black University and Colleges (HBCUs), and both have played on their schools’ football teams as place kickers.
Robbie Hersh, a senior at Texas Southern University here who missed last season because of an injury, and Abraham Mercado, who played at Morgan State University in Baltimore before transferring this year to Florida Atlantic University to study film, met after a story in this paper last year (“I Create My Own Jewish Life,” Aug. 26, 2011) profiled Mercado. They have shared, mostly through Facebook, their common experiences as minority white students — and as virtually the sole Jewish students — where most of their schoolmates are black Christians.
“We are both in the same [Jewish] fraternity,” Alpha Epsilon Pi, “which is awesome,” Mercado tells The Jewish Week in an email interview. Both have affiliated with nearby Hillel chapters, shopping for kosher food at local supermarkets, and finding themselves mild objects of curiosity off-campus, for playing college football on scholarship and for doing it at black schools.
People who hear that Hersh, 22, is a kicker at TSU often assume he means Texas State University, a liberal arts institution in San Marcos, he says. “No, the other one,” the HBCU, he tells them.
The TSU Tigers opened their 2012 season Saturday night against Prairie View A&M University – Hersh kicked three field goals in the game, including the game-winner, from 47 yards out, as the final gun sounded.
The 5-foot-10, 240-pound Hersh, a one-time soccer player who shares his interest in placekicking with his older brother Jonathan, a former collegiate kicker (together, they run Hersh Brothers Kicking Camp, hershbrotherskicking.com), played high school football in nearby Pearland and was recruited by TSU. At home as the only Jew in classes and the locker room, he handles the usual good-natured “white boy” ribbing, and fields teammates’ questions about his eating habits (he eschews treif at team meals) and about other aspects of Jewish tradition.
A few fellow players engaged in banter in the TSU field house before a recent practice session, Hersh taking kidding about his singing performance as a freshman during a team orientation. When his mother was dying of cancer three years ago, his teammates visited her in the hospital, and nearly the entire team came to her funeral, Hersh says. “Everyone was supportive.
“These guys will be at my wedding,” he says.
Neither Hersh (who would like to kick in the NFL, and hopes to become a special education teacher) nor Mercado can offer a sociological explanation for Jewish place-kickers ending up at HBCUs. Both are following in the footsteps of Gil Landau, an Israeli who kicked for Grambling State University, the so-called Black Notre Dame, in the early 1990s.
They’re not the only Jewish place-kickers at American universities.
Stephen Stein, from Blue Ash, Ohio, plays for Bowling Green University. “After our game last year,” Mercado says, “he came up to me and said, ‘It’s great to meet another Jewish kicker. Happy Rosh HaShanah.’”