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Arts & Culture Benny Friedman, Football Pioneer and Brandeis Coach, is Hall of Famer

February 8, 2005
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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 Friedman, a Jewish quarterback who was a pioneer in developing the forward pass, was elected to football’s shrine over the 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.

That effort was based not just on what Friedman achieved in building a short-lived football program at Brandeis — he was the school’s first athletic director and its only football coach — but also on what he contributed to his players’ lives.

Dick Bergel, who played halfback at Brandeis and graduated in 1957, said Friedman helped keep him in school by finding ways to support his widowed mother.

“I feel indebted to him for what I was able to achieve,” said Bergel, a former vice chairman of Montgomery Ward who is now retired.

The group 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.

Headed by former team manager Bob Weintraub, the group of Brandeis grads sprang into action. The alums sent a package promoting Friedman’s candidacy to the 39 members of the media who vote for induction into the hall. Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz wrote a separate letter to the Hall of Fame selectors, pushing for Friedman’s selection.

They had a lot of accomplishments to promote. Though the Brandeis alumni knew Friedman as a coach, he made his mark as a player by introducing the forward pass as a legitimate weapon.

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, 1927-1933, 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 National Football League’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 tzedekah 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.

During his tenure at Brandeis, Friedman traveled with President Nathan Sachar to promote and fund raise for the fledgling Jewish university.

“Benny was perhaps the greatest fund raiser for Brandeis during those years,” Weintraub said.

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.

But this August, his story will have a happier ending when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame.

The Brandeis alums have no way of knowing whether their efforts had any effect, but when they learned that their former coach had been elected, they began planning a reunion for this summer to see Friedman honored at the Canton, Ohio, shrine.

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