A group of 18 NFL Hall of Famers traveled in Israel this week on a trip New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft organized to promote the sport of football, four months after a similar effort sponsored by the Israeli government ended in controversy.
Joe Montana, Jim Brown, Roger Staubach and Mike Singletary were among the players who arrived for a weeklong visit to the Holy Land to meet some of the 2,000 active players in Israel's various leagues and to learn about the growth of gridiron in the country.
"I love football. I love Israel. I love America. I think kids in America would die to have this group of players come and view them," Kraft told The Associated Press. "The game of football teaches you lessons in life that nothing else does."
While still lagging far behind soccer and basketball in popularity, football has made great strides at the grassroots level thanks to live NFL TV broadcasts and the expansion of the Israel Football League, now 10 years old. Unlike baseball, which still mostly appeals to American-Israelis, football has resonated with native-born Israelis who have taken a liking to the army-like strategy, camaraderie and collisions.
The game has really taken off in the high school league, where nine teams play across the country, and it is now no longer unusual to see kids tossing the pigskin around in city parks.
On Thursday, the NFL greats watched scrimmages between various high school teams, including the six-time defending league champions Kfar Saba Hawks — who have become an unlikely breeding ground for future commandoes in the Israeli military. Together with the eight flag football leagues for men, women and youth, there are currently about 80 teams playing football in Israel.
"This is only going to get bigger and better over here because of him," Montana said of Kraft.
In February, several active NFL players who had previously agreed to travel to Israel on a goodwill tour, including Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett, opted to withdraw from the trip amid pressure from pro-Palestinian groups. Just five of 11 players made the trip as scheduled.
“I was excited to see this remarkable and historic part of the world with my own eyes. I was not aware, until reading this article about the trip in the Times of Israel [newspaper], that my itinerary was being constructed by the Israeli government for the purposes of making me, in the words of a government official, an ‘influencer and opinion-former’ who would then be ‘an ambassador of good will,’” Bennett wrote on Instagram. “I will not be used in such a manner.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.