A foot­ball pi­o­neer

An Is­raeli ath­lete is ready to break bar­ri­ers on the grid­iron

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY SA­MAN­THA PELL IN EAS­TON, MASS.

More than half­way through Yaniv Ko­val­ski’s two­hour work­out, beads of sweat trick­led down his face and into his thick, red­dish brown beard. His face red­dened as he squat­ted 275 pounds, let­ting out a loud grunt as his three vet­eran team­mates yelled words of en­cour­age­ment. Atop Ko­val­ski’s head sat his fa­vorite ac­ces­sory: a cam­ou­flage base­ball hat with a split Amer­i­can and Is­raeli flag on the front and his last name on the back. The hat had re­mained per­fectly in place as Ko­val­ski and his team­mates com­pleted an in­tense weightlift­ing ses­sion in prepa­ra­tion for their up­com­ing foot­ball sea­son. No amount of sweat could cause Ko­val­ski to take it off. Here at Stone­hill Col­lege, Ko­val­ski, 6­foot­3, 285 pounds, is an in­com­ing 23­year­old fresh­man at the pri­vate Ro­man Catholic lib­eral arts school in south­east­ern Mas­sachusetts. He will com­pete for a start­ing spot on the of­fen­sive line this sea­son but has more to learn than just a new work­out rou­tine.

“This is a cul­ture shock,” Ko­val­ski said. “I’ve been learn­ing so much. I’ll tell you a funny story: I was walk­ing around cam­pus with no shoes on a cou­ple weeks ago and my team­mates, they looked at me funny. I said, ‘What? We do this all the time at home in Is­rael.’ ”

Born and raised in Jerusalem, Ko­val­ski is viewed by many as the first of his kind. He earned a par­tial foot­ball schol­ar­ship from Stone­hill, the first player from the Kraft Fam­ily Is­rael Foot­ball League — the coun­try’s first full-con­tact tackle foot­ball league, spon­sored by New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots owner Robert Kraft — to do so at a U.S. col­lege foot­ball pro­gram. Ko­val­ski is seen as a trail­blazer to his peers as they try to build a pipe­line from Is­raeli foot­ball to the United States.

“In 10 years, I would love to have plenty of Yaniv Ko­val­skis,” said Ehud Sharon, chief in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer of Amer­i­can Foot­ball in Is­rael. “That’s def­i­nitely the goal that we are set­ting up. He’s a real pi­o­neer.”

With Stone­hill’s train­ing camp be­gin­ning in early Au­gust, Ko­val­ski — who only started learn­ing foot­ball when he was 17 by watch­ing YouTube videos — has a lot to prove to him­self, his new team­mates and coaches at Stone­hill, and to his coun­try.

A sport takes root in Is­rael

Stone­hill wide re­ceiver An­drew Jamiel broke from his dumb­bell lunges, weights still in both hands, to get a closer look at Ko­valksi’s hat. The hat is Ko­val­ski’s phys­i­cal re­minder of his up­bring­ing, his duty to his coun­try and his con­nec­tion to the United States. Ko­val­ski served for al­most three years in the Is­rael De­fense Forces.

“Hey,” Jamiel said, mo­tion­ing in Ko­val­ski’s di­rec­tion. “I feel like you wear that hat ev­ery day.”

“Oh, I do,” Ko­val­ski replied. “I have an­other one, but my un­cle made this one. You want one?”

Jamiel, with a sil­ver cross neck­lace dan­gling from his neck, jumped at the of­fer, chuck­ling at the thought of the whole foot­ball team of a Catholic univer­sity step­ping off the bus with hats pro­ject­ing the Amer­i­can and Is­raeli flags.

“Could you imag­ine it?” Jamiel asked. “Man, the thought.”

Ko­val­ski grew up in a dif­fer­ent coun­try, prac­ticed a dif­fer­ent re­li­gion and learned English as a sec­ond lan­guage. So he is ap­pre­cia­tive of mo­ments like these, where it feels as if all bar­ri­ers are dropped.

“I just wanted to have some­thing I can wear proudly to show who I am and where I am from,” Ko­val­ski said. “I’m not ashamed of it. I feel a duty to rep­re­sent my coun­try. How many peo­ple have a stigma about Is­rael here? I’m here to burst those bub­bles and be a re­spect­ful and good per­son.”

Ko­val­ski ar­rived at Stone­hill, which has a Divi­sion II foot­ball pro­gram, on June 13, af­ter an 18-hour travel day from Jerusalem. The tree-lined, 375-acre cam­pus is 22 miles south of Bos­ton and 25 min­utes away from Foxbor­ough, the home of Kraft’s Pa­tri­ots.

Kraft has a deep con­nec­tion with Ko­val­ski, stem­ming from their mu­tual ties in Is­rael. Kraft and his fam­ily have been lead­ing spon­sors of foot­ball in Is­rael since 1999 with the open­ing of the Kraft Fam­ily Sta­dium in Jerusalem. In 2007, the Kraft Fam­ily Is­rael Foot­ball League had its in­au­gu­ral sea­son. There is also a flag foot­ball league, a high school league and a women’s league.

“I’ll never for­get when we built that lit­tle sta­dium in Jerusalem,” Kraft said in a phone in­ter­view. “I stood there be­fore a game and I heard the Amer­i­can na­tional an­them played and the Is­raeli na­tional an­them, and both were played with a great deal of re­spect. I got goose bumps. I thought, ‘How cool would it be if one day out of this league a player could come and play in col­lege and the NFL?’ ”

Ko­val­ski started his foot­ball jour­ney in 2011, play­ing one year in the Is­raeli High School Foot­ball League, win­ning two cham­pi­onships in five years in the IFL and play­ing two years on the Is­raeli na­tional foot­ball team. While play­ing foot­ball, he was also drafted into Is­rael’s mil­i­tary forces in Novem­ber 2014. But, with the IDF grant­ing him the recog­ni­tion of “Ac­tive Sports­man,” it al­lowed Ko­val­ski to be in a non­com­bat mil­i­tary role and play foot­ball at the same time.

Know­ing what Ko­val­ski went through to get to Stone­hill, Kraft said he hopes to make it to one of his games, but he doesn’t want to cause any ex­tra pres­sure or at­ten­tion. His “hope and dream” is to have an Is­raeli foot­ball player in the NFL.

“Part of it now is if this young man is suc­cess­ful,” Kraft said. “As we con­tinue to grow and de­velop, I think we feed into the col­lege sys­tem, and I would love to see it gen­er­ate some play­ers into the NFL.”

Kraft do­nated $6 mil­lion to the June open­ing of the Kraft Fam­ily Sports Cam­pus, which is home to Is­rael’s first reg­u­la­tion­size foot­ball field. The hope is the con­struc­tion of the field will ex­pand the sport in the coun­try.

In Is­rael, the NFL is a draw for young peo­ple as they watch games by stream­ing them on­line. Ko­val­ski was also a col­lege foot­ball fan, root­ing for LSU af­ter be­ing awed by the play of fu­ture NFL play­ers Pa­trick Peter­son, Tyrann Mathieu, La’el Collins and Odell Beck­ham Jr.

“He’s go­ing to thrive,” said Yogi Roth, a for­mer Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh foot­ball player and cur­rent col­lege foot­ball an­a­lyst, who met Ko­val­ski while shoot­ing a doc­u­men­tary se­ries in Is­rael. “I wouldn’t be sur­prised if in four years, be­cause of his body type and de­ter­mi­na­tion, he got in­vited to an NFL camp. He’s got the abil­ity and the ceil­ing if he can stay healthy.”

An NFL fu­ture is Ko­val­ski’s dream, al­though re­al­iz­ing it would re­quire him de­fy­ing the odds, given his late jump into col­lege foot­ball at 23 years old and the level of com­pe­ti­tion he will face at Stone­hill. Only six Divi­sion II play­ers were selected in the 2017 NFL draft, and their av­er­age age was 23.

But Ko­val­ski’s coaches said he has a real­is­tic shot at start­ing this sea­son af­ter he was cleared by the NCAA for at least a year of el­i­gi­bil­ity, with “con­fi­dence” that the next three will be cleared as well.

“We didn’t bring him half­way across the world to sit on the bench,” Stone­hill Coach Eli Gard­ner said. “The thing that im­pressed us was how ad­vanced he was in cer­tain ar­eas, know­ing a lot of what he is, is self-taught.”

It has been dif­fi­cult for ath­letes from Is­rael to com­pete in the United States be­cause of their re­li­gious be­liefs, Ko­val­ski said.

At home in Is­rael, the IFL doesn’t play on Fri­day night or Satur­day be­cause of the ob­ser­vance of the Sab­bath. Ko­val­ski was raised as an Ortho­dox Jew but now con­sid­ers him­self part of the con­ser­va­tive branch of Ju­daism, which means play­ing on Satur­day isn’t a prob­lem.

Ko­val­ski reached out to Stone­hill in De­cem­ber 2016, al­most a year af­ter be­com­ing se­ri­ous about his foot­ball as­pi­ra­tions and get­ting a trainer to im­prove his agility. Af­ter learn­ing how to cre­ate his own high­light tapes and post­ing them on YouTube, he pro­ceeded to send out emails to dozens of coaches across the United States with the sub­ject line: “Yaniv Ko­val­ski, 6’3” 295 lbs. OL from Is­rael w/ 1230 SATs.”

Tyler Moody, Stone­hill’s re­cruit­ing co­or­di­na­tor, of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor and of­fen­sive line coach, re­ceived one of those emails. He was im­pressed with the agility and tech­nique the big man pos­sessed. Ko­val­ski had earned a black belt in taekwondo by the age of 15, and it had helped his foot­work in foot­ball. The two ex­changed emails, with Ko­val­ski pro­vid­ing tran­scripts in both He­brew and English.

Ko­val­ski took his of­fi­cial visit to Stone­hill on Jan. 18. He de­cided to com­mit Feb. 5 af­ter de­ter­min­ing that the other col­leges on his 23-day road trip across the United States weren’t for him. Ko­val­ski’s mother, Deana Fein, went with her only son on the first part of the U.S. trip. Fein was born in New York but moved to Is­rael in the 1980s and mar­ried her late hus­band in Is­rael, where they raised their three chil­dren — Ko­val­ski and his two sis­ters. Be­cause of his mother, Ko­val­ski also has Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship.

Learn­ing the game, cul­ture

Af­ter watch­ing Ko­val­ski’s ac­com­plish­ments, more Is­raeli high school­ers have started to see the sport as more than just an am­a­teur game. IFL Com­mis­sioner Bet­za­lel Fried­man said he hopes to have an­other player in col­lege foot­ball over the next cou­ple of years — and in 10 years, he’s hop­ing that num­ber will jump to 10 play­ers.

“For Yaniv, it’s some­thing that no mat­ter what hap­pens, he opened up the doors,” said Yonah Mishaan, the Is­raeli na­tional team coach. “He opened up the flood­gates of what will hope­fully hap­pen in the fu­ture, show­ing the kids that there is a pos­si­bil­ity, de­spite all the chal­lenges.”

Ko­val­ski’s jour­ney hasn’t been easy. Over the past year, two of the most in­flu­en­tial fig­ures in Ko­val­ski’s life passed away five months apart: his fa­ther, Nahum Ko­val­ski, in May 2016 and his men­tor Terry Hill in Oc­to­ber.

“I know the mo­ment I break down in tears will be when I run off to the field in my jersey for a game and wish­ing both my dad and Terry would be there,” Ko­val­ski said.

The me­mory of those two men helped Ko­val­ski over­come an­other chal­leng­ing stretch, when com­pli­ca­tions stem­ming from an April her­nia surgery forced him to stay in the hos­pi­tal for a month. There, he watched the sports doc­u­men­tary “Last Chance U” on Net­flix and con­tem­plated his fu­ture in the sport.

“It was a dif­fi­cult year for all of us,” Fein said. “But I knew this is what he wanted. I knew that he had to re­ally try to do it to achieve his goal and not just give up be­cause of ex­ter­nal cir­cum­stances.

“[His fa­ther and Hill] would have not wanted him to give up, and [they] would not have wanted him to use them as an ex­cuse to give up,” Fein said. “In a way, that kept him go­ing.”

Now at Stone­hill, Ko­val­ski, who will ma­jor in health sci­ences, is eat­ing eight meals a day — all made by him­self in a com­mu­nity kitchen — to help gain back healthy weight for foot­ball. When he’s not at his sum­mer in­tern­ship in Stone­hill’s sports camp of­fice, he is spend­ing four days a week in the weight room with his team­mates and two days do­ing con­di­tion­ing and change of di­rec­tion drills.

But foot­ball isn’t the only thing he’s soak­ing in. He has learned sub­tle cul­tural dif­fer­ences, like how the blunt­ness peo­ple have in Is­rael some­times doesn’t trans­late well in Amer­ica. Or, that “this Snapchat thing” some­one down­loaded onto his phone is ac­tu­ally quite pop­u­lar. His team­mates have been giv­ing him the “col­lege ex­pe­ri­ence,” tak­ing him out to mul­ti­ple res­tau­rants, to the beach in Marsh­field, Mass., and show­ing him a thing or two about mu­sic — or at least they’ve tried.

On this day in July, line­backer Vandy Hall turned up the vol­ume on his phone as Chance the Rap­per’s “No Prob­lem” blared in the weight room. Hall and Jamiel bobbed their heads along to the mu­sic, with Hall even tak­ing a crack at a few of the lyrics. But the tune doesn’t faze Ko­val­ski, who is too busy putting weights on the bar for his next squat with quar­ter­back Matt Foltz. In Is­rael, Ko­val­ski would lis­ten to what­ever was on MTV, which in­cludes songs in both He­brew and English. But in the United States, he has learned mu­sic is a big part of the cul­ture.

“These guys, they get so hyped about rap,” Ko­val­ski said, shak­ing his head. “Ev­ery­one knows ev­ery word and ev­ery rap song!”

The mu­sic might still take time to get used to, and so, too, will some of the foot­ball — start­ing with his first col­lege foot­ball train­ing camp.

“Oh, my team­mates have been try­ing to pre­pare me for camp,” Ko­val­ski said. “But when they say, ‘Oh no, it’s camp,’ I have no clue what camp is. I guess I’ll have to be ready.”


Of­fen­sive line­man Yaniv Ko­val­ski, 23, went from play­ing in the Is­rael Foot­ball League to earn­ing a par­tial ath­letic schol­ar­ship at Divi­sion II Stone­hill Col­lege.


TOP: Of­fen­sive line­man Yaniv Ko­val­ski, 23, and line­backer Vandy Hall work out at Divi­sion II Stone­hill Col­lege in Eas­ton, Mass. Ko­val­ski, who ar­rived in June from Is­rael, is vy­ing for a start­ing job but has a lot to learn off the field, too. “This is a cul­ture shock,” he said. ABOVE RIGHT: Ko­val­ski’s fa­vorite hat fea­tures a flag that’s half Amer­i­can and half Is­raeli. ABOVE LEFT: Ko­val­ski wears the two ti­tle rings he earned in the Is­rael Foot­ball League. BOT­TOM: Ko­val­ski works as an in­tern in Stone­hill’s sports camp of­fice.

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