By Bruce Lowitt
I heard of Benny Friedman when I was a kid. It had been years since I'd thought of him until finding out he'd finally been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
All I really knew about him before that was that he was a Jewish quarterback at the University of Michigan, and the centerpiece of one terrific slice of Jewish humor.
I like to say I grew up a Catskills Jew in Brooklyn, that Buddy Hackett, Myron Cohen, Alan King and the rest were my teachers, that from them I learned a bissell Yiddish, countless stories and the art of telling them and, of course, what Jews excel at - self-deprecation and neuroses.
Actually, I did say that. It was the opening of my Bar Mitzvah speech a couple of months ago. I said it because I could. When you're 62 you can say a lot of things. If I hadn't waited to become a Bar Mitzvah 49 years after the standard 13th birthday, I wouldn't have had the insight to discuss Jewish humor with the congregation. I would have had the insight of belly
Where was I?
Ah, yes. Benny Friedman.
This is going to take a while, so relax.
Friedman was one of the first inductees into the College Football Hall of Fame, in 1951 and entered the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1979.
But because he fought the NFL over its decision, agreed to by the owners and the players union, to exclude from its pension plan those players who played before the 1958 season, Friedman was, in effect, snubbed by the league when it came to voting for entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame...until last month, when he was elected during Super Bowl weekend, along with fellow former quarterbacks Dan Marino and Steve Young and halfback Fritz Pollard. The induction ceremony will be Aug.7 at the hall of fame in Canton, Ohio.
Friedman, who died in 1982, was born 100 years ago into an Orthodox family in Cleveland. He played baseball, basketball and football in high school, was recruited by Michigan and was instrumental in the development of the forward pass.
Friedman was UM's starting quarterback as a junior and senior (1925 and '26), posting successive 7-1 seasons and two Big Ten Conference titles. He was the conference's Most Valuable Player in 1926, when he was a consensus All-American and the captain of the Wolverines.
Which begs these questions: is wolverine kosher and is it as stringy as weasel? Or Paul Wolfowitz?
The National Football League was six years old in 1926; the Frankford Yellow Jackets, Pottsville Maroons, Providence Steam Roller were among its 12 franchises. Then again, so were the New York Giants, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Bulldogs.
Friedman signed with the Bulldogs, his hometown team, in 1927. The next season the franchise moved to Detroit and cleverly renamed itself the Wolverines.
(Editor's note: professional wolverines definitely are not kosher, but they are professionals, which makes their mothers very happy.)
In 1928, he became the only NFL player ever to lead the league in passing and rushing in the same season. Giants owner Tim Mara was so impressed by Friedman that he repeatedly offered to buy his contract from the Wolverines - and was repeatedly turned down. So he bought and folded the Wolverines and paid Friedman a then-outrageous $10,000 a year, when many players made $100, to quarterback the Giants.
In each of his first four seasons in the NFL, Friedman was an All-Pro and led the league in passing and passing touchdowns. In 1928, he became the only NFL player ever to lead the league in passing and rushing in the same season.
After four more seasons, the final three with the Brooklyn Dodgers football team, Friedman retired as the NFL's career passing leader. He later coached at City College of New York and still later was coach and athletic director at Brandeis.
Enough background. You want more? Go Google.
Now, Yiddish doesn't necessarily translate cleanly into English, so if you don't understand what's coming next, have someone who does read the following phonetically and explain it to you. A laugh is not guaranteed, but a gentle "Aaaah'' of pleasant satisfaction is warranted.
Michigan was playing Holy Cross and no matter what play Benny Friedman called, it seemed the Crusaders knew what was coming and stopped the Wolverines in their tracks. Nothing was working.
Finally, in frustration, Friedman called the team together during a time out, gave the players a quick lesson in Yiddish, then called a play in the huddle and brought the Wolverines to the line.
Friedman surveyed the defense, then shouted, ''Team, set! Dreisek un Zibin Roit, Finif Veiss .'' at which point the Holy Cross left tackle looked up and said, Benny, bubbeleh, zoll gornisht helfen!"
Lowitt is a semiretired sports writer living in Florida with his wife and more than half a century of guilt.