Benny Friedman, part II: The Jewish football superstar turned tragic hero

By Bill Simons

As discussed in a previous issue of The Reporter, Benny Friedman emerged in the 1920s as football’s first Jewish superstar. Collegiate sensation at Michigan and the NFL’s first great passer, he subsequently accepted the position as head football coach at CCNY at the bequest of New York City booster-mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. At CCNY, Friedman did as well as he probably could have with a resource-scarce football team at an institution better suited for scholarship, left-wing politics and the then more Jewish-centric game of basketball. In his late 30s, Friedman left CCNY to enlist in the Navy. Rising to the rank of lieutenant commander, his three years of World War II service included duty aboard the aircraft carrier Shangri-La in the Pacific. Friedman, still only 40 at war’s end, found inviting business and coaching opportunities beckoning. Achievement and celebrity had defined the first half of Friedman’s life. Triumph and then tragedy would punctuate the second act.

The year 1948 was a momentous one in Jewish history. For the first time in nearly 1,900 years, a Jewish homeland took its place among the nations of the world. Another dream was also realized. Named after the groundbreaking Jewish Supreme Court justice, Brandeis University – America’s first Jewish-sponsored, liberal arts university – opened its doors in Waltham, MA. Previously, American Jews had founded yeshivas and rabbinical schools, but never before a non-sectarian college that would welcome qualified faculty and students regardless of their religious backgrounds. 

Abram Sachar, the founding president of Brandeis University, believed that a viable athletic program was essential to the new school. Sports, Sachar felt, would underline Brandeis’ American identity, providing an antidote to the then popular image of an over intellectual, physically ineffectual Jewry. Just as Sachar recruited big names to give other departments instant credibility, he persuaded Friedman, then 44 and the recipient of other more lucrative options, to accept the position of Brandeis’ founding athletic director in 1949. Negotiating reciprocity, Friedman cajoled a reluctant Sachar, concerned about the anti-intellectual emotions that the gridiron oft elicited, to acquiesce to a football program.

By 1950, Friedman had a freshman football team up and running. In their first game, the newly minted Brandeis Judges defeated Harvard, America’s oldest and most prestigious university, 3-0. Sachar, who attended Brandeis’ debut game, claimed, at the time, that the victory had generated more public kudos than “a Pulitzer Prize for literature” would have. 

By autumn 1951, Friedman produced a varsity football team that posted a 4-5 won-lost mark in its maiden season. In 1952, the Brandeis Judges improved to a 5-2-1 mark. The 1957 football team boasted a 6-1 record. Leading squads composed of scholar-athletes, Friedman did a remarkable job with the talent at hand. Many of Brandeis’ gridiron opponents, such as Boston University and Northeastern, had much larger enrollments. 

Brandeis football games attracted good crowds, generated a lot of positive publicity and encouraged Greater Boston Jewry to regard themselves as honorary alumni. Save for Sachar himself, Friedman was Brandeis’ top fund-raiser. Donations allowed for the construction of quality athletic facilities. Still robust and virile, Coach Friedman led the football team in calisthenics. Confident of his own abilities and the direction of the program, Friedman dreamed that Brandeis would develop into a major athletic power. 

Despite the aspirations of Benny Friedman, others feared that the continued growth of athletics would weaken the academic atmosphere at Brandeis. Critics voiced misgivings about Friedman’s fund-raising activities. On the small Brandeis campus, special attention to athletes created resentment amongst many faculty and students. Support for football was curtailed. Athletic scholarships were limited, then abolished, although commitments to students already at the college were honored. As a result, in 1959, the football team, which had gone 6-1 only two years before, suffered through a miserable 0-7-1 season. For the proud and talented, Friedman, autumn 1959 inflicted considerable pain. 

Friedman, however, remained vocal in his support for the football program, arguing that “a new generation of Jewish youngsters… want to come to a school that will give off an image to the general public that this is an American school.” When I asked Sachar about Friedman’s tone throughout the debate, he replied, “Benny Friedman had a temper.” 

The 1959 season marked the end of Brandeis football. On May 16, 1960, the following announcement was made: “Brandeis University today announced the unanimous decision of its Board of Trustees in discontinuing varsity football.” 

Although Friedman didn’t resign as Brandeis athletic director until 1963 and continued to coach the golf team, he felt betrayed. After his resignation, Friedman, formerly a ubiquitous presence at Brandeis, never again set foot on campus. Subsequently, he conducted a general summer camp, called Kohut, in Maine and then operated successful quarterback camps in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Nebraska and California. 

Nonetheless, a certain bitterness colored Friedman’s latter life. He and his wife, Shirley, were childless, and Friedman sometimes felt his past achievements were unappreciated. After the NFL excluded Friedman and other pioneer players from pension benefits, he denounced the league for “brashness and arrogance beyond belief.” Perhaps in retaliation for those words, Friedman’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction was detoured until after his death. And Brandeis’ abolition of football continued to fester with Friedman.

In 1974, circulatory and other maladies necessitated amputation of the 74-year-old Friedman’s left leg. The once great athlete confided, “I have an abhorrence of being a sloppy physical specimen.”Overwhelmed by depression, Friedman, aged 76, died, according to The New York Times, from “a self-inflicted gunshot wound” on November 24, 1982. 

The historian Richard Hofstadter wrote that “the life of a man does not end as a series of propositions that can simply be assessed and found true or false, but as a set of lingering resonances that for our own sake we must be attuned to hear.” It is well to remember the pride that fellow Jews took in Benny Friedman’s collegiate and professional football heroics, as well as his pivotal role in establishing Brandeis as the first non-sectarian university founded by the Jewish-American community. 

Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.