RAMAT HASHARON, Israel – Some of the greatest NFL players of all time descended on a converted soccer field outside Tel Aviv to watch local youths scrimmage in a big boost for the burgeoning sport of American football in Israel.
Joe Montana, Jim Brown, Roger Staubach and Mike Singletary were among the 18 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame 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.
Scores of young players, fans and officials erupted upon the arrival of the delegation, a group donning their signature gold Hall of Fame jackets that included Jerome Bettis, Cris Carter, Dave Casper, Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, "Mean" Joe Greene, Willie Lanier, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith and John Stallworth.
The mission was organized by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has been sponsoring the sport in Israel since it was launched in 1999.
"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 of 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.
The four-time Super Bowl champion said he hoped their presence would promote the game, but that the emotional visit — which included tours of religious and historical sites, lessons on its history and an audience with the prime minister — was incredibly rewarding for the former players, many of whom were Christians who spoke warmly about the country.
"A lot of guys learned a lot about Israel and the people that they really had no idea of the culture," Montana said. "While we come here on a mission for American football, I think we take home a lot more than we bring."
The Israeli game still has a long way to go. High school teams typically play 9-on-9 on 60-yard fields and are forced to always go for two points after a touchdown because there are no posts for field goals. The Kraft Sports Complex in Jerusalem that will be dedicated during this trip will include Israel's first full-sized football field. The national team ranks 20th in the world.
The visit comes on the heels of the Israeli government's bungled attempt earlier this year to arrange a goodwill visit of current NFL players, of which half eventually pulled out because of pressure from pro-Palestinian boycott activists.
Kraft, who is Jewish, has brought some of his Patriots on visits before and in 2015 arranged for a group of 19 lesser known Hall of Famers to come promote the sport. But nothing has come even remotely close to the star power of this delegation.
"For our players, your names and accomplishments are truly legendary and inspiring. I am old enough to have seen you all play and I am awed in your presence," said Steve Leibowitz, who got the sport started in the 1980s and later founded American Football in Israel, the official federation. "The sport is still in its infancy in this country but we are making progress ... our goal is to become the third largest sport in Israel."
Leibowitz said that together with the previous visit more than 10 percent of all Hall of Famers have already visited Israel. He credited Kraft and Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer for gathering together a collection of football stars rarely seen in America, let alone elsewhere in the world.
"It's a great honor to us. It gives a lot of exposure to football in Israel so that people know that it exists," he said.
Dickerson, who still holds the NFL's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards that he set in 1984, said he had no idea football was even played in Israel before this trip and had immediately associated the country with soccer instead. But after watching the practice, he got it.
"Football has become the universal sport, it really is," he told the AP. "I think every young kid likes to run, tackle and push each other on the ground. Football is just a way to do it, to get your aggression out, but I think it is great to have football here in Israel."