When Elan Kainen took to the football field on Thursday nights, he aimed at tackling more than just his opponents. His goal: Banish the idea that Jewish kids do not play football.
“I started playing for the varsity team during my sophomore year,” said Elan, 17, who played linebacker and fullback. “Being one of the younger guys when I started, I had to work my way up the ranks and look up to the older guys.”
Now in his senior year of high school, Elan is team captain of the Hurricanes at Scheck Hillel Community School in North Miami Beach, one of a handful of Jewish schools in the country to play varsity football.
Hillel’s football team, which just finished its sixth season, spent its first five years as an independent team until joining the Gulf Atlantic Football Conference, an independent league of 10 teams, before this season.
“It’s a big step for our program,” Elan said. “We used to just play regular games, and that would be our season, but now we’re in a league, and that makes it more competitive.”
Elan’s mother, Deborah Kainen, was not as enthusiastic as her son was about playing football.
“Initially, I wasn’t for it,” Kainen said. “With all of the information that came out around that time about head injuries and the long-term effects, I didn’t want anything to happen to him that would affect his life in the future.”
Playing on a Jewish team means a few tweaks in the schedule. Friday night, the standard for high school football games, is the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath; Hillel plays on Thursday nights. The schedule can also vary due to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy Days.
Before every game, aside from the usual speeches from their coaches, a rabbi from the school discusses a passage from the Torah, relating it to life and the football game they are about to play.
Mike Norman, head coach of the football team and physical education teacher, talked about how the school’s Judaic traditions affect the football team.
“We have stretches where we can’t play games,” said Norman, who is Roman Catholic and has been the head coach for four years. “I’m allowed to have film for a little bit on Fridays, but I have to have the kids off campus by 4 p.m. On Saturdays, I can’t have any contact with the players at all.”
Although it has been challenging, Norman led his team to the playoffs this past season with the help of Elan’s leadership.
“We initially didn’t know how he was going to help us out,” he said. “But he put forth a lot of effort and we ended up knowing he’d be a huge contributor on this team.”
Elan’s friend and teammate, Alex Teichner, 17, said Elan is a great team player.
“He deserves to be captain and is one of the best leaders I’ve ever seen on a football field,” said Alex, who plays on the offensive line. “He never gets ahead of himself and is always cheering other people on.”
The football team finished 3-5 this past season, losing its playoff game against the undefeated Community School of Naples Seahawks by a score of 52-18.
“Once the game ended, I was less upset about the loss and more hurt about the fact that I won’t ever be able to put pads on again,” said Elan. “The sport of football comes down to who’s willing to put more effort and who wants to succeed more. What I’ve taken from this sport is as long as you desire something and are willing to work for it, it will happen.”
Elan’s mother has developed a different perspective on her son playing football over the past few years.
“There’s a lot more beyond football,” Kainen said. “But what I initially loathed, ended up being the best thing I’ve ever allowed my son to do.”