They are among the greatest football players known to the game. At the invitation of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, 18 Pro Football Hall of Famers—known as “Gold Jackets” in honor of the signature sports coat given to the men upon induction—visited Israel for a week last June. This cast of superstar athletes included Jim Brown, Joe Montana, Roger Staubach and Aeneas Williams.
For Kraft, bringing the players to Israel was a dream fulfilled and one that he shared with his late wife, Myra. Kraft, who first visited Israel on his honeymoon in 1963, is a devoted supporter of the country. As he told The Jerusalem Post, “It is so special to bring the best of the best to ever play my favorite sport to my favorite country in the world. In almost 100 years of the NFL, I don’t believe a group of this caliber has ever come together outside of the United States, and I’m very proud to be able to put this trip together.”
Highlights of the trip make up a documentary called “NFL Films Presents: Touchdown in Israel,” which airs on Friday, Oct. 20, at 8 p.m. on the NFL Network. Keith Crossrow, a senior coordinating producer of NFL Films, directed “Touchdown in Israel.” In a recent interview with JewishBoston, Crossrow said that in his 20 years as a film producer for the NFL, traveling to Israel with Kraft and the Hall of Famers “was one of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve ever had in this business. It was a privilege to be there and to document such a special journey.”
As both documentarians and storytellers, Crossrow and his team made a film that captures the excitement of football in Israel as well as the deeply spiritual moments the players experienced. Upon landing in the country, the players went to a converted soccer field to watch local teams scrimmage. As evidenced by the reception the players received, football is catching on in Israel.
The Israel Football League has been in operation for a decade, and enthusiasm for the game at the high school level has taken off. There are currently nine teams that play in the country, and it’s become a common occurrence to see kids tossing a football around just for fun. Additionally, there are eight flag football leagues for men, women and children, which comprise almost 80 teams playing football in Israel.
Kraft is widely credited with bringing football to Israel. During the trip, the Kraft Family Sports Campus in Jerusalem was dedicated, which includes Israel’s first regulation football field. While promoting the sport was an important part of the trip’s agenda, Kraft generously showed this star-studded group another Israel they will never forget.
Crossrow noted the moment he knew he was directing a unique film. “Something special was happening when we went to the Mount of Beatitudes in the north of the country—the Galilee—where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount,” he said. “So often you have an itinerary that you shoot, and you take your best guess at what works. Many of the players became overwhelmingly emotional in the small church there, and Aeneas Williams, who is now a pastor, gave a sermon. Everyone began to sing and all of it was spontaneous. We kept rolling, and I think we captured that powerful scene.”
Another moving scene was the baptism ceremonies that took place in the Jordan River. Crossrow had his two cinematographers in the river shooting the event in slow motion. The presiding pastor’s microphone was waterproof, as were those who were baptized. More than a dozen players and their families participated in the religious ceremony. “I think we captured the experience in the most authentic and artistic way we could,” noted Crossrow.
The film ends with what was affectionately called the “last supper.” The trip’s participants gathered together to share their impressions of the journey. “Mr. Kraft told us that the evening had the potential to be special, and it was,” Crossrow said. “All 18 NFL legends had such personal, emotional reflections of their experience on that last night. They also talked about their lives. I hope the six minutes we showed gives viewers an idea of how remarkable the dinner was. What Mr. Kraft did was give something back to players that have meant so much to the NFL. He gave them a life-changing experience. It was truly a mitzvah.”
In addition to airing the documentary on Friday, Oct. 20, at 8 p.m., the NFL Network will also televise it on Saturday, Oct. 21, at 5 a.m., and Sunday, Oct. 22, at 1 a.m.