WHIPPANY, N.J. — For ex-Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Randy Grossman, being nicknamed “The Rabbi” was inevitable.
“The fellow who pretty much nicknamed everyone was Dwight White, who recently passed away,” Grossman said of the outstanding lineman from the Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s. “He and I were locker neighbors and, yeah, what are you gonna call a white kid from Philadelphia who’s Jewish? Sparky?”
“The Rabbi” would ascend the championship bimah four times in his eight years playing for the Steelers’ dynasty. His four Super Bowl rings are the most among any Jewish player.
As his old club prepared to take on the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas on Sunday, Grossman reminisced about his time with the Steelers and talked about his Jewishness and the absence of anti-Semitism he encountered in his career.
Among his on-field memories is catching a short touchdown pass from Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw in the 21-17 victory over the Cowboys in Super Bowl X 36 years ago.
“It’s exciting, but one of the things I try to make people realize is that whatever level you’re at when you’re playing in a championship game — whether it’s in high school or college or professionally — it is the most exciting thing that could happen,” Grossman, 59, said in a telephone interview from his home in Pittsburgh. “Doing something great in high school wasn’t any less exciting than doing something as a professional.”
Grossman had come to the Steelers as an undrafted free agent following a stellar career at his hometown Temple University, where he made third-team All-America from The Associated Press.
“If you didn’t get drafted, it was pretty much of a long shot,” he said.
But the long-shot stuck, and Grossman caught 119 passes in 118 regular season games for 1,514 yards — a 12.7 yard-per-reception average — and five touchdowns.
His four Super Bowl rings — won in 1974, ’75, ’78 and ’79 — edge offensive lineman Harris Barton, who won three (1988, ’89, and ’94) playing for the San Francisco 49ers. Barton’s teammate John Frank won two (1984, ’88).
Other Jews who have the championship jewelry include Bobby Stein, the first Jewish player to appear in a Super Bowl (Kansas City Chiefs, 1970); Lyle Alzado (Oakland Raiders, 1983); Alan “Shlomo” Veingrad (Dallas Cowboys, 1992); and Josh Miller (New England Patriots, 2004).
Grossman, who has worked in the financial services industry for the past 21 years, says he opted for the Steelers because they had moved to the American Football Conference following the merger of the National Football League and the American Football League.
As a receiver, he was entranced by the pass-heavy offense of the AFC — the successor to the aerial circus of the AFL — rather than the grind-it-out rushing attack of the National Football Conference.
“The AFL was where all the throwing action was,” he said. “My favorite teams were the Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Diego Chargers because they threw the ball.”
Grossman says he can recall only one incident of anti-Semitism in his many levels of football, when a player on the field said something derogatory — “and as soon as he said it, from the look on his face, I think he realized how out of line he was.”
Grossman shrugged off the comment.
“In sports — in my era and currently — it really is the great melting pot,” he said. “If you ‘bring game,’ you’re fine. If you’re an imposter, then they’ll run you out regardless of what your religious preferences are or ethnic background is.
“It was obviously different in the ’60s, ’50s, ’40s, but from the time that I’ve been involved, it’s been completely open and purely performance-based acceptance or non-acceptance.”
He recalls Steeler teammate Steve Furness converting to Judaism; Grossman says he played no part in the process.
“His wife was Jewish and that was the primary catalyst for his conversion, for his children,” Grossman said.
Grossman, who was inducted into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1999, described himself as a “Manischewitz Jew.”
“The rabbi at my bar mitzvah commented about me that I wasn’t always inside [the synagogue],” he said, “but they always knew where to find me — outside playing football.”
Unlike today’s multimillionaire stars, Grossman played in an era when having an off-season job was a given.
“Once you were finished playing football, as [ex-Steelers head coach] Chuck Knoll used to say, you got on with your life’s work,” Grossman said. “For a lot of us, our reputations as adults were started here, so a lot of people stayed here and found jobs, went into business, did what they did next.”
Asked to pick the winner of Sunday’s game, Grossman could hardly answer through his laughter.
“The Steelers!” he said.
He won’t be jetting to Dallas, however.
“There are two ways to see a game,” he said. “Obviously one is to go, and you have to go to experience it. But to see it, you watch it on TV or video. So I’m gonna be kicked back and comfortable and watch it at home.”