It remains to be seen how many of Texas A&M’s remaining football games will be played in the evening. Should the Aggies play in any SEC clashes that kick off after sunset, the Orthodox Jewish community will be represented in what many would consider a, well, highly unorthodox manner.
Indeed, a nighttime A&M game would allow college football fans nationwide to catch a glimpse of the legacy program’s junior wide receiver, Sam Salz, he of Philadelphia’s Kohelet Yeshiva High School, roaming the sidelines. Salz is believed to be the only Orthodox Jew to play Division I college football this season (if not, the first-ever) and he’s doing so in style, donning a “Chabad A&M” kippah under his helmet while wearing the number “39” to symbolize the 39 tasks and items that are avoided during Sabbath, known in Hebrew as lamed tet melachot.
Yes, playing football falls into that category.
“At the end of the day, everything is conditional on me keeping Shabbat,” said Salz, who is adamant about not suiting up before sunset on Saturdays this autumn even if it means forfeiting potential opportunities to see game action for the first time…in his life.
While he may not be the most impactful college football player this year, Salz has to be one of the most interesting – and not just because of his religious background. The five-foot-five, 155-pound wideout never played a down of organized football before being invited to join the SEC powerhouse last year after the coaching staff caught wind of his burning desire to come aboard. Apparently, Kohelet Yeshiva High School did not have a football program and Salz, whose family had a lukewarm interest in the sport, never played in middle school or Pop Warner. As much as young Sam, naturally a die-hard Eagles fan being a Philly native, was enamored with football, his playing days were limited to recess and physical education class. When it came time to select a college, Salz ultimately decided to enroll in Texas A&M largely because football is so heavily embedded in the school’s fabric.
“I always loved the culture that football brought,” continued Salz. “It was the first time that I had seen a state school like that with a stadium that is the center of the whole campus. It’s the biggest landmark in the entire city.”
As a freshman in 2021, Salz was on a Chabad trip to New York City when he broached the subject of playing for the Aggies to his buddies while taking the subway crosstown. They thought it was a cool idea (“Yeah, why not?”), and so did a couple passengers who overheard the lighthearted conversation. Salz’s mind was set – he was going to do everything in his power to secure a roster spot the following season.
Shortly after returning to campus, Salz began training in earnest outside the Aggies’ practice facility. Not only did Salz catch the attention of the coaching staff by spending nine months getting himself into shipshape condition, but he also took the initiative to reach out and introduce himself to esteemed head coach Jimbo Fisher and a couple of the athletic directors away from the field. Although no formal invitation to a walk-on tryout ever materialized leading up to the 2022 season, due to the roster being at full capacity, Salz remained undeterred. He kept up with his solo training and conditioning exercises before a spot did open up a few weeks into the season and he was subsequently welcomed to join the squad.
“Sometimes when something crazy happens, you can’t believe that it happened,” Salz recalled when reflecting on the life-changing moment from a year ago. “I obviously went to pray at synagogue to thank G-d for everything.”
Now in his first complete season in College Station, Salz maintains that, while things can change rapidly in college football and you never know when your number will be called, his primary role is that of being an exemplary teammate.
“In some respects, it is kind of hard to describe it [my role on the team],” said Salz, who attended B’nai Abraham Chabad in Center City and is currently studying different intricacies of Jewish law to understand the Torah and be closer to G-d while also planning on pursuing his rabbinic ordination. “At the very least I hope that I provide some inspiration.
“I really hope that I can serve as a good energy to the team. I think that’s really what it is. Someone who comes in who’s ready to work and who just wants the best for his teammates. I’ll always be in their corner if they need support. I really feel like they are my brothers.”
Naturally, at a school such as Texas A&M where Jewish students represent a very small minority of the student body, his faith is an object of fascination among his football brethren.
Explained Salz, “Fundamentally, there’s not many people who know a lot about what Jews believe. There are some more things that especially culminate with the Orthodox background that surprise some people.” One of which is his refraining from touching girls before marriage, about which Salz acknowledges “a lot of my teammates are fascinated by that one.”
A Sabbath-observing, yarmulke-wearing SEC football player promises to be a fascinating storyline throughout this season. A cursory glance at A&M’s remaining schedule shows the school has a potential primetime game against fellow SEC heavyweight Alabama on Saturday, Oct. 7. Is the prospect of ESPN scheduling that marquee matchup for the nighttime, effectively offering Salz his most visible platform yet, particularly exciting?
“There is a reason I think about it [Oct. 7 vs. Alabama], but it’s not because of that,” responded Salz. “The reason I think about that Alabama game is because it’s also Simchat Torah, so I won’t be able to be out there anyway.”