by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

As a sports writer, you hear stories. Some are incredible. Some they ought to make into a movie. And, once in a while, you hear one even the movies wouldn’t believe.

Which brings us to Gilad Landau, placekicker, Grambling State University. You’ll probably notice him if you watch Grambling play Southern this weekend at the Silverdome. He is one of only two white players on the team. And when he goes to kick a field goal, he stands over the ball, wiggles his fingers near his ears — like a schoolkid making a face — then boots the thing a mile.

Oh, yeah. He’s also Jewish. Comes from Israel.

Did I mention how he got to America?

After three years in the Israeli army, he decided to see the world. He got a map of the USA, closed his eyes, and let his finger come down wherever it pleased. It came down on New Orleans.

Great way to decide your future, huh?

Funny thing is, it’s worked out great for Landau. When he stepped off the plane two years ago and felt the Louisiana heat — “like a bomb in my face” — he wanted to turn around and go home.

But we wouldn’t have a story if he had done that. He was inspired by a Saint

“Israel is a small country — we only know about Israelis and the Middle East,” Landau told me, when I recently visited his school in Louisiana. “I wanted to learn about other civilizations.”

The first thing he learned about ours is that you need a job to eat. So he got a job. As a welder. Six dollars an hour. Tough conditions. He was seeing America, from the grimy side.

Then one day he came home to his small apartment, flipped on the TV, and watched New Orleans Saints placekicker Morten Andersen kick a field goal. “I saw the way the crowd cheered for him. I said to myself, ‘I want to try that someday.’ “

Now, you should know that Landau played soccer in Israel. You should also know he goes after what he wants. He went into the welding shop the next day and asked a coworker if he owned a football.

“Yeah, sure. Why?”

“Bring it in. I’ll bet you I can kick it.”

The guy brought in a football. Someone held it. And there, outside the welding shop, Landau took a few running steps and kicked.

“The ball flew. My coworkers watched it. Then they turned and said,
‘Goll-eee. You can kick.’ “

From there, it was one lucky connection after another. A lawyer who knew a guidance counselor. A guidance counselor who knew a high school coach.

“They said, ‘Gil, you should play college football.’ They told me I had something special in my foot.”

So in between studying for the college boards, and practicing by himself on the high school field (where he developed his weird habit of twiddling his thumbs at the ball) he called various colleges — Texas A&M, Washington State, Georgia Tech — saying simply: “My name is Gil Landau. I am from Israel. I want to kick for your football team.”

Most laughed. When he sent a tape of himself kicking a 55- yard field goal, they stopped laughing. Cultural exchange at Grambling

Unfortunately, most schools had given out their scholarships. Then Landau heard about Eddie Robinson and Grambling.

Robinson has been coaching Grambling since 1940, when traditionally black schools were the only place Southern blacks could play college sports. Integration came in the ’60s, and soon premiere black athletes went to other major universities. Grambling remained mostly black. It has always accepted white students, but few choose to come.

That didn’t stop Landau. He heard Robinson was a legendary coach. That was enough. He passed his SATs and earned a scholarship. Soon, he was meeting his freshman roommate, Jason Branch, a running back from the south side of Chicago.

Obviously, we were in for some culture shock.

“First I saw this white kid, then I found out he’s Israeli, and I said to myself, I must be making Grambling history here,” joked Branch, who is black. But men are men, and the two got along terrifically. Before you knew it, Branch was teaching Landau about rap music and Landau was teaching Branch how to say “goodnight” in Hebrew. (“Lielah tov.”)

There was the time the guys were eating pork ribs, and Landau had to explain he’s Jewish, and pork isn’t kosher. And there was the time when teammates called him “Hussein,” after Saddam, and Gil had to explain about Middle Eastern geography.

But for the most part, it has been a great lesson in international relations. Landau, 23, is a hit on campus. He won the game last week with a field goal and was cheered the way he always dreamed.

“People say you must be shocked to be almost the only white guy with all these black students,” Landau said. “But shock is when they take you at 18 years old and put you in the army in a fighter jet. That’s shock. After that, everything else is easy.

“People are people. I love it here.”

Nice, huh? And 100 percent true.

Even though Hollywood will never believe it.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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