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‘He’s a real pioneer’: Israeli college football player adjusts to life in the U.S.

Yaniv Kovalski, shown here on the campus of Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., is the first Israeli-born player to earn a college football scholarship in the United States. (Josh Reynolds/For The Washington Post)

More than halfway through Yaniv Kovalski's two-hour workout, beads of sweat trickled down his cheeks into his thick, reddish brown beard. His face reddened as he squatted 275 pounds, letting out a loud grunt as three teammates yelled encouragement.

Atop Kovalski's head sat his favorite accessory: a camouflage baseball hat with a split American and Israeli flag on the front and his last name on the back. The hat had remained in place as Kovalski and his teammates completed an intense weightlifting session in preparation for the upcoming football season. No amount of sweat could cause Kovalski to take it off.

Here at Stonehill College, Kovalski, 6-foot-3, 285 pounds, is an incoming 23-year-old freshman at the private Roman Catholic liberal arts school in southeastern Massachusetts. He will compete for a starting spot on the offensive line this season but has more to learn than just a new workout routine.

“This is a culture shock,” Kovalski said. “I’ve been learning so much. I’ll tell you a funny story: I was walking around campus with no shoes on a couple weeks ago and my teammates, they looked at me funny. I said, ‘What? We do this all the time at home in Israel.’ ”

Born and raised in Jerusalem, Kovalski is viewed by many as the first of his kind. He earned a partial football scholarship from Stonehill, the first player from the Kraft Family Israel Football League — the country’s first full-contact tackle football league, sponsored by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft — to do so at a U.S. college football program. Kovalski is seen as a trailblazer to his peers as they try to build a pipeline from Israeli football to the United States.

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NORTH EASTON, MA - JULY 18: Yaniv Kovalski, 22, of Jerusalem, Israel, during a workout at W.B. Mason Stadium at Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts on July 18, 2017. Kovalski is the first Israeli to attend a United States college to play football. (Josh Reynolds for The Washington Post)

“In 10 years, I would love to have plenty of Yaniv Kovalskis,” said Ehud Sharon, chief information officer of American Football in Israel. “That’s definitely the goal that we are setting up. He’s a real pioneer.”

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With Stonehill’s training camp beginning in early August, Kovalski — who only started learning football when he was 17 by watching YouTube videos — has a lot to prove to himself, his new teammates and coaches at Stonehill, and to his country.

A sport takes root in Israel

Stonehill wide receiver Andrew Jamiel broke from his dumbbell lunges, weights still in both hands, to get a closer look at Kovalksi’s hat. The hat is Kovalski’s physical reminder of his upbringing, his duty to his country and his connection to the United States. Kovalski served for almost three years in the Israel Defense Forces.

“Hey,” Jamiel said, motioning in Kovalski’s direction. “I feel like you wear that hat every day.”

“Oh, I do,” Kovalski replied. “I have another one, but my uncle made this one. You want one?”

Jamiel, with a silver cross necklace dangling from his neck, jumped at the offer, chuckling at the thought of the whole football team of a Catholic university stepping off the bus with hats projecting the American and Israeli flags.

“Could you imagine it?” Jamiel asked. “Man, the thought.”

Kovalski grew up in a different country, practiced a different religion and learned English as a second language. So he is appreciative of moments like these, where it feels as if all barriers are dropped.

“I just wanted to have something I can wear proudly to show who I am and where I am from,” Kovalski said. “I’m not ashamed of it. I feel a duty to represent my country. How many people have a stigma about Israel here? I’m here to burst those bubbles and be a respectful and good person.”

Kovalski arrived at Stonehill, which has a Division II football program, on June 13, after an 18-hour travel day from Jerusalem. The tree-lined, 375-acre campus is 22 miles south of Boston and 25 minutes away from Foxborough, the home of Kraft’s Patriots.

Kraft has a deep connection with Kovalski, stemming from their mutual ties in Israel. Kraft and his family have been leading sponsors of football in Israel since 1999 with the opening of the Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem. In 2007, the Kraft Family Israel Football League had its inaugural season. There is also a flag football league, a high school league and a women’s league.

“I’ll never forget when we built that little stadium in Jerusalem,” Kraft said in a phone interview. “I stood there before a game and I heard the American national anthem played and the Israeli national anthem, and both were played with a great deal of respect. I got goose bumps. I thought, ‘How cool would it be if one day out of this league a player could come and play in college and the NFL?’ ”

Kovalski started his football journey in 2011, playing one year in the Israeli High School Football League, winning two championships in five years in the IFL and playing two years on the Israeli national football team. While playing football, he was also drafted into Israel’s military forces in November 2014. But, with the IDF granting him the recognition of “Active Sportsman,” it allowed Kovalski to be in a noncombat military role and play football at the same time.

Knowing what Kovalski went through to get to Stonehill, Kraft said he hopes to make it to one of his games, but he doesn’t want to cause any extra pressure or attention. His “hope and dream” is to have an Israeli football player in the NFL.

“Part of it now is if this young man is successful,” Kraft said. “As we continue to grow and develop, I think we feed into the college system, and I would love to see it generate some players into the NFL.”

Kraft donated $6 million to the June opening of the Kraft Family Sports Campus, which is home to Israel’s first regulation-size football field. The hope is the construction of the field will expand the sport in the country.

In Israel, the NFL is a draw for young people as they watch games by streaming them online. Kovalski was also a college football fan, rooting for LSU after being awed by the play of future NFL players Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, La’el Collins and Odell Beckham Jr.

“He’s going to thrive,” said Yogi Roth, a former University of Pittsburgh football player and current college football analyst, who met Kovalski while shooting a documentary series in Israel. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in four years, because of his body type and determination, he got invited to an NFL camp. He’s got the ability and the ceiling if he can stay healthy.”

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An NFL future is Kovalski’s dream, although realizing it would require him defying the odds, given his late jump into college football at 23 years old and the level of competition he will face at Stonehill. Only six Division II players were selected in the 2017 NFL draft, and their average age was 23.

But Kovalski’s coaches said he has a realistic shot at starting this season after he was cleared by the NCAA for at least a year of eligibility, with “confidence” that the next three will be cleared as well.

“We didn’t bring him halfway across the world to sit on the bench,” Stonehill Coach Eli Gardner said. “The thing that impressed us was how advanced he was in certain areas, knowing a lot of what he is, is self-taught.”

It has been difficult for athletes from Israel to compete in the United States because of their religious beliefs, Kovalski said.

At home in Israel, the IFL doesn’t play on Friday night or Saturday because of the observance of the Sabbath. Kovalski was raised as an Orthodox Jew but now considers himself part of the conservative branch of Judaism, which means playing on Saturday isn’t a problem.

Kovalski reached out to Stonehill in December 2016, almost a year after becoming serious about his football aspirations and getting a trainer to improve his agility. After learning how to create his own highlight tapes and posting them on YouTube, he proceeded to send out emails to dozens of coaches across the United States with the subject line: “Yaniv Kovalski, 6’3” 295 lbs. OL from Israel w/ 1230 SATs.”

Tyler Moody, Stonehill’s recruiting coordinator, offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, received one of those emails. He was impressed with the agility and technique the big man possessed. Kovalski had earned a black belt in taekwondo by the age of 15, and it had helped his footwork in football. The two exchanged emails, with Kovalski providing transcripts in both Hebrew and English.

Kovalski took his official visit to Stonehill on Jan. 18. He decided to commit Feb. 5 after determining that the other colleges on his 23-day road trip across the United States weren’t for him. Kovalski’s mother, Deana Fein, went with her only son on the first part of the U.S. trip. Fein was born in New York but moved to Israel in the 1980s and married her late husband in Israel, where they raised their three children — Kovalski and his two sisters. Because of his mother, Kovalski also has American citizenship.

Learning the game, culture

After watching Kovalski’s accomplishments, more Israeli high schoolers have started to see the sport as more than just an amateur game. IFL Commissioner Betzalel Friedman said he hopes to have another player in college football over the next couple of years — and in 10 years, he’s hoping that number will jump to 10 players.

“For Yaniv, it’s something that no matter what happens, he opened up the doors,” said Yonah Mishaan, the Israeli national team coach. “He opened up the floodgates of what will hopefully happen in the future, showing the kids that there is a possibility, despite all the challenges.”

Kovalski’s journey hasn’t been easy. Over the past year, two of the most influential figures in Kovalski’s life passed away five months apart: his father, Nahum Kovalski, in May 2016 and his mentor Terry Hill in October.

“I know the moment I break down in tears will be when I run off to the field in my jersey for a game and wishing both my dad and Terry would be there,” Kovalski said.

The memory of those two men helped Kovalski overcome another challenging stretch, when complications stemming from an April hernia surgery forced him to stay in the hospital for a month. There, he watched the sports documentary “Last Chance U” on Netflix and contemplated his future in the sport.

“It was a difficult year for all of us,” Fein said. “But I knew this is what he wanted. I knew that he had to really try to do it to achieve his goal and not just give up because of external circumstances.

“[His father and Hill] would have not wanted him to give up, and [they] would not have wanted him to use them as an excuse to give up,” Fein said. “In a way, that kept him going.”

Now at Stonehill, Kovalski, who will major in health sciences, is eating eight meals a day — all made by himself in a community kitchen — to help gain back healthy weight for football. When he’s not at his summer internship in Stonehill’s sports camp office, he is spending four days a week in the weight room with his teammates and two days doing conditioning and change of direction drills.

But football isn’t the only thing he’s soaking in. He has learned subtle cultural differences, like how the bluntness people have in Israel sometimes doesn’t translate well in America. Or, that “this Snapchat thing” someone downloaded onto his phone is actually quite popular. His teammates have been giving him the “college experience,” taking him out to multiple restaurants, to the beach in Marshfield, Mass., and showing him a thing or two about music — or at least they’ve tried.

On this day in July, linebacker Vandy Hall turned up the volume on his phone as Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem” blared in the weight room. Hall and Jamiel bobbed their heads along to the music, with Hall even taking a crack at a few of the lyrics. But the tune doesn’t faze Kovalski, who is too busy putting weights on the bar for his next squat with quarterback Matt Foltz. In Israel, Kovalski would listen to whatever was on MTV, which includes songs in both Hebrew and English. But in the United States, he has learned music is a big part of the culture.

“These guys, they get so hyped about rap,” Kovalski said, shaking his head. “Everyone knows every word and every rap song!”

The music might still take time to get used to, and so, too, will some of the football — starting with his first college football training camp.

“Oh, my teammates have been trying to prepare me for camp,” Kovalski said. “But when they say, ‘Oh no, it’s camp,’ I have no clue what camp is. I guess I’ll have to be ready.”

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