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SA-born kicker shows prowess in NFL

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South African-born Greg Joseph is the only Jewish kicker in the National Football League (NFL), and has been for years now. Last Sunday, he revelled in being in another one of the mentally taxing do-or-die situations.

With two seconds left to go in a tied game against the division-leading Green Bay Packers, Joseph kicked his Minnesota Vikings to victory with a 29-yard field goal, keeping the team’s playoff hopes alive. He was carried off the field by his teammates.

Joseph, who attended Jewish schools in Florida after immigrating from South Africa, said he dealt with the pressure of being a kicker by working on having “faith in my abilities”.

“I know on my worst day, I’m still good enough, and my underlying technique and fundamentals are still good enough,” he said last week.

The 27-year-old’s career as one of the league’s handful of Jewish players has been a rollercoaster ride, ranging from the lows of being released by multiple teams in a year to the highs of a steady starting role. This season, he is the starting kicker for the Minnesota Vikings, making 84% of field goal attempts so far on a team trying to claw its way to a playoff spot.

Through it all, he has remained engaged with the local Jewish communities of the cities he has travelled through. In Cleveland, he showed up to a five-year-old’s birthday party at a Jewish school and put up his mezuzah with the help of a local Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi.

“That sense of community, no matter where I’ve been, you have people reach out and offer their support – Shabbat dinners, anything you need, home cooked meals. All just because they hear I’m Jewish, which is pretty crazy,” he said.

Joseph is also comfortable being a symbol of Jewish pride in the NFL – see his pose in a Chanukah sweater with fellow Browns players for an Instagram post in 2018.

NFL kicker might not sound like the natural goal for a Jewish kid born in South Africa, on a continent obsessed with soccer. His first dream was in fact to go pro in soccer – specifically to play for his beloved Manchester United, and “follow in David Beckham’s footsteps”.

His family moved from Johannesburg to Boca Raton, Florida, when he was seven years old. Most of what he remembers of his early childhood in South Africa centres on Sydenham Shul, the congregation his family belonged to and where he attended school with his two brothers.

“Growing up in South Africa, I remember having a pretty decent-sized Jewish community and going to shul every Saturday with my parents,” he said. “My whole upbringing is based on religion and sport, essentially.”

But those two worlds rarely overlapped for Joseph in the United States, where he attended the Donna Klein Jewish Academy school until ninth grade.

“When soccer became more serious and I played travel soccer, I was usually the only Jewish kid out there, or one of two. Same when I started playing football,” he said.

The exceptions were the Maccabiah Games, held every four years, known as the “Jewish Olympics”. He played soccer with the Boca Raton delegation, participating in junior Maccabiah Games in Baltimore, San Diego, and Israel.

He switched to American football extremely late in the game – during his senior year at American Heritage School in Delray Beach, Florida.

“I realised that in this country, there’s more opportunity to get a scholarship and go professional in American football as opposed to soccer,” he said. “It was at that time that kicking was new to me – it was exciting and something I wanted to pursue.”

After attending Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton on a football scholarship, Joseph wasn’t selected in the 2018 NFL Draft but was signed as a free agent by the Miami Dolphins, then released at the start of the season. The Cleveland Browns quickly signed him, and he made his first game-winning field goal in the fifth week of the season. Throughout the season, his NFL debut, he made 17 of his 20 field goal attempts, and 25 of 29 extra points.

Then, after a brief stint with the Carolina Panthers, he joined the Tennessee Titans practice squad, before moving to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad. In February 2021, he finally landed in Minnesota.

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