Rare Journey to Israel Changes NFL Hall Of Famer’s Life

This article originally appeared in Urban News Service member publications in September. 

For Chris Doleman, the NFL Hall of Fame is nothing compared to being baptized in the Jordan River. Last June, the former Minnesota Viking and 18 other NFL Hall of Famers toured Israel with Ron Dermer, that nation’s ambassador to Washington, David Baker of the Hall of Fame and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

“Phenomenal,” Doleman, 55, told Urban News Service about the trip. “I would say to all African Americans: Go. It’s an amazing place.”

Doleman, a Christian, considered the opportunity to visit “the actual place where Jesus traveled, a once-in-a-lifetime chance I couldn’t pass up. To be able to go and touch and see where Jesus walked, to see the Holy Land, was amazing."

The journey was the brainchild of Dermer, a former star quarterback for the Israeli football team, who grew up in Miami loving sports.

“This experience brought my two passions together,” Dermer said. “Football and Israel. My thinking was that if we allow these men to see Israel for themselves, they would be sort of ambassadors to help spread the accurate word of what it’s like.

“The image of Israel is that it is in major conflict. The reality is that it’s a beautiful, safe place with a rich history. And Chris Doleman and the others embraced all that they were able to experience in about five days.”

Doleman — a 6-foot-3, 275-lb. hulk, who scored 150 1/3 sacks, mainly as a Viking — is a self-described “germaphobe.” He refuses to touch public door knobs with his bare hands. Regardless, the idiosyncratic Doleman volunteered to be baptized in the Jordan River.

“It was an out-of-body experience,” he said. “I’m not one for public displays. When in church, they have the call to the altar, and I’ve never been moved to go up there. But when the offer came up in Israel, my hand popped up … Everyone looked around. I was the last person they expected to volunteer.”

The Jordan River is not pristine. Rather, it is dark and muddy. And yet the “germaphobe” eagerly was dipped.

“The Jordan River is where Jesus was baptized, OK? There is no new water in the world. It’s all recycled. So there’s a chance I was baptized with the same water as Jesus. That’s why I did it. It looked like the Chattahoochee River (near Atlanta, where Doleman lives), but smaller. I understood that it was where Jesus was baptized — and that my life wasn’t fulfilled.”

After this emotional occasion, Doleman called his father.

“I said, ‘Pop, I got baptized in the Jordan River.’ He said, ‘I’m glad. You were the only one (of the five Doleman kids) who wasn’t baptized.’ ”

“I saw Chris the night he was baptized, and he was visibly moved,” Ambassador Dermer said. “I think they all were surprised by the depth of the experience.”

They also were astounded by how safe they felt. Doleman said, “Our guide told us we were an hour’s drive from where ISIS was cutting people’s heads off, which was crazy to learn. But I never felt like my well-being was in jeopardy. We had armed guards the entire time. And there was no drama where we traveled. Jerusalem was on one side of the street, (the West Bank was) on the other side. I mean, that close. But I didn’t care. I felt like, if I were going to die there, it would have been worth it.”

The Americans also visited Tel Aviv and myriad historical and religious sites, including the Dead Sea, Mount Olive, the City of David and Bethlehem. They toured a military base and interviewed female fighter pilots. And they met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“For 90 minutes we talked to Netanyahu,” Doleman said. “It was unbelievable. It’s an experience that can never be replicated. For African-Americans, it’s a must-visit place. We, in general, know of one or two types of Jews. But their culture is much more than we think. There are so many black Jews from Ethiopia in Jerusalem, it’s amazing. There’s a history over there attached to us that we have no idea.”

A CBS crew joined the footballers and is working on a TV special about their excursion.

Meanwhile, Dermer said he plans to lead several NBA players to Israel to expose them to a world that likely will differ from familiar “television characterizations."

“For better or worse, we’re in the age of celebrity,” Dermer added. “There are three kinds of celebrities: musicians, actors and athletes. As a former athlete, I tend to sway toward them, and athletes tend to be more devout … There is a generation of people 10 or 15 years younger than them who admire them and listen to them. If we can get them to experience Israel, the Holy Land, they will share with others what it’s like. And then it’s a win for everyone.”

-- Urban News Service