Get all of Melissa Jacobs’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
Last Saturday, around sunset, a week before his life could forever be changed, former Western Michigan wide receiver Daniel Braverman embarked on a ritual few prospects in this or any NFL draft have experienced: he had a Seder.
Braverman, a proud Jew, has been on the rise since scouts recently parsed through his film and were wowed by his shiftiness, athleticism, polish and smarts. Who is this kid that put up 1,357 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns for the Broncos last year, they needed to know? So after not receiving a combine invite, Braverman has now racked up frequent flyer miles the past three weeks as his team invite list ballooned from zero to nine. From sleeping on planes to conversing with high-profile NFL coaches, it’s all been a whirlwind for Braverman.
“I didn’t think this would be possible even two years ago. I didn’t even think I’d get drafted a couple of months ago,” he says.
The big knock on Braverman, in this period of inflated measuring tapes, is his size. At 5' 10" and 177 pounds, his stature is slight for some teams’ receiving corps, but seemingly a fit for a certain head coach who has won four Super Bowls with the Patriots. Not surprisingly, Braverman has been compared to a whole slew of shifty receivers who have thrived under Bill Belichick—Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, even Troy Brown.
Other teams, including the Ravens, Texans and Bengals, have shown interest in Braverman, but if he does wind up in New England his presence would run much deeper than fitting a positional preference: The Patriots would suddenly have 30% of a minyan (ten Jews) on its roster. That would be rather remarkable considering that if you cobbled together all the Jews currently on NFL rosters, you couldn’t form an actual minyan. There is Edelman, Patriots defensive back Nate Ebner, the O-line Schwartz brothers (Geoff in Detroit, Mitchell in Kansas City), Bucs guard Ali Marpet, Bengals safety Taylor Mays and … that’s about it.
The first two words on Braverman’s Twitter and Instagram accounts read “God First.” He is a Jew in the most devout sense, and does not fit a particular denomination, yet never misses his weekly prayers. In fact, Braverman, while racing to catch a plane after interviewing with the Saints, made a point to mention that he’s more than “Jew…ish,” a reference to Edelman’s response when asked by E:60’s Jeremy Schaap if he considers himself Jewish.
“All the adversity I’ve had through my life. How everything has timed up. It seems like something special is out there helping me,” he says.
Braverman grew up in a normal setting in South Florida. He wasn’t a practicing Jew then but certainly identified with the religion and celebrated traditional Jewish holidays like Hanukkah, the High Holidays and Passover. A happy kid and a great athlete immersed in football and soccer starting at age 5, Braverman’s childhood was bordering on idyllic.
Until suddenly it wasn’t.
The details are a little foggy. He doesn’t remember having a final conversation with her, and he’s pretty sure there were no formal goodbyes. One day, when Braverman wasn’t home, his mother took off.
He thought she was going on a vacation to visit her mother. Still too young to immediately grasp the situation, it would be a couple of weeks before Braverman started asking his father, Jamie, about his mom’s whereabouts. A month or two passed before Braverman’s dad and uncle finally broke the news over dinner at a Macaroni Grill: “I don’t think your mom is coming back.”
To this day, Braverman has absolutely no inkling as to why his mother left. He thought they had a normal relationship.
The first year after she left was the most traumatic for Braverman. He toggled between being protective of his father and waking up in the middle of the night to confirm he was still there. Nervous, scared and still quite young, his role shifted from happy-go-lucky kid to survivor.
Braverman found solace through sports. The frequency, the intensity, the solidarity became his escape. At the same time, the adversity and newfound wisdom beyond his years led Braverman to explore a stronger Jewish identity. As a 12 and 13 year-old playing competitive football that immediately spilled into competitive soccer, Braverman’s schedule was not conducive to the twice-weekly Hebrew school sessions typically synonymous with Bar Mitzvah prep. But the curiosity was there; the connection to Judaism blossoming. In hindsight, Braverman knows it was there all along.
“You know they say a Jewish person can never really forget his faith,” he says. “It always sticks with you. No matter how hard you try or want to forget about God, you’re always reminded of being Jewish.”
One day Braverman asked his respected and religious uncle, a successful salon owner in Florida, all about having a Bar Mitzvah. He had attended several and understood it as a important rite of passage. At 15, Braverman made a decision. He would have a Bar Mitzvah—his way.
“I went [to synagogue] on a few Saturdays and Sundays and practiced the important prayers in English because they were in Hebrew. I did it three times to practice and the fourth time I went, we just did it,” he says. “It wasn’t a party or anything. Just me, my dad, my uncle and the rabbi. I was kind of just doing it to be a little more religious. I just wanted to get it done.”
Seven years have passed since Braverman’s Bar Mitzvah. His commitment to God and Judaism has only strengthened over time. While at Western Michigan, he began to observe holidays without the guiding leash of family. The Broncos’ roster wasn’t exactly overflowing with members of the tribe, so instead of throwing raucous Hanukkah parties in the winter, Braverman would quietly go buy a menorah and chant the blessings alone. He didn’t wear a yarmulke under his helmet but his faith was prevalent enough that he twice earned All-America honors from the Jewish Sports Review.
As the draft nears, Braverman is at peace, as comfortable in his own skin as it gets for a 22-year old. He embraces his past, understanding how his mother’s abandonment forced him to discover survival instincts well beyond his biological age. Aside from that first year of frequently confirming his father’s whereabouts, Braverman says the dark cloud of his childhood has fully evaporated. He has had no contact with his mother and seems to have no interest.
He embraces his present, confident he can handle any situation, be it the outlier status synonymous with being a Jewish NFL player or simply dealing with the demands of a hard-nosed receivers coach. But he’s not overconfident as a shot at an NFL career approaches, fully understanding the emotionless conveyer belt that is the NFL.
“It’s going to be very hard,” he says. “If you don’t take advantage of your opportunities, every day is a short leash, any day could be your day to go home. You have to remember why you’re doing it.”
Braverman understands the comparisons to some of the Patriots’ slant wideouts, yet he’s anxious to show off his own skill set, which as described by SI.com’s scouting report including knowing what to do on option routes, creating separation and making really good players miss tackles. “I want to show everyone what Daniel Braverman can do,” he says.
Braverman hopes that anticipation turns into employment this weekend. He plans to watch the draft in Fort Lauderdale with friends. His family, including his father, uncle and grandmother will be nearby, close enough that Braverman can celebrate with them once his name is called but far enough away that he doesn’t have to directly observe their nervousness as they all wait for his phone to ring.
As for draft weekend cuisine, the refreshingly unconventional Braverman will likely incorporate his favorite Jewish holiday dish: potato pancakes.
“It’s a great dish, why wait for Hanukkah?”