When Jacob Biller made the cut for Team USA at the 19th annual Maccabiah Games earlier this summer, he knew he was in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience in Israel.
But even he couldn’t have predicted just how wild a trip it would turn out to be.
After starting the first four games at second base for Team USA, Biller missed the final game after being hospitalized and undergoing minor surgery for a staph infection.
“I was scared just being somewhere where no one will understand me and it’ll be hard to talk with a language barrier,” Biller said. “But the doctors there were great, they did a great job and the communication was rough, but we got through it.”
Still not fully recovered by the time of the gold-medal game, Biller’s teammates came to visit him in the hospital the day before and named him team captain. When his team beat Team Canada 9-0 for the gold medal later that week, Biller got to come on the field with his team and accept the trophy on their behalf.
“I was in the hospital for five days, and I think on the third day my team came to visit me, which was one of the coolest parts,” he said. “So when they came, they had all talked about it and chose me as the captain throughout the time I was in the hospital. So that was a lot of fun — a big honor for me to do that for that team. Whether it was kind of a sympathy thing, or a baseball thing, either way it was really cool, and I’m glad I got the chance to grab the trophy for the team and hoist it up.”
Biller said the infection stemmed from a game in June.
“It was a very weird deal,” he said. “Earlier in the summer, one of the first weekends I played with my summer team, I fouled a ball of my leg. I didn’t think much about it - it was just a bump and a bruise, but it didn’t go away.”
Biller said teammates encouraged him to see the trainer after noticing swelling and obvious pain. The trainer sent Biller to the team doctor, who then arranged for a trip to the local hospital. He was in surgery later that day, meaning he wouldn’t get to play in the team’s final game. He did, however, get released in time to watch it.
“It was very hard,” he said. “Not because I wasn’t playing, but because I wasn’t with the team. I was watching and cheering them on, but I didn’t get to put my two cents in for the gold medal, that was kind of a bummer. But I had no doubts that they were going to go win it. The team that I went with was unbelievable. It is one of the best teams I’ve ever played on.”
Despite his medical troubles, Biller said the trip was everything he hoped it would be.
“It was the greatest trip of my life, honestly,” Biller said. “Just going out of the country with kids that I’ve never met before to do something that we all love and all have in common, the connections that were made were made so fast and so strong.
“Besides sleeping, it was 24/7 with my team. When we toured, we went as a team, and in the dormitories we all hung out.”
The Maccabiah Games bring together the world’s top Jewish athletes for an Olympic-style international competition. The event is designed to provide Jewish athletes with the chance to strengthen their Jewish bonds and create a heightened awareness of Israel and Jewish identity, all while encouraging Jewish pride through sports. The Games have been held every four years since 1953 and are always held the year after the Summer Olympics. This year’s games included more than 7,000 Jewish athletes from around the world, with more than 900 making the trip and representing the United States.
Before the Games even started, Biller got the chance to spend a week in Israel practicing with his team and touring in Jerusalem. The senior-to-be at Manhattan High said the favorite part about the trip was meeting his teammates, who went from strangers to lifelong friends in a matter of days.
“Honestly, the most amazing thing was my team, just how close we got and how fast it happened,” he said. “I’ll probably be in touch with these kids throughout my whole life. That’s just a really powerful thing for me.”