Not many South Africans grow up dreaming about becoming a professional in the NFL – the premier American football league in the world. Neither did Gerhard de Beer for that matter.
Yet, now, the 23-year-old from Pretoria has just signed a professional contract with the Buffalo Bills and could do what few others from his home country have: take to the field in a professional NFL game.
“I wanted to see if I could take a sport and see how far I could take it with absolutely no history or background at it,” he tells the Mail & Guardian. “I played at the highest level of amateurism here at the University of Arizona and now I have a shot to play professionally.”
When football first became an ambition for him, De Beer, who played rugby from the age of six, had already established himself as one of the top young discus throwers in the world. In 2011, he won bronze at the World Youth Championships, a gold medal at the Commonwealth Youth Games and another bronze at the World Junior Championships a year later. American colleges lined-up to offer him a spot in one of their athletics programmes.
“The one coach showed me a bird’s eye view of the campus and I saw the huge stadium,” he recalls. “I said ‘that’s awesome! Do we compete in that?’ She told me no, it’s only for football. I asked her if I could play and she said no so I started looking for schools that would actually let me play football.
“At the time I didn’t realise how arrogant my statement was because our stadium seats about 65 000, which is the size of Loftus Versfeld you know? And we don’t even have close to the biggest one.”
Once the University of Arizona gave him the opportunity to play in such a stadium, the choice was automatic. And the chance was grabbed: De Beer went from not knowing how to strap on his pads, to being a starting offensive lineman for the college side.
Six years later, after graduation, he was picked up as a free agent by the Buffalo Bills. His journey to the top is far from over. He explains that squads are now set at a maximum of 90 players, but will soon be cut to 75 and then finally to 53. De Beer recognises that now is the time to impress if he’s going to get an opportunity to play in the regular season.
“Preseason gives you a good opportunity to show what you’ve learned and how you’ve developed as a professional player,” he said.
“It’s going to be extremely challenging but if I overcome this barrier then I can truly say that I’ve achieved a lot. It’s a lot of hard work I’ve put into this and I look forward to expanding this achievement into the NFL. The level of competition is so incredibly good that it’s very, very difficult to make it successfully in the NFL and have a long career. You hear stories of people playing in the NFL for 10 to 12 years and that’s what I strive to do.”
A not-so-soft gameBring up American football in most South African bars and you’ll likely be laughed out for thinking those guys in helmets and pads are as tough as rugby players.
De Beer, who’s played both, is quick to dispel that myth and breaks down the nuances that make the sport one of the most violent in the world.
“People say ja you soft because you wear all these pads, but honestly, your helmet and pads aren’t for protection man … it’s a damn weapon! People come at you at full speed and you hit hard. I hit harder in football than I ever did in rugby. In rugby you’re taught to tackle safe, if you don’t you’re either going to end up in a wheelchair or be out with a concussion for a couple weeks.
“For me, football is a much more violent sport in terms of contact. Yeah you don’t have pads on in rugby but trust me the hits are a lot, lot harder here.
“Rugby hits when you make contact, you can’t run full speed into somebody because you still have to wrap your arms around them. In football, you can shoulder charge somebody at no cost. In rugby, first of all you would get a penalty, secondly it’s not a safe way of playing.
“In football, you can just drop your shoulder and blast somebody.”
De Beer goes on to tell the story of how teammate William Parks absolutely planted an Oregon State receiver. Violent hits like that regularly go viral and get thousands of views on YouTube.
South Africans may not have a general liking for the sport, but they’ll no doubt cheer on an athlete making it big in the States. And who knows, maybe one day we’ll see him back in the shirt of one of our sports teams.
“I might go back to throwing discus, or back to rugby because there’s always opportunities there,” said De Beer.
“I’ve played it my whole life and I’m a big guy so maybe I just need the right opportunity to make that work. But right now my ambition is the NFL and nothing beyond that at the moment.”