NFL could mine talent pool in Sweden, Europe
The NFL is realizing the wealth of talent that could be available to teams as it casts its eyes on Europe.
Carlstad Crusaders running back Brett Koepp, a Chicago, Illinois native, breaks a tackle to pick up some of 198 yards in the title game of the Swedish American Football League. Anders Sandström/Bildbyrån
The Carlstad Crusaders fell short in their bid for a second European title in three years, but the seven-time Swedish champions in American football still accomplished an even bigger goal: They got the attention of the National Football League, and it may not be long before the NFL turns to Sweden in the search for new talent.
Mark Waller, the NFL vice president of international marketing, was very pointed in his assessment: “The biggest growth for the NFL in the future will have to happen outside the United States.”
It is exactly what Carlstad general manager Robert Sundberg wants to hear. “Our goal is to get a Swedish-born and –trained player into the NFL,” Sundberg said. “And I think that day is coming much sooner than some people expect.”
Sebastian Johansson, the Crusaders’ strength and conditioning coach, is a 2016 Marshall University graduate and one of a small but growing number of Swedish and other European players who grew up playing American football, albeit in a non-traditional way.
“A lot of these guys were not exposed to high school football, but they are so talented. It’s unheard of, but I think the trend will continue,” said Chris Weinke, a former NFL quarterback who now directs the IMG Football Academy. “There are athletes all over the world and there’s a greater interest in American football than ever before.”
Technology helps raise players
Sundberg credited much of the growing interest in the NFL to television and internet coverage, which has put the American sport in the homes of many Europeans.
“It is on a lot of Swedish TV now," Sundberg said. "It’s just cool to watch and we are getting more and more interest.”
The growing interest in watching the NFL has begun to generate interest in playing American football, and Sundberg and the Crusaders have mapped out what they believe is a winning game plan for developing the sport in Sweden.
“We have Under-19, -17, -15, -13, and -11 teams. There are more than 200 players in the club and now we are doing flag football teams. Junior football is growing and now I think there is an understanding among the Swedish clubs that you have to grow it from the ground up.”
Sundberg said he sees “four parts” to the sport’s success in Sweden: “First, you have the NFL on TV and you have to keep having it on TV,” he said. “Second, you have to have the Swedish American Football League on TV. The third thing is to keep this first generation that has grown up with American football and get them involved. When we started, we might have had three parents who could help coach kids’ teams. Now, most of our coaches are Swedish.”
Finally, Sundberg said, “We need to get a Swedish player in the NFL, whether it is Sebastian or (Northwestern University graduate) David Hedeby or someone else.”
Calling the plays
Right now, the main path for Swedes to get close to the NFL is to play for an American university. That, however, could change; Waller said the league now realizes the depth of talent available in Europe and is looking to improve on how it finds that talent.
“The honest answer [for how we follow leagues overseas] is on a very ad hoc basis and, at the moment, with no real formal process for tracking and measuring it,” Waller said. “It’s probably an area where we could really get better, because where you have these leagues starting up and these teams playing, it would be incredibly useful for us to know what the standards are and potentially scouting players.”
A number of NFL teams have connections to international football teams. The Oakland Raiders have something of a sister team in Austria, called the Swarco Raiders, a relationship that has included hosting coaches at training camp in Napa and running Swarco’s game recaps online. The London Warriors’ defensive coordinator, Aden Durde, spent last summer as an intern for the Dallas Cowboys; this year the Cowboys signed one of Durde’s players. The Crusaders beat the Warriors to reach the NEFL final.
Germany is the top international country with 11 players in the NFL, nine of whom have been drafted since 2008. A record 12 foreign born players were selected in the 2016 draft.
“There are definitely some good players here,” said Crusaders “import” running back/strong safety Alpha Jalloh. The Liberty University grad went to Sweden specifically to prepare for NFL summer camps and said the level of play surprised him.
“About the only big difference is the game speed. It isn’t as fast as it is in the States, but there are a lot of good players here,” Jalloh said. “The London Warriors were a good team. There are lot of guys here who could easily play college ball back home.”
Jalloh is exactly the type of player Sundberg said he wants to bring to Sweden. “We used to look at Division 2 or Division 3 players but now we want the guys who are right on the edge of making the NFL,” Sundberg said. “We want to give them the chance to prepare for NFL camps and we want them to teach us and make us better.”