ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Gerhard de Beer arrived at the University of Arizona on July 30, 2013, as a 6-foot-7, 240-pound South African discus thrower intent on becoming a football player.
He walked off the Buffalo Bills‘ practice field on June 14, 2018, as a 320-pound offensive tackle having completed his first NFL minicamp more than 8,000 miles from his hometown of Pretoria.
De Beer, who turns 24 on Thursday, is attempting to join former Pro Bowl kicker Gary Anderson and former wide receiver Jerome Pathon as part of a small group of South African natives to play a sport unfamiliar to most in their home country.
The journey to the NFL for de Beer meant sacrificing his six-pack abs and putting his promising track and field career on hold to explore a curiosity about football. It meant enduring nights of vomiting protein shakes and sleeping upright to keep down his daily diet of about 8,000 calories. It meant sitting in countless hours of meetings with Arizona graduate assistant coach Cory Zirbel to build his knowledge of the game from nothing.
Yet when de Beer fulfilled the next step of his football dream by signing with the Bills as an undrafted free agent in May, none of his work the past five years could have prepared him for a conversation during organized team activities with Bills coach Sean McDermott — about whiffle ball.
“[De Beer] turned to the guys and he said, ‘What’s whiffle ball?’” McDermott recalled with a chuckle earlier this month. “You start there and say, ‘Hey, big challenge [for him in the United States].'”
“They looked at me like I was joking,” de Beer told ESPN. “[I said], ‘No seriously, is somebody going to tell me or do I have to go look it up?’ So they said it’s like baseball but the ball has air in it. I said that sounds really tricky.”
Not as tricky as trying to learn the cultural ins and outs of a foreign country, never mind a sport he admits he “knew nothing” about before moving to the United States.
“There is no manual on How To Do America 101,” he said earlier this month. “It’s something that you have to experience and learn as time goes on. Just yesterday I learned a term that was derogatory that I probably shouldn’t use. It’s just things that I don’t know. I’m not trying to offend anybody; it’s just making conversation.
“I asked [my teammate] about [the term] and he said, ‘What did you call me?’ I’m like, ‘No, no, no, I’m not trying to be rude, I’m asking for future reference.’
De Beer is not only trying to blend into a locker room of 89 other players with lifetimes of experience playing the sport, but also crack the roster of a team in a league that rejects even some of its most polished prospects.
That is a tall task for someone whose exposure in South Africa to football consisted of occasionally playing the Madden video game and watching some games on television.
“I’m like, ‘What the hell is going on here?'” de Beer said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, he caught the ball, that’s cool.’ Throw a flag, ‘What’s that flag for? What did he do?’ It was very difficult to watch just because I didn’t understand anything.”
What de Beer did understand were two sports in particular — rugby and the discus throw. He played both at his high school, Afrikaanse Hoer Seunskool, and emerged on the international scene by setting national-record U-16 and U-18 discus throws and winning a bronze medal at the 2012 IAAF World Junior Championships in Spain.
His performance caught the eyes of major NCAA track and field programs, but de Beer wanted more of a challenge than what was familiar to him. After reading a story about Estonian discus thrower Margus Hunt, who became a second-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013 and now plays defensive tackle for the Indianapolis Colts, de Beer wanted to explore the possibility of football.
One option was SMU, where Hunt played football and de Beer’s cousin participated in track and field. But de Beer preferred the track and field program at Arizona, whose then-football coach Rich Rodriguez granted the South African’s wish to play football — a chance almost no other college program was willing to take.
The learning curve was monumentally steep, starting with de Beer figuring out how to wear shoulder pads and where to line up on the field. Tried by coaches first as a defensive lineman and later as a tight end, de Beer had to learn “blocking the corner” meant blocking the cornerback, and not the corner of the end zone.
After redshirting his first year and spending 2014 on the scout team, de Beer saw the field in 2015 by starting four games at guard. He moved to right tackle for his final two seasons, starting 10 games last season and catching the eye of Bills scouts with his work ethic.
“In college, the information we’ve gotten was that he was out there after practice every day working on his craft,” McDermott said. “Here [in Buffalo], with what time we’re allowed, [it has been] no different.”
If de Beer is able to stick on the Bills’ 53-man roster or practice squad after training camp, which begins July 26, then McDermott can check the box of the emergency punter, too.
“With rugby, I can kick a ball pretty good,” de Beer said. “I was out there punting for Arizona. My freshman year, I remember I got out there. I said, ‘Hey coach, I can punt.’ He said, ‘You can?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can kick a little.’ So they decided to give me some shoes after practice. Different from the lineman cleats, because that ball ain’t coming off of there. I booted one 75 yards.”
And if de Beer’s experiment of playing football does not work out?
“My argument is that I can always try out football and — knock on wood — not succeed at it,” he said. “But I can pick up a discus, throw it far and draw some attention again.
“But if I leave football for track, I can never come back to football. There are very few guys — a handful of guys — that go out of the league for a year and come back in and are successful at it. Just one year. Never mind a whole track and field career. So that’s why football is very important for me right now.”