Denmark a breeding ground for NFL linemen?

For a country that’s Europe’s 25th ranked in terms of population and a football-playing community of a total of only 2,500, Denmark has proven to be a great place to find big  NFL linemen.

In three of the last four years, Danish offensive linemen have signed NFL contracts with one being drafted by the New England Patriots

Keep in mind this is a country whose favorite team sports are soccer and European handball.

All three massive linemen, Steven Nielsen (6’8″, 310 lb, Jacksonville Jaguars), Hjalte Froholdt (6’5″, 315 lb, New England Patriots) and Andreas Knappe (6’9″, 320 lb, Atlanta Falcons, Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos) learned to play football first in their native country before heading to the US for high school or college. All three were signed as draftees or free agents without the involvement of the NFL International Player Pathway program.

So what’s in the water in Denmark?

Lars Carlsen, General Secretary of the Danish American Football Federation:

“These three are all outstanding individuals who have size, skill and drive. We have been fortunate to have recognized them early and helped wherever we could. But in the end, they have had their own determination.”

Nielsen, the youngest, is the most recent Danish NFL signee being picked up by the Jaguars right after the 2020 NFL Draft. Last year, Hjalte Froholdt was selected by the New England Patriots in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft as the #118 pick. In the 2017 NFL Draft, Andreas Knappe was grabbed by the Atlanta Falcons right after the draft ended.

Their stories feature a couple of key common threads. Naturally their size and skills, but maybe just as important, they have all had the support of the Danish American Football Federation.

Steven Nielsen followed brother’s footsteps

Nielsen from Dragør, Denmark, the youngest of the group but at 6’8″, 310 pounds, next biggest, picked up football at 13 because his brother played for a small club, Afc Ørestaden Spartans.

“I had played soccer but I was always big so with my brother already playing, I started and discovered I could really use my size.”

The Danish coaches realized how good Nielsen could be early on and began encouraging him.

“I felt I was getting great support from my coaches and by the time I was 15 I started dreaming of playing college football in the United States.”

A big step for Nielsen was finding a high school. It just so happened that Carlsen’s son Christian, was playing quarterback at La Lumiere School, a small school of 130 students in La Porte Indiana. Carlsen made a call to the coach and the following year, 2014, Nielsen and another Danish lineman Frederick Fabricius (he went to Indiana State), landed there too.

Playing both basketball and football, Nielsen blossomed. Carlsen was paying attention:

“I could see how much he had developed when I flew over during the season. His potential became even more obvious;”

Nielsen attended an Oline/Dline camp in Michigan and caught the attention of a number of schools but settled on Eastern Michigan right away.

“I liked the coaches there and they told me I could play right away so it was an easy decision.”

He was moved from left guard to right tackle and developed quickly that first year.  Obviously the coaches thought so too. He ended up playing in 49 games for the Eagles in a four year career.

On NFL draft day a month ago, he sat waiting by the phone in Ohio where he is living right now. Various teams called but it was Jacksonville who pulled the trigger first.

Hjalte Froholdt found football early

Hjalte Froholdt’s journey to the New England Patriots was slightly different. He took up football at the age of 12 like many North American kids. His motivation was also different. It was rugby. Froholdt came from a rugby playing family with an uncle who played professionally in England and a cousin on his mother’s side a member of the New Zealand All Blacks. So with his size, rugby would have been a natural choice but there was no rugby anywhere close so the nearest best thing was football. Encouraged by his family he signed up with the Svendborg Admirals at the age of 12.

He developed quickly, and the Danish national team coaches took notice. They played him with the older aged teams.

Carlsen:

“We saw how physically talented he was so we let him play up a year. And he was such a hard worker who loved to practice. He had a tree in his backyard at home he used to work his techniques against.”

Froholdt credits his coaches for much of his development:

“I had a coach, Jens Jeppesen, who made football exciting and fun to play. When I started playing for the national team, I could work on my technique which became more refined because they had me playing only one position.”

Again the common thread among the three is a determination to get better. Froholdt knew he wanted to get to the next level so he joined a student exchange program. He landed in Ohio where he started playing football and excelled and moved to the IMG Academy in Florida towards the end of his high school career. He earned a 4-star recruiting grade there and after offers from a number of major schools ended up in Arkansas where he played guard and center.

“The step up from high school to Arkansas was extremely hard. Everybody was bigger, faster, and just much better than me. The learning curve has to be very steep.”

After being switched to offensive line in his sophomore year, he learned fast and in his final two years playing guard and center, he allowed but one sack and earned First Team All SEC (2017) and Second Team All SEC (2018). The Patriots picked him 118th overall in the fourth round. He showed excellent promise in the 2019 preseason but suffered a shoulder injury in the final game and was placed on injury reserve for the season.

“Playing for New England has been another huge step but amplified even more. It id definitely the hardest challenge of my life.”

Andreas Knappe a later bloomer

When Andres Knappe, the first of the trio to attract serious NFL attention, and the biggest at 6’9″, 320  pounds, was in his teens he had heard about American football but his mind was consumed with European handball and archery (?). Yes, archery. His parents had told him that if he was going to play a team sport, he also had to learn an individual sport.

Before he turned 7, he was a national champion archer in his age group. He was on the youth national team by age 11 and was an indoor and outdoor champ. Knappe became an Olympic-style handball player in Denmark from ages 10-15. He played with older kids at first, then eventually competed within his own age group. He hit a growth spurt at age 13 when he grew from 6-foot-2 to 6-6.

Then at the age of 18, he heard that they played nine-man football in his hometown of Silkeborg. He signed up and after his first practice he was hooked:

“I remember that first practice. We had three feet of snow but still practiced. I knew right then it was the sport for me.”

It didn’t take long for him to find the Triangle Razorbacks, a powerhouse team in Denmark’s top league. He joined and immediately had an impact playing on the defensive line. The Razorbacks won the 2011 Danish title. He knew he wanted to get better so signed up for camps in the United States where his size, strength and speed drew attention.

Two of Knappe’s teammates, Alex Molina and Alex Polito, played college football at UConn. With raw talent and size, it would still be tough for Knappe to get attention from college coaches. He began filming his games and uploaded the clips to the Next College Student Athlete (NCSA) recruiting site.

UConn head coach Paul Pasqualoni was interested and signed him and then was fired. Still, his last advice to the new coaching staff was to switch Knappe to offensive line.  They took the advice and he went on to enjoy an outstanding college career, playing in 36 games for the Huskies.

“When I got there, I was fired up. I couldn’t believe the facilities and I worked out hard. It was a dream come true.”

He didn’t take what you would normally consider a football player’s courses.

“I got a degree in political science. We live as players in a ‘bubble of football’ and I wanted to see things from a different viewpoint.”

In the 2017 NFL Draft, several teams showed interest but in the end, he signed as a free agent with the Atlanta Falcons. Although a couple of nagging injuries have bothered him after signing with Washington and Denver, he has the size, talent and drive to become a more permanent fixture on an NFL roster.

With NFL interest seemingly at a high for Danish linemen are there new prospects for the Danish federation to track?

Lars Carlsen, ever the optimist was coy about revealing names too early.

“We stay in constant communication with coaches throughout Denmark. If there’s a player with the skills and right mindset, we will definitely be ready to step in and help out.”

 

Roger Kelly
Roger Kelly is an editor and a writer for AFI. A former PR Director the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League for 7 years, he now lives in Sweden writing about and scouting American Football throughout the world.
Skip to toolbar