O’Leary: Denmarks’s Frederik Nielsen embracing the CFL Combine spotlight

SENIOR WRITER, @OLEARYCHRIS

He was still adjusting to the time change and a long, long flight — Berlin to Paris, Paris to Montreal, Montreal to Toronto — but Frederik Nielsen was upbeat about what this weekend will hold for him.

A 5-foot-11, 185-pound wide receiver with the Potsdam Royals in the German Football League, the 28-year-old is one of the 18 global players that will take part at the 2019 CFL Combine presented by New Era. There’s an uncertainty among the group, made up of players from five different European nations (Germany, Finland, France, Denmark, Italy), as they head into a new style of football against competition they’ve never been up against before, but Nielsen said there’s optimism in the group as well.

“I mean, I guess it’s an unknown. I haven’t done it before. I haven’t played Canadian football or college here,” he said on Thursday in a hotel lobby in downtown Toronto. I looked at some one-on-ones from last year and it looks like a good level. I feel like it’s a level that I should be able to contribute and show myself off. I don’t feel intimidated by it but in the end you don’t know.

“I’m looking forward to competing. What you can do is focus on yourself and do your best and the rest works out the way it works out.”

Like the CFL, the German League has import players and Nielsen said he usually plays against them, so the idea of foreign competition isn’t overwhelming to him.

“But of course you don’t know,” he said. “I think everybody that’s here is a little nervous, a little excited. A good mix of the two.”

He figures this weekend will be a blur. The global players tried to get settled and adjusted at their hotel on Thursday, before diving into the combine this weekend. They’ll be back on a plane Sunday evening, capping a two-week window from the time they first learned they’d be going to the combine.

“You just prepare the best you can and then you go out and just have fun with it,” he said. “Have fun with it and take it as a great experience.

“I think most of the guys, if you asked them last year if they thought they’d be at the CFL Combine, they’d say no.”

Nielsen grew up in Denmark and played soccer as a kid, before switching to track and field. He picked up a football when he was 15 and fell in love with the idea of winning the one-on-one match ups between a receiver and a defensive back.

“I’m not the biggest guy, so it’s not like physicality is the biggest strength of my game, but it’s that me-against-you aspect,” he said.

“Whatever way you’ve got to find to win, you do it. I always liked that.

“As a small guy too…people didn’t expect me to do well because I was smaller. It was motivating to make them say, ‘He can actually play, he’s better than he looks, he plays bigger than he is.’ I always liked that part of it.”

Nielsen hauling in game clinching TD Photo: Sergio Brunetti

He’s had a successful career in the German league, winning a championship with his team in 2017; he scored a game-winning two-point convert in the EFL championship in 2018 and was named the MVP for the Danish national team in a friendly against Poland in 2016. Last year in Germany he was a first-team all-star.

“KNOWING THAT YOU’RE NOT INVITED RANDOMLY, THAT THEY ACTUALLY TOOK TIME TO REVIEW YOUR TAPE AND SAID, ‘WE WANT TO INVITE THIS GUY.’ THAT’S PRETTY COOL AND A BIG HONOUR, TOO.”

FREDERIK NIELSEN

There’s a base to his optimism, to what has steered him to pursue a sport that, while growing, is still somewhat on the fringes in Europe. When he was offered an opportunity to play in the German league, he left his mathematical economics studies and figured at 24, that was the time to follow his passion.

When he was three to four years old, Nielsen was diagnosed with Leukemia. He battled the disease for about three years, enduring what comes with that. There were long stays in the hospital, bone marrow transplants, chemotherapy. He lost all of his hair at four years old and for a stretch of time was in a wheelchair.

“I’m not one of those sentimental guys who says, ‘I have to go out and do it because I had cancer.’ It’s not like that,” he said.

“When I look back at it I think the need and the wanting to use my body and to move around and like sports, to always want to stay active (stems from that experience).

“Then I think it’s maybe (in present-day life) things aren’t so bad. It could be worse most of the time.

“I think that I just have fun (playing football) and yeah of course games you’re going to get nervous, but in general I just enjoy everything. Enjoy the process, just enjoy the work, enjoy this combine.

“Yeah, some of the time’s it’s going to be a little stressful on Saturday and Sunday, but I think that in the big picture it’s just about enjoying it because it could be a lot worse than this.”

While he was young when he fought cancer, he remembers the big, impactful moments. He thinks that prepped him in a way for when he started playing football and how to deal with pain tolerance and how to push your body.

“I think from a young age when you’ve been through all of that, because obviously some of it is very painful,” he said.

“I think you just learn and it fits well with football. You learn to deal with bruises and bumps so it doesn’t affect you too much in that way.”

Nielsen is excited about the competition that awaits him this weekend, but he’s also looking forward to what will surround him. He remembers when he started playing at 15, when there was one coach with a little junior college experience to his name, running the entire team. The game has grown in Europe over the last 13 years, he said, but he and his teammates came up almost self-coaching each other. To have football minds around him at the combine from nine different teams feels like an incredible opportunity in itself.

“You always get excited about learning new things,” he said. “For myself, I love it. I really do love getting coached because it’s something that you haven’t had too much through your time in Europe. That’s definitely going to be nice.

“It’s just cool being here, having this setup and being able to show your skills off and knowing that there are coaches and scouts looking at you and evaluating you. Knowing that you’re not invited randomly, that they actually took time to review your tape and said, ‘We want to invite this guy.’ That’s pretty cool and a big honour, too.”

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