Wroclaw Panthers DE Thiadric Hansen using his CFL lessons for Polish success

If you are a fan of the Canadian Football League, you’ve seen the same play dozens of time. A savvy, athletic defensive end delays his rush, baits the throw and then gets his hands in the open passing lane, notching an easy interception and racing in for a touchdown.

This is, of course, is the trademark of Winnipeg Blue Bomber Willie Jefferson and a key reason why he was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2019. But with the CFL season canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was a little surprising to see that same sequence play out last Saturday. It wasn’t Willie Jefferson making the highlight reel play on a field halfway across the world in Poland, but rather his German teammate Thiadric Hansen showing off just how much he learned during his first season in Canada.

“He told me if the quarterback obviously wants to throw that out route, wait a little bit, duck your head a  bit so it seems like you are coming and force him to throw, then you jump up and catch the ball,” Hansen recalls of picking Jefferson’s brain. “They definitely helped me out a lot. Willie Jefferson with all the finesse stuff and Jackson Jeffcoat and Craig Roh taught me all the hand fighting.”

Wroclaw DE Thiadric Hansen getting set against Warsaw Mets Photo: Łukasz Skwiot

If this were a normal year, Hansen would be back in Canada competing in his second CFL season. Like so many other things, COVID-19 messed up all the best laid plans and the crown jewel of the league’s Global player experiment took advantage of a contractual opt out so he could spend the time working on his craft by playing for Poland’s Wroclaw Panthers.

“I’ve got a good American coach here who can help me with my technique. That is the main reason I decided to play in Poland this year,” Hansen explains. “There is still a lot of stuff for me to get better at for defensive end because I’ve only been playing it for one year.”

What a year it was for the German. As part of the inaugural class of players involved in the “CFL 2.0” initiative that saw each Canadian team roster one international player, termed “Globals” by the league, Hansen could hardly have imagined the role he would end up playing. While other teams hesitated to involve their token Globals, Hansen landed in a perfect team environment to foster success. Drafted as a linebacker, the Bombers emphasized his role on special teams from the start. First it was just snaps on kickoff return, then kickoff coverage and punt return as well. Then one day, with the team plagued by injuries, Hansen was asked to switch to defensive end and the rest was history.

“It’s incredible how much I didn’t know about football that they taught me. I was in a great spot for it,” he says smiling. “The head coach’s door was always open and I had a pretty good position coach [Glen Young] who helped me out a lot. It was just a great environment in Winnipeg.”

Winnipeg Blue Bombers #3 Thiadric Hansen during Winnipeg Blue Bombers vs. Visiting BC Lions at IG Field August 15, 2019 (Photo by: David Lipnowski)

That environment allowed Hansen to become a key rotational defender for the Bombers down the stretch, recording five tackles, two forced fumbles and a sack. The team went on to hoist the Grey Cup and Hansen was impactful the whole way, representing Germany proudly on Canada’s biggest stage when he came screaming down the field on a kickoff and carried veteran CFL safety Mike Daly into returner Frankie Williams for a hellacious hit and one of the game’s biggest highlights. While he learned a lot in Canada, that play went all the way back to Hansen’s roots in Germany.

“It was basically the stuff I learned as an outside linebacker and safety in Germany. When you’ve got a blocker and you put him into the running lane, you’ve mostly done your job,” he says with a laugh. “Of course, in the Grey Cup you’ve got a different type of energy and you’ve been hyped up in a different sort of way, so that helped me a lot as well.”

Thiadric Hansen taking down Bydgoszcz Archers ball carrier Photo: Łukasz Skwiot

The hit resulted in a flood of media attention and established Hansen as the face of the CFL’s attempts to attract international fans and players, but the defender himself feels it’s been overblown. His greatest accomplishment came a game earlier to almost no fanfare.

“For me, my biggest play was the goal line stand in the West Division Final. The coaches actually made a mistake and on second and goal, we had four defensive ends in rather than two defensive tackles. They made the mistake and I was at defensive tackle at that time so I just pushed the center back and made the stop literally at the goal line,” Hansen explains with a clear note of pride. “I don’t get much credit for that from the media but that is probably the play that I get the most credit for from my teammates.”

It was a play that Hansen wasn’t even credited with a tackle for but it made the difference in a one score game. In many ways, it seems like a metaphor for his own career. A player who wasn’t supposed to be there making the most of his opportunities.

Photo: CFL

As a young player in Flensburg, playing at Germany’s lowest level of football, Hansen never could have imagined playing professionally. It wasn’t even on his radar when he made the jump to the Kiel Baltic Hurricanes of the GFL, often spending nights sleeping at the train station when a late practice made him miss the last ride home. After a decade of perseverance, gradual development and now a position change, Hansen has achieved what once seemed impossible and has seen success on a professional field. More important to him however, is that he earned the respect of coaches and teammates who were initially skeptical of a European being shoehorned onto a roster. That realization came after a memorable encounter with his head coach, Canadian Football Hall of Famer Mike O’Shea.

“It was in the Toronto game that we lost and I had a little bit of an argument with Coach O’Shea on the sideline. It was on me so when we got back to Winnipeg, I went to his office to say I was sorry. He told me I didn’t have to be sorry, that that sort of thing happens on the football field and I’ll be harsh on you because you are one of the guys,” Hansen recalls. “Not you are the Global player, you are just a guy on the team. That was really the moment where I felt that I was at the place where I wanted to be looked at by my teammates.”

Now in Poland, Hansen is more than just one of the guys. As the rare North American professional to suit up in Europe, he’s the player opponents highlight on game film and teammates look to for guidance. It’s a level of prominence that he is still adjusting to.

“It forces you to be a different type of player,” Hansen readily admits. “Even though in Kiel I was a starter, I’ve never been a vocal guy. In Canada, I was always the guy who had to learn, learn, learn, I was never loud. In Poland, I’m forced to be more like that because that’s what the coaches expect. To be vocal, to give the guys energy. I’m learning that role and I think it helps me develop as a player.”

The results speak for themselves. Hansen is the new face of the franchise and a star on a fantastic Panthers defense that has allowed just 21 points through five games.

“For our defense, it doesn’t seem to matter if we are up 40-0,” he says. “We still treat it like it’s 0-0. They are still all flying around, making plays.”

Thiadric Hansen scoring game’s opening touchdown against Archers Photo: Łukasz Skwiot

That defensive reputation faces it’s first real test against fellow undefeated powerhouse, the Bialystok Lowlanders. The team is led by British running back Glen Toonga, a player who hopes to join Hansen as part of the next wave of international player in the CFL. It’s a likely preview of the Polish championship and Hansen is planning to stick to basics.

“Defensively, if we do our jobs and win our one-on-one matchups then we should win this game,” he says. “[Toonga] is a physical runner. With him, you can’t afford to take big shots. It has to be wrap up tackles, just clean, stop his leg drive and let four other guys come and finish him off.”

Hansen is looking for his second title in two years, and while Poland isn’t quite as glamourous as the CFL, he’s been very impressed with his experience. From the perspective of marketing, training and even the playing venue, Hansen believes the Panthers are the best he’s seen in Europe. Still, he hopes that after he’s brought a championship to Wroclaw, he will have a chance to return to Winnipeg and take the next step in his development as a player.

“I want to play on all the special teams and make it on punt team too, because when you play on punt team you’ve made it in the eyes of our special teams’ coordinator [Paul Boudreau]. Punt team is his baby and he only puts the guys he trusts on there,” he says of his goals for 2021. “Then, get more playing time on defence, be a part of the rotation like I was last year and win another Grey Cup.”

Watch the game live here. Polish Championship Game: Bialystok Lowlanders v. Wroclaw Panthers, Saturday, November 14, 15:30 CET (09:30 ET, 9:30 am)

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.