Steven Nielsen hopes to play for the Jacksonville Jaguars this season, but first the 6-foot-8 offensive lineman from Denmark has some tree trunks to toss around in northwest Ohio.
The improvised workouts — gyms remain closed because of coronavirus restrictions — underscore Nielsen's desire to make it to the NFL. He signed with the Jaguars as a free agent after sitting through the NFL Draft at his girlfriend’s family home in Ohio.
“I thought maybe I could sneak into the seventh round,” the 307-pound Nielsen said in a phone interview.
Only two Danes — kicker Morten Andersen and guard/center Hjalte Froholdt — have been drafted in the NFL. Andersen played 25 seasons and is a national hero in Denmark. Froholdt, drafted last year by the New England Patriots, spent his rookie season on injured reserve.
Nielsen, who grew up outside Copenhagen, played mostly at left tackle for Eastern Michigan. His phone started ringing toward the end of the seventh round. He said the Los Angeles Chargers were most interested, but he preferred the Jaguars.
“It’s the best place for me in terms of making the team, or at least of having a shot at making the team," the 23-year-old Nielsen said. “They have a lot of young guys."
The Jaguars used one of their 12 picks on an offensive lineman. They selected Ben Bartch in the fourth round, 116th overall, out of Div. 3 school St. John's. Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell said Bartch can play multiple positions along the line.
Nielsen envisions battling for a backup spot and said he most likely would remain at left tackle.
Teams normally hold rookie minicamps in May, but that seems uncertain given the coronavirus restrictions. For now, Nielsen is staying with his girlfriend and her family. He works out in the basement with dumbbells and bodyweight exercises. He jogs and does footwork at a local field.
“Sometimes I pick up tree trunks if they're sitting around,” he said. “I just pick them up and try to curl them, to see if it does anything. It's as useful as it can be, but it's still not the same as weights.”
Nielsen started playing American football when he was about 13 years old. He followed his brother onto a local club team. After two years at a boarding school in Indiana, he was on to Eastern Michigan. It's a long way from pulling all-nighters to watch the Super Bowl live in Denmark.
“It would mean a lot for my friends and family for me to possibly be the next Dane in the NFL because they know how hard I have worked for it,” he said. “And for Football Denmark it would mean a lot.”
Another Dane, offensive lineman Andreas Knappe, has been on several practice squads after not being drafted in 2017.
Other Europeans have made headway in the NFL, notably in the kicking game. Sebastian Janikowski of Poland played 19 NFL seasons, all but one for the now-Las Vegas Raiders.
German-born place kicker Dominik Eberle is joining the Raiders as an undrafted free agent. Last season, the Raiders signed undrafted punter A.J. Cole and he displaced Johnny Townsend in training camp.
Jamie Gillan, aka the “Scottish Hammer,” became the punter for the Cleveland Browns last season after going undrafted in 2019.
In 2017, the NFL launched its International Player Pathway Program. Teams can carry an extra practice squad spot to develop the players. Carolina Panthers defensive end Efe Obada in 2018 became the first from the program to make a 53-man roster. Obada was born in Nigeria and grew up in London.
Germany has produced several NFL players, including Sebastian Vollmer and Jakob Johnson of the Patriots.
The Jaguars are scheduled to play twice this season in London, which has hosted regular-season games since 2007. Jermaine Eluemunor, a Patriots offensive lineman who grew up in London, said he was inspired to play football after watching the debut game on television.
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