Gerhard de Beer shirked the comforts of home for the squalor of playing in the trenches.
The 23-year-old offensive lineman took a gamble five years ago, moving 9,943 miles (the Earth’s circumference, by comparison, is 24,901 miles) from his home in Pretoria, South Africa to compete as a two-sport athlete at The University of Arizona.
The towering South African excelled at rugby and track and field at his high school, Afrikaanse Hoer Seunskool, in Pretoria.
He still holds the U-16 and U-18 records in his home country in the discus, and has the fourth-longest throw in Arizona history as well, covering 203 feet, three inches at the Tucson Elite Classic on May 21, 2016.
De Beer placed fourth overall in 2016 at the NCAA Championships in the discus as well, but retired to focus on his newfound love — football.
The towering de Beer, who measures in at 6 feet 7 inches tall and a whopping 320 pounds, had never played the game before stepping foot in the States.
De Beer had no idea what it meant to play the sport on the collegiate level prior to his recruitment process for track and field, when a coach showed him a bird’s eye view of the campus.
He remembers looking at the screen and seeing a towering stadium, which he believed to be the school’s track complex.
Little did he know it was their football stadium, opening his eyes to the sport’s popularity in America.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s cool. Can I play?’ And the person said no, so I started asking around,” de Beer recalls. “Southern Methodist University recruited me solely on a football scholarship, and I had a distant cousin that went there as well. They didn’t have a men’s track and field program though. Arizona chose me once they saw me, they said, ‘We’ll allow you to walk on to the football team and do track and field too’.”
De Beer had little idea what it meant to play college football at a major American university, erroneously believing that the school’s Division I status had more to do with its academic merit than athletic prowess.
He soon realized how big a deal it was to play at the sport’s highest amateur level after he stepped onto the field turf playing surface of Arizona Stadium in front of thousands of screaming fans.
“Looking back, I never knew how arrogant it was when I said I wanted to play football at a Division I school,” de Beer says. “And you talk about a crash course. It took me a year and a bit just to understand the concepts of the offensive line, let along the rest of the game of football.”
De Beer remembers having to ask teammate Luca Bruno about the very basics of the game.
“I had to ask him how to put on my pads and he looked at me all funny, and he’d say, ‘are you serious?’,” De Beer says. “I never understood that this was at a national level or how big it was.”
Love of the game
De Beer’s appreciation for the game has increased significantly since those days, starting eight games at offensive tackle as a junior, and all three of the team’s games this fall.
He’s not sure what the future has in store for him on the gridiron, but says he’s loved getting the chance to compete in the trenches for the Arizona Wildcats.
“The one thing that made me fall in love with football is just how much you can go and knock the crap out of somebody,” de Beer says. “I love knocking the shit out of somebody, it’s great. And (the offensive line) is the only place that you can do it without getting in trouble.”
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez certainly appreciates the effort shown by de Beer and his brethren on the offensive line this fall.
“They’ve played hard up front,” Rodriguez says. “We’ve not always played our best at times, but that’s a hard-working group, as hard-working as anybody we’ve got on our team. They’ve got a lot of pride in each other.”
The Economy and Industry major hopes to coach the sport or serve as a teacher either in America or in his native South Africa after graduation in May.
De Beer is content with what he’s accomplished thus far, but says he’s far from complacent when it comes to his final collegiate season.
“Looking back at it, I don’t think there’s a lot more that I could do to further my career,” he says. “I’ve worked hard ever since I got here to try to learn as much as I can and do as much as I can.”
De Beer says adjusting to life in small-town Tucson, with a population of 530,706 —almost five times less than his native Pretoria — has been just as tough, though he has learned to love the region.
“Tucson is a different type of place,” de Beer says. “The scenery — I always describe it as kind of depressing because nothing grows. But it’s beautiful in its own way. You have to understand the red desert, the sun setting behind the mountains, and how beautiful the drive to Mount Lemmon is. It’s definitely grown on me a whole lot.”
De Beer has a firm set of goals between the sidelines for his final campaign in Tucson, which include preventing opponents from sacking the quarterback or tackling a teammate for a loss.
He also wants to be more of a factor in the locker room, a task that hasn’t been easy for him.
“I want to step up and be more of a leader, and that’s been a difficult task for me because I don’t completely understand American culture,” he says. “So being a leader back home is different than it is here, especially being in this environment. You’ve got to be a lot more aggressive as a leader here than you would anywhere else.”
Follow Christopher Boan on Twitter at @cgboan