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Denmark's Andreas Knappe trades Olympic archery dreams for shot at NFL with Falcons

Andreas Knappe came to football late but emerged as an NFL prospect as an offensive lineman at Connecticut. Stew Milne/AP Photo

April 29 was the darkest day in Andreas Knappe's life -- until this year.

On that date six years ago, the Denmark native watched his father, Benno, succumb to intestinal cancer and lymphoma. It was a courageous battle, one that continues to motivate his 25-year-old son.

"I was 10, and they gave him six months to live," Knappe said. "But he said, 'No, I can't do that. I have five kids. I've got a lot to take care of.' He fought it for almost 10 years."

The anniversary of his father's death typically triggers sadness for Knappe. But last month, tears of joy replaced the sorrow.

This April 29, Knappe received a call from Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn to sign with the team as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Connecticut. The 6-foot-9, 320-pound Knappe will participate in the team's rookie minicamp starting Friday with a chance to earn a spot as the swing offensive tackle behind starters Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder.

It's just another step in a remarkable journey for Knappe, who didn't start playing football until age 19, taught himself to speak English partly through video games, and had visions of shooting a bow and arrow for a living.

His father would be proud.

"I can definitely admit to struggling through the last five anniversaries, with April 29 being such a negative day, but this one was probably the best day of my life," Knappe said. "I definitely think my father is watching over me. It's probably the reason why things have worked out the way they have."

Knappe is on the cusp of fulfilling a lifelong dream to excel in a sport at the highest level. But football didn't start out as the focus of those aspirations.

"The first organized sport I did was archery," Knappe said. "I saw the 'Robin Hood' movie and I was like, 'He's a cool guy.' And my older brothers were watching 'Rambo' movies. I snuck in and watched that, too, and I was like, 'This guy knows how to shoot a bow and arrow.' "

Knappe said 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.

"The Olympics was one of my dreams," Knappe said. "Actually my dream of coming to the U.S. and going to college was initially shaped in the form of doing archery in college. The U.S. was the only place you could kind of make a living for yourself doing archery.

"I love shooting. Every once in a while, when I get to go home, I pick up my old bow and arrow. But back then, I decided I wanted to play something more social where you're depending on other people."

So he picked up a ball -- just not a football. 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.

"I wasn't playing dirty, but I was playing just a little too rough," Knappe said. "I was used to playing with guys who were two, three years older than me. I had to have sharp elbows to get on the field and stay there. Once I started playing with guys my own age, I had too many ejections and red cards."

Knappe eventually decided to channel his rugged style toward a sport that welcomed it. He was introduced to American football by his best friend, who asked him to play in a nine-man league of 11 teams in their town of Silkeborg, Denmark. Word spread of the 19-year-old Knappe being a pretty good -- and big -- defensive lineman. The best team in the country, the Triangle Razorbacks of the Danish American Football Federation, invited him to join. He paid the $500 playing fee and spent another $1,000 for all of his football equipment.

"I played the 3-tech, and I played next to a guy that was 44 and had three kids," Knappe said. "One of our nose tackles was 50 and also had kids. There were some DBs and linebackers that were my age. We played with guys that could almost be our fathers, or at least our uncles."

Two of Knappe's teammates, Alex Molina and Alex Polito, played college football at Connecticut. Knappe was raw and had no real means of attracting attention from college coaches. He asked a friend to record his games with the Razorbacks, and Knappe uploaded the clips to the Next College Student Athlete (NCSA) recruiting site.

UConn and Fordham in New York popped up on NCSA as interested schools along with a handful of junior colleges. Knappe saved up money from working an entire year at his family's outdoor sporting goods store and paid his own way to visit both schools. He made sure all eligibility requirements were fulfilled. Molina and Polito made calls to the UConn coaches to lobby for Knappe.

"They both offered me [scholarships], but I picked UConn because living in New York at that time was a little bit too much of a culture shock," said Knappe, who left for UConn right before the Razorbacks won the Danish league championship. "I went up to UConn and it was a little more rural, a lot more farms, trees and fields around. Not too much to do, but I was like, 'You know what? This is a good place for me to start.'"

"He was very inquisitive and interested. He was a great learner and really wanted to know the game. He comes from no football knowledge, and he couldn't stand not knowing everything."

Michael Cummings on Andreas Knappe

Speaking English wasn't a barrier upon his arrival into the United States because Knappe schooled himself through television shows and online video game competitions featuring "Halo" and "Call of Duty," among other popular games. The biggest challenge for Knappe was catching on, as a 21-year-old, to a game most of his teammates had been playing for years.

Former UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni, now the defensive line coach at Boston College, was the one who gave Knappe a scholarship. Pasqualoni also advised Knappe to ask the new coaching staff to move him from defensive line to offensive line after Pasqualoni got fired during the 2013 season.

"Still to this day, I have a tremendous amount of respect for him," Knappe said of Pasqualoni. "Him telling me that he thought I had the skill set and tools to play offensive line made me think, 'If he believes I can do that, I definitely think I can.'"

Michael Cummings, now the offensive line coach at Virginia Military Institute, was UConn's offensive coordinator and offensive line coach when Knappe was making the transition from defense to offense.

"I thought he was a giant, raw player, but he has an incredible work ethic," said Cummings of Knappe, who got the nickname "Thor" around campus. "He was very inquisitive and interested. He was a great learner and really wanted to know the game. He comes from no football knowledge, and he couldn't stand not knowing everything. I like to say I taught him everything, but there's no way. If you look at the number of years that he's played and where he is, it's incredible."

Knappe became a starter for the final seven games of his redshirt junior season in 2014. He started all 25 games at right tackle his final two seasons, was a two-time team captain, and was a three-time All-Academic performer.

John Pace, who represents Knappe, figured his client was bound to be selected on Day 3 of this year’s draft.

"People were talking fifth, sixth, seventh [rounds]," Pace said. "And when the offensive tackles weren’t going early, you know how that goes. ... But this was kind of like the perfect storm. I’m pissed his family didn’t hear his name called because I wanted him to get drafted on the anniversary of his father’s passing. But in the end, we found the perfect home."

Now the next phase is showing the Falcons he's capable of adjusting to the NFL like he did at the collegiate level. He refuses to let the stigma of being an older player work against him, noting how he's young in playing years from his late start in the sport. He turns 26 on June 2.

"I definitely think some teams might have been scared off by my age," Knappe said. "But obviously, this opportunity with the Falcons is great for a guy like me. I feel like I fit well in the scheme that's there and fit well with the coaches and what they're looking for in a player."

Knappe had one other goal outside of making the roster. He wants to earn enough money so that his mother, Birgitte, can retire from the family business. She spent a week with him in Massachusetts during the draft and was there when he got the post-draft call from the Falcons.

"Just seeing my mother super-happy, and hopefully realizing the dream of being able to retire her as well, that's a lot to be motivated about, for sure," Knappe said. "I know a lot of people have had my back and have been there to help me."

His late father was at the top of that list.