“Just keep working and keep believing. Everyone can get there. It might take a little longer for some than others, but if you keep working, the rewards will come.” – Hjalte Froholdt, Arkansas offensive lineman
Football is popular across America. Kids grow up dreaming of one day getting to play under the lights. And if they’re good enough, the college coaches will discover them before they ever get to high school.
It’s not that easy for everybody, though. There are players in the SEC now who grew up in countries without Friday Night Lights or football camps. They had to work even harder, leave their families behind and, in some cases, travel across continents just to get noticed.
For the love of the game
Arkansas sophomore Hjalte Froholdt made the move from defensive line to offensive line in the offseason. He admits it’s been challenging, learning the plays and the different techniques, but it’s nothing he can’t handle. Not when he’s already played every position growing up.
Froholdt grew up in the little town of Svendborg, Denmark. Some people in Denmark haven’t even heard of it. And when he started playing football, there were four guys at practice. So when Froholdt tells you he’s played every position, he’s literally played every position.
He even remembers an interception he had while playing cornerback. Keep in mind that Arkansas lists him at 6-foot-4 and 309 pounds.
“The little club started growing and we started getting a lot more people there, but initially, it was just me and three other guys with our coach out there,” Froholdt said. “We just kept working because at that point, we didn’t play to get a scholarship. We didn’t play to make a fortune or to get better lives. We just played because we loved the game.
“And that’s what I’ve been feeding on from now moving forward. I’m just playing because I love the game. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it.”
Eventually, Froholdt went from playing for “that little club” to playing high school football in the U.S. His first stop was in Warren, Ohio, where he spent his sophomore year as an exchange student. That’s where then-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema first noticed him. Then, as a senior, he moved to America permanently and played for IMG Academy in Florida.
Despite only playing one season at IMG, Froholdt received offers from schools across the country, including Alabama, Florida State, Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State. He was ranked No. 98 in the ESPN 300.
He chose to follow Bielema to Fayetteville and become a Razorback.
Now as he enters his second season at Arkansas, Froholdt says the biggest adjustment to life in the states has been assimilating to the culture, “trying to fit in with Americans and their ways.” But on the plus side, he’s discovered a new favorite food.
“The barbecue,” he said. “There’s a lot of seafood in Demark. We have a little bit here with the Catfish Hole, so we’ve got some good catfish there a couple times. But other than that, it’s the barbecue. It’s just too good.”
‘With football, I fit right in’
Think about how popular football is in the U.S. That’s how soccer is Germany. Every kid in Germany grows up playing soccer.
Not Jakob Johnson. He could never find a soccer uniform that fit him, and because of his physical playing style, he became notorious for getting kicked off the field at some point during the game. He was simply too big and too aggressive to play his country's favorite sport.
“With football, I never had that problem,” Johnson said. “With football, I fit right in.”
Johnson, now a tight end for Tennessee, didn’t start playing football until he was 13 years old. And in Germany, you play flag football first. So Johnson didn’t start playing tackle football until he was 15. He played for the German youth national team and his hometown team, the Stuttgart Scorpions.
“Over there, everybody dreams of coming over here to America and playing for the real big team,” Johnson said. “I played for one of the top teams in Germany – it was probably the equivalent to Division I – and we never had more than 1,000 people at our games. So coming from that to 100,000 at Tennessee games, it’s a big difference.”
When Johnson finished high school in Germany, he moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where he lived with his aunt and enrolled at Ribault High School. He didn’t have the same type of offer list that Froholdt had, but midway through the season, a coach from Tennessee came to visit. The Vols offered him a scholarship on the spot.
“It’s pretty surreal sometimes,” Johnson said. “During the everyday season grind, you don’t really have time to think about it. But sometimes on Sundays, when you sit down and you watch the replays on SEC Network, and it kind of hits you. Man, that’s me out there. I’m watching myself on TV right now playing the sport that I love. That’s crazy.”
Johnson is planning to return to Germany this summer to see his family. It will be his first trip home since he’s been at Tennessee.
Camp changes plans
Justin Senior still remembers the day that would change his life.
He grew up playing football in Canada. One of his coaches there invited him to a football camp on a weekday morning. He asked his friends to go, but they all said no. So with no ride and no sense of what to expect, he took public transit to the camp. Afterward, he received a scholarship to play at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia.
Now he’s a senior at Mississippi State, where he’s started 26 consecutive games at right tackle. He’s the only Canadian football player in the SEC.
“It wasn’t like it was planned out,” Senior said. “I didn’t know I was going to go and get a scholarship and everything.
“Coming to America to play college football as a Canadian is a dream. You know how people dream about playing football here in the states? How they can do this, do that? In Canada, it’s a complete dream. The situation that happens to me just doesn’t happen.
“I dreamt about it, thought about it, but it wasn’t in my plans.”
If not for the camp, Senior likely would have played played for some big football powerhouse in Canada. And seeing as how he was already getting looked at by scouts in the CFL, that might have worked out. The camp he attended was his first exposure to American football, which has very different rules than what’s played north of the border.
Four years later, he’s still trying to get acclimated to the Southern climate.
“Do you ever really get used to this humidity?”
ESPN.com reporter Alex Scarborough contributed to this story.