Gerhard de Beer was by far the least experienced player on the field last week at the Buffalo Bills' rookie minicamp. No one, however, could doubt the undrafted offensive tackle's love for the game.
"I gave up a shot at the Olympics for this, so yeah, I love the sport," de Beer said.
De Beer is a native of South Africa who went to the University of Arizona on a track and field scholarship. But he committed to Arizona on the stipulation that the school let him walk on to the football team as a two-sport athlete.
His career as a discus thrower was a big success. De Beer placed third at the World Junior Championships as an 18-year-old in 2012. He closed his collegiate discus career with a fourth-place finish at the NCAA championships in 2016.
De Beer's personal best throw would have been good for 12th at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. It's no stretch to suggest he could make the 2020 Games in Tokyo for South Africa if he committed full time to the discus.
"During college I also had spring football," de Beer said. "I probably would have thrown further if I just did track. But I wouldn't be standing here today if that were the case."
De Beer's adjustment to football is amazing. He had played rugby as a youth in South Africa but never had stepped foot on a football field before arriving in Arizona.
In fact, when he was given shoulder pads for his first college practice, he didn't know which was the front of the pads and which was the back.
"I knew which way to wear the helmet, though," de Beer jokes.
By his senior season last fall, de Beer was the starting right tackle for the No. 3 rushing team in the nation.
Now he's in an NFL camp as an intriguing developmental prospect for the Bills, who made him one of their 12 free-agent rookie signings. De Beer's athleticism and size – he's 6-foot-6 and 312 pounds – are NFL caliber. He also has the right mentality for the game.
"The fact that he could start on a Power 5 Conference team and excel and get a chance at the NFL right now with really only four years of exposure to the game is incredible," said Pac-12 Networks analyst Glenn Parker, the former Bills offensive lineman. "He's extremely explosive and strong. He's just raw right now. But he's getting there. He's a very quick study."
Contact is what attracted him most to football and what he could not get in track and field.
"Oh, I love it," he said. "That's what really got me in love with the game. It's the only place where you can really hit the crap out of somebody without getting in too much trouble."
"There's nothing like that feeling of moving somebody who's trying really hard not to be moved and then putting them on their back," de Beer said. "It gives you this sense of rush."
De Beer wasn't an NFL fanatic as a teenager back home in Pretoria. He played the "Madden NFL" video game a little bit. He watched a few games. Yet he was fascinated with the possibility of playing the American sport.
"It's like an adventure to the unknown kind of thing," de Beer said. "I'm a very adventurous person. As kids we always grew up thinking about what people are doing in football."
If there was one incident that spurred him to chase the dream, it came when he was being recruited by a throwing coach from Nebraska.
"What happened was one of the coaches who tried to recruit me showed me a bird's-eye view of the university campus," de Beer said. "I saw the stadium and said, 'Wow, do we throw in there?' She said, 'No, that's only for the football team.' I said, 'Wow that's cool. Can I play?' She told me no."
De Beer found a willing partner in Arizona, which let him walk onto the football squad.
He spent 2013 as a redshirt and 2014 on the scout team. He started four games in 2015 and eight in 2016 before becoming the full-time right tackle last season.
De Beer says the mental challenge of the game was his biggest hurdle.
"Once you start understanding concepts, then you start understanding what everybody's doing on the field," he said. "Then the whole game starts making sense, every play. So I know how the defense is going to react to what's happening in the backfield. So you know whether your linebacker will flow at what tempo. You can run wide zone a couple different ways and the linebacker could be flowing really quick or really slow so you've got to set your track the right way."
"He's an extremely bright young man, and he is very driven," said Parker. "He's capable of minor adjustments to make a major impact. That's his background in track. A very minor adjustment in track can get you farther in the discus. That's also true in football. He's a really good student."
Arizona was the No. 3 rushing team in college football last season, so de Beer didn't get a ton of experience pass blocking. The Wildcats ran an up-tempo offense, and the two tackles played out of a two-point stance every play.
Parker, whose day job is with the University of Arizona Foundation, worked with de Beer for the past five months on fundamentals.
"That's the bane of offensive line in the NFL in that none of the kids ever play in a three-point anymore," Parker said. "Getting him comfortable in moving out of that is huge. He has exploded with the amount of growth he's had since the end of the season to now. If he had another year of college football under his belt, he'd have been drafted and drafted fairly high."
Asked his most rewarding moment in football so far, de Beer said: "It's the small victories. When you've been working that pass set, covering somebody toward the inside. When that finally pays off, hell yeah. Getting your hands in the right spot. It's the small victories I get really happy about, not necessarily one huge moment. I understand I'm still a developing player."
"What I absolutely love is he's a kid who embraced the fundamentals, the repetition of the basics to get better," Parker said. "Most kids want to know the secret and they don't want to spend time running their step progression over and over and over again. That guy embraced it."
De Beer probably will need a year of practice squad experience in the NFL. If and when he makes a roster, his name could make him a natural for endorsements. Bud Light already drew attention on social media to a photo of de Beer at practice last week. A note about his first name: It's pronounced HAIR-ard, with the first hard syllable being uttered from the back of the tongue. You have to hear it repeatedly to really get it, which is why his Arizona teammates called him by his last name.
One thing de Beer does not do is look back and wonder where he might be in the discus today. That chapter is closed, and the fact he's now wearing an NFL helmet and shoulder pads only reinforces his decision.
"For me I would do it 100 times over again," he said.
Story topics: Gerhard de Beer