GERHARD DE BEER WAS on a recruiting visit to a Division I school when the track coach showed him an aerial view of the campus that featured a huge football stadium. "Can I play on that field?" he asked, even though the coach was interested in De Beer's skills in a different sport.
Growing up in Pretoria, South Africa, De Beer set national records for the under-16 and under-18 age groups in discus. His only exposure to American football was through a little Madden and a few games on TV. Still, he was intoxicated by the size of the stadium—in South Africa, only rugby and soccer teams play in ones like it—and he eventually found his way to Arizona, where he walked on to the football team while on a track and field scholarship.
The transition to a new sport was tough, especially figuring out how to put on pads before his first practice in 2013. "I just had no idea," the 6'7", 315-pound senior says. "It's like teaching a kid how to put them on for the first time, except I'm a very big kid."
Despite a rocky start—in the first few practices he didn't know what to do or where to go—De Beer soon got the hang of playing on the offensive line. He was drawn to the physicality of the sport, likening it to rugby, which he had played since he was five.
After spending the 2014 season on the scout team, De Beer played either right or left guard in all 13 games in '15, starting the final four. A few months earlier, he had won the Pac-12 discus championship. "It was a good year," he says.
De Beer was a starter at right tackle on the 2016 team that led the Pac-12 in rushing with 235.0 yards per game, and has started six games this season for one of the nation's best rushing attacks. Despite finishing fourth in the NCAA championship in discus in 2016, De Beer has quit track to focus on football, and he hopes his rapid rise in the sport will draw interest from the NFL.
Only two players from South Africa—All-Pro kicker Gary Anderson and wideout Jerome Pathon—have played in the NFL, but De Beer is undaunted. "I love the game so much," he says. "I don't see why I wouldn't [play in the NFL]. I'd rather say I tried it and didn't succeed instead of wondering. It's easier to go back to track and field."
De Beer's success has inspired other South Africans to come to the U.S. Dieter Eiselen, who grew up in Stellenbosch, just outside Cape Town, is a sophomore offensive lineman at Yale, and De Beer says he has had a "multitude" of conversations with countrymen about how they can follow his path to the U.S.
If De Beer doesn't get work as an offensive lineman in the NFL, he could always pivot to punting. He grew up kicking in rugby, and Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez has said De Beer might be the best punter on the team. "You know when Gerhard's punting because you can hear it," says Rodriguez. "It sounds like a shotgun going off." Whatever position he plays, De Beer is happy to be playing in a big college stadium—with bigger ones in his future.
As for playing in the NFL, De Beer says, "I love the game so much. I'd rather say I tried and didn't succeed instead of wondering."