A Long Way Home

6 Min Read
Athletic Level: NCAA Division I FCS Football

My name is Dieter Eiselen, I’m from South Africa, and I play on the offensive line at Yale.

South Africa? Football? Yale?

Yeah, that’s a bit of a peculiar sentence. In South Africa, there’s not a lot of exposure to American football, but I could not help but fall in love with the sport when I first came across it. My time in high school was spent as many South Africans before me had; playing as much rugby as I could. I had the dream of playing for South Africa’s national rugby team, the Springboks, ever since I saw the green and gold uniforms as a child on television. My all-boys, traditional high school was a powerhouse of South African schoolboy rugby, but soon I found myself enjoying the school’s strength and conditioning program more than the actual sport itself. This is what motivated me to make the switch from playing rugby to competing in Olympic-style weightlifting.

My first encounter with the sport of football, apart from films, was a broadcast of a college football game between Stanford and Notre Dame when I was sixteen. The stereotypical view of American football in South Africa is confined to depictions of it in films such as Any Given Sunday and The Waterboy due to the fact that the sport is virtually nonexistent in my home countryBut football immediately captivated me, and I instantly became obsessed. I continued to train and compete in Olympic weightlifting while maintaining my unorthodox hobby of watching college and NFL football games in the early mornings due to the time difference between the United States and South Africa.

After about a year of this hobby of mine, I started to develop the dream of becoming a college football player myself. I felt as though I possessed the physical and athletic capabilities required of a college-level football player due to my body’s development with Olympic weightlifting. Admittedly, this appeared a daunting and unrealistic venture to dedicate myself to when taking into consideration the fact that I had never played football of any kind before in my life. There were certainly times when I was struggling through my decision to not pursue the conventional avenues back home, but I knew that if I persisted, I would be successful. My father had been a provincial rower, and my mother a tennis player, but never before had someone chosen to pursue this new, alien sport that was popular across the ocean. The support of my parents, however, was essential as I continued along the unknown path that possessed no guarantees. This path seemed hazy and unclear to me at the beginning; however, I made a commitment to myself to pursue my unconventional dream no matter what challenges I might face.

This is what led to my decision to attend a high school football camp in Virginia halfway through my senior year in South Africa. I flew 8,000 miles across the Atlantic to try my hand at this game that I had developed a deep passion for over the course of the past two years. I truly enjoyed the camp in the Virginia heat with my fellow football players who welcomed me as one of their own as I put on a helmet and pads for the first time in my life. I did not have the faintest idea what I was doing as an offensive lineman which was encapsulated by the moment when one of the coaches asked me whether I knew where the “A-gap” was (which, of course, I did not). I soon came to realize the disparity that exists between watching American football on television and actually experiencing the intricacies of technical play as a player. I garnered some attention from college scouts at the camp and received offers to walk-on; I knew that if I was able to achieve that with little to no experience, I would be able to develop further and attain my dream down the road.

After the conclusion of the camp, I did not feel demoralized; rather, I felt invigorated with a new sense of motivation to fight even harder for my dream. I did some exhaustive research and stumbled upon a new possibility, an option to do a postgraduate year at a number of New England boarding schools. Thereafter, I contacted dozens of coaches hoping that someone would be willing to take a chance on me and, eventually, put me in a position to get seen by college coaches. I was lucky to have a number of coaches contact me saying that they were interested, and after spending time reviewing each school, I ultimately decided to attend Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, with the goal of getting recruited for Division One football. I finished high school back in South Africa in November, and decided to come over early to live in the US with a Choate host family the following April. I prepared for my first upcoming season as a true football player while tightly holding on to my dream that seemed to get closer and closer. My host family was immensely caring towards me, as they could sense the difficulty I had with leaving my family back home to pursue my goal.

Right there, on the field, he gave me a spot on the Yale team.

My coach-to-be at Choate sent me to a number of camps in July before the season where I was able to learn more of the technicalities of football and hone my own skills. I attended Yale’s camp, before my season at Choate, sighting it as an ideal opportunity for the Yale staff to get to know me as a person and player. I truly enjoyed the camp on that rainy day in New Haven, and, given the fact that I did not have any film of me actually playing football yet, I decided to simply have fun playing during my day there. This carefree approach allowed me to just give it my all in the various drills that we were doing. We were busy doing one-on-ones while the rain was coming down, when Yale’s head coach, Coach Reno, called my name and signaled for me to come over. I was expecting for him to offer some advice for the long path that laid ahead for me, but instead, he offered something very different

It seemed as though time had stopped in that instant as the words left his mouth and I became overwhelmed with euphoric shock. Never did I think that it would have been possible to achieve my dream without having played the sport before. I took a visit a week later, and decided to commit and become a Bulldog. It became very clear to me that Yale was the ideal choice; the opportunity to study at one of the top universities in the world whilst competing for a chance to play football fit my criteria for school that I decided on before I began this entire venture to leave home.

No other opportunity would challenge me like Yale would, and it is under these conditions that I envisioned myself developing rapidly as an athlete, student, and individual as a whole. Thus far, Yale has allowed me to make that progression in many different facets of my life, as I have been in a great many pressure-cooker situations over extended periods of time, both on and off the field. The toughest challenge that I had to overcome was my first season, when we had an abysmal year as a team. I was able make my first collegiate start in our fourth game of the season and defeat Harvard for the first time in nine years, but it all was overshadowed by our failings throughout the season. We were able to harness this awful season, however, as fuel for the next season, in which we became outright Ivy League champions. I am excited for my last upcoming season as a collegiate player, and believe that I possess the desired traits to succeed on the professional stage. With the support of those around me, I will once again embark on an ambitious dream.

My unorthodox recruiting process, which was fueled by my ambition to realize my dream, will hopefully serve as an example to other individuals to help them realize that anything is truly possible when one allows blind faith to intertwine with self-belief. For any unlikely journey, the first step has to be the acceptance that narrow-minded conventional avenues do not necessarily have to constrain one’s aspirations in this life that is so brief. We have to seize every opportunity, not always as it presents itself, but rather by creating it for ourselves. This mindset, which has made my dream possible, is something that I aim to apply to the rest of my life in everything that I do. My journey to the US has proved to be the most rewarding risk I’ve taken thus far in my young life and I couldn’t be happier here or more excited for the future.

Dieter J. Eiselen is rising senior at Yale, studying Economics and Political Science. Outside of football, Dieter enjoys weightlifting, and has served as President of the Yale Student Athlete Advisory Committee.



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.