ehfTV recently had a profile on Danish Center Back, Rasmus Lauge Schmidt and his passion for American Football. In part 1 I took a look at the development of American Football in Europe as an example of how an alien sport can develop in an unlikely place. So much so, that there are even a few German players playing in the NFL. In this second part I take a look at the American Football to Team Handball pipeline and assess which football positions are the most likely to yield good team handball athletes.
An Historically Narrow Pipeline
My investigation of Europeans making NFL rosters caused me to reflect a bit regarding U.S. National Team players that had crossed over from American Football to Team Handball. While basketball has always been the most prominent cross over sport, there’s also been a few football athletes of note. From the 70s and 80s, Joe Story, one of USA Team Handball’s best ever wings played wide receiver at then NAIA Willamette University. From my era in 80s and 90s, Olympian John Keller was a tight end at Div 1 North Carolina and Joe Fitzgerald played QB at Div 3, Ithaca College. More recently, Mark Ortega played wide receiver at then NAIA Malone College and Lewis Howes played wide receiver at Div 3 Principia and Capital colleges. Howes even played a season of professional football, albeit for the Alabama Vipers in the AF2, the former development league for the Arena Football League. (So, a minor league of a minor league, but hey, if you’re getting paid to play, you’re a professional and that’s saying something.)
Perhaps, I’m missing some notable football players that also crossed over to Team Handball, but it’s fairly clear that this pipeline hasn’t been much of a pipeline. More accurately it’s been a narrow pipe with just a trickle of water coming out. As someone who played 10 years of organized football, I’ll put forward two closely related reasons for this narrow pipeline. First off, the type of skills learned in football for the most part only tangentially apply to Team Handball. The blocking and tackling which are an integral part of the game have no application to Team Handball. And the passing and catching at the skill positions only tangentially applies. This doesn’t mean a football player can’t become a good handball player. Just means that very little that is learned in football training can be readily applied in a handball context.
Closely related to the first reason regarding minimal crossover skills between the two sports is the natural gravitation of athletes to sports where they are more likely to excel. Again, there are quite a few athletes that can excel at multiple sports, but whether it be their body type, arm strength, jumping ability, speed or hand-eye coordination there are aspects of every athlete that often steer them towards a particular sport. Accordingly, many of the athletes that naturally gravitated to football aren’t the type of athletes that would make great handball players.
Certainly, I don’t think too many people would argue that very few interior lineman on both sides of the ball have the makings of handball stardom. Perhaps, there might be a few circle runners along the lines of Hungary’s Gyula Gal, but that would be the exception rather than the rule. To a lesser degree, linebackers, defensive ends and up the middle running backs are probably in the same boat, but if they totally reshaped their bodies they could maybe become decent handball players. This leaves defensive backs and skill positions and indeed that’s where the U.S crossover players have come from. And, if USA Team handball is interested in targeting football athletes I would argue that there are 2 football player positions worthy of specific targeting.
Pipeline Target #1: The Tight End
A while back, the Hang Up and Listen Podcast created all-star handball squads from pro sports and they selected several quarterbacks and tight ends for their teams. Not exactly rocket science and as a former tight end I can attest that this is where the tall lanky guy who can somewhat reliably catch a football is placed. What’s striking of late has been the successful and relative speedy transition of decent, but undersized college basketball centers into outstanding NFL tight ends. Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints is the best example and this video and article provide more detail on his conversion. I have no idea as to whether Jimmy Graham could have been converted into a decent backcourt player, but I think with a couple months training plenty of teams could find room on their roster for him as a defensive specialist. Train him for a year or two and he would likely be a pretty decent circle runner.
Unfortunately, I wouldn’t bank on USA Team Handball convincing Jimmy Graham to drop his multi-million dollar contract to play handball. What might be interesting, however, is investigating the 2nd and 3rd string tight ends currently playing collegiate football. Those players by virtue of their current spots on the depth chart have probably already assessed (accurately) that they aren’t going to the NFL or even the CFL or AFL. With 249 Div 1 (FCS and FBS schools) that’s roughly 500 athletes to investigate and recruit. It’s a numbers game, but chances are that some sliver of that targeted group would have both the interest and the raw skill to be great handball players. A Jimmy Graham (sort of in reverse) if you will. The decent college football player (not good enough for the NFL) who could be a great handball player. Or, even better, if we are interested in getting athletes at younger ages, the decent high school football player (not good enough for NCAA D1).
Pipeline Target #2: The Mobile QB
The other interesting position to target is the QB. For a number of reasons this has always been a position to target. In particular, as throwing is an inherent part of the position, generally a QB has a decent throwing arm and often a phenomenal one. The position also, perhaps more than any position in all other sports, requires a great deal of intelligence and quick decision making under pressure. What makes the position even more of a target today, however, is the evolution of the game to put more of a premium on QB mobility. The days of the pocket passer standing still looking for targets down field are waning. Instead, the QB that can also find holes and dodge tacklers is more desired. And without a doubt those skills translate well to team handball. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning might have made decent handball players, but there’s little doubt in my mind that Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton would have been great handball players. (And as a short aside, one of USA Team Handball’s greatest players, Darrick Heath was a pretty good HS QB in that mold. Makes me wonder if he had been coming of age in 2013 whether he would have played football in college instead of hoops.)
But, again the idea of Kaepernick and Newton picking up handball is totally Fantasyland. Even the possibility of a failed NFL quarterback like Tim Tebow is an unlikely prospect as long as the carrot of the NFL is out there. No, realistically USA Team Handball needs to drop down a few levels in terms of expectation. Every college team keeps several QBs on their roster and amongst the 500 or so back up QBs there are surely some prospects worth considering.
But, how can USA Team Handball go about finding those would be converted tight ends and quarterbacks? What sort of recruiting strategy should be implemented? In the next installment I take a closer look at what I like to call “Moneyball” Handball.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to include Joe Story to the list of former college football players.