|Sergey Ivanov and Lorn Mayers are two young national players making an impression. (Berlin Thunder)
As we turn for the home stretch of the NFL Europe League season, a couple of young national players have made a big impression in their first taste of action on the field in their rookie seasons.
During last Saturday's game between the Berlin thunder and the Amsterdam Admirals, defensive tackle Lorn Mayers saw his first action. Mayers, who is still two months short of his 20th birthday, became the youngest player to ever see action in an NFL Europe game. Prior to the kick-off against the Admirals, Thunder defensive coordinator Jim Tomsula told me he was going to put the young Englishman in during the first quarter. I told Jim to, 'make sure he has his helmet with him or he may run out on the field without it he'll be so excited.'
Lorn, who saw his last game action as a member of the Great Britain Lions youth national team against the Düsseldorf Panthers youth team, held his own in the two series he played. Lining up against Craig Setterstrom, Amsterdam's center and a New Orleans Saints allocation who spent time on the Saints practice squad, was a daunting task for the youngster.
"I feel like I have the toughest part behind me, playing in my first game was exciting, now I know how fast it is on game day." said Lorn this week when we spoke.
Good football players are not hard to spot, especially when they are good big guys. NFL Senior Vice President of football operations and development Art Shell noticed the 375 pound Mayers while watching tape of practices from national camp in Tampa. Originally sent home after four days of national camp, he was brought back and took full advantage of the opportunity to learn from the Berlin coaches and compete with the other defensive linemen.
Mayers has been the pet project of not only Tomsula, but Berlin Thunder strength coach Martin Streight. In the time Martin has worked with Lorn, the Englishman has lost 11 pounds of 'baby fat' and worked hard to improve both his strength and his overall fitness level.
"Lorn is a young guy with a lot of potential, not only in the game of football but in strength and conditioning," says Berlin strength coach Streight. "Already he has powerful legs, and his upper body is coming along. He trains with intensity and works to get better. He lifts his upper body twice a week and lower body twice a week. He also does between 25-35 minutes of cardiovascular exercise after each practice. Lorn is new to strength training and has a great area for improvement."
"I have a lot of conditioning work to do, but thanks to Martin I am on my way," said Mayers. "I am learning how to take proper care of myself and with his help I should be able to come back next year and be much stronger and in better shape to play football."
Tomsula, who has coached some outstanding national defensive linemen including former Claymore standouts Tom Tovo and Robert Flickinger as well as current Thunder defensive end and Seattle Seahawks allocation Christian Mohr, had this to say about his young project.
"Being 19 years old has nothing to do with it. He earned his right to play through hard work in practice. Lorn has a long way to go. Having all the potential in the World has nothing to do with it unless you earn it. And he's working really hard."
|19-year old Mayers is a massive proposition at defensive tackle. (Berlin Thunder)
Berlin head coach Rick Lantz knows a good defensive player when he sees one, having developed the likes of James Farrior and Jamie Sharper as a college coach.
"Lorn has been getting better every week, and for the last two weeks he's been getting better every day," said Lantz. "If you take that, along with that fact that Reggie Rhodes and Charles Hill had been banged up, we made the decision to play Lorn in the game.
"Today I had two coaches come to practice. One was a high school coach from New York and the other was the head coach at Albany State in New York. I said to them 'can you imagine playing a 19-year old against an NFL-caliber offensive line?' They couldn't believe it," Lantz added.
Lorn's sudden success has come as a surprise to his former teammates at the London Blitz; after all, he only put on pads for the first time in 2003.
"We are delighted he is doing so well," says Blitz assistant general manager Nick Manning. "Two years ago he turned up and was a big kid in pads. Now you can see he has really developed a passion and great skill in the sport."
Mayers has taken the first steps to having a successful football career, but this grounded young man also knows how much further he has to go to reach his goal.
"The next step is to make sure I have all my assignments down and to try to get some tackles next to my name," he admits. "After that I want to earn a starting spot and make sure I am on the field a lot more."
After weeks of hassles with immigration and paperwork, Russian safety Sergey Ivanov was able to join the Thunder for their Week Five game against the Rhein Fire. Since he was only able to practice a couple of times prior to the trip to Düsseldorf, the young Moscow native saw no action against the fire.
On Berlin's second kick-off of the game against Amsterdam, Berlin special teams coach Wanja Mueller had Sergey lined up ready to cover his first kick in pro football. On his first trip down the field the ball ran away from Sergey, but on the following two, including the crucial last one, the young Russian made both tackles of the Admirals returner.
"It was really great to just get into a ballgame and play," said Ivanov. "I was excited to go out there and play for my team. I don't look at the fact that I am younger than the other guys as an difference at all."
The first tackle was a punishing shot on the returner, and on the second Ivanov had to leave his feet to dive and knock down the ball carrier. Following both plays the young Russian could not contain his enthusiasm, jumping to his feet and pumping his fist to the sky in triumph. Sitting rows away from the action in the press box I could not help but get a big smile on my face thinking of how far Sergey has come in the last year.
We first saw the 6-3, 200-pounder at the European Junior Championships in Moscow. While he definitely was raw and unrefined in his techniques, it was easy to see he possessed the physical characteristics you look for in a safety. In the second game of the tournament, Sergey broke his hand but refused to come out of the game and stayed in to make several more key plays for the defending champion Russian squad. After meeting him in the Russian locker room after the game, I remember telling Tony Allen 'I think we should bring him to national camp, he just might make somebody's team.'
"Sergey had a great training camp in Tampa. He is making progress all of the time and working on special teams. He has an aura of confidence around him," says Lantz about his Russian protégé. "He's ahead of Lorn in football, because in Russia he was exposed to playing under some American coaching staffs, which really helped him a lot. So he has an understanding of the system a little bit more. We really want to take advantage of the development of Sergey, which is why you see him in there during the games."
Berlin defensive backfield coach and ex Houston Oilers cornerback Cris Dishman has been instrumental in the development of the young Russian.
"The great thing about Sergey is that he has no bad habits," said Dishman. "He goes in there, and if he makes a mistake he corrects it immediately. That's the one big thing I really like about the kid, his attitude is right. He may be 20 years old, but he is mature beyond his years."
|Ivanov had a strong performance in training camp. (Berlin Thunder)
With coaching and time spent with the strength development program, Sergey may be competing to make is someone's NFL team in the not too distant future. A devoted fan of the St Louis Rams, Ivanov dreams of one day wearing the blue helmet with the ram horn decal.
"I want to continue to get better as a football player, and I know that means working hard in practice and doing my very best every time I step onto a football field," Ivanov says. "Right now the focus is just trying to take one practice at a time and one game at a time, and learn as much as I can from my coaches and teammates. Of course the NFL is my goal - that's true of any football player of any age coming from any country. It is the ultimate place to test your skills."
Two more examples of how the international player program is working. With continued support for athletes like Ivanov and Mayers, as well as all the other young talented players, in NFL Europe right now, it is only a matter of time before we have them 'playing on Sundays' in the big show. The exciting thing is that at their tender age, they could have a full NFL career ahead of them and play eight or more years among the best in this sport.