European football players overcome obstacles, embrace challenges
Jordan Avissey never expected to be here.
Not in a stadium. Not on the gridiron. And certainly not here — illegally climbing a barbed-wire fence at midnight to work out at the local football field in his home country of France.
With cuts on his hands and tears in his eyes, Avissey persists. He does push-ups, squats and sprints. He imitates the movements of college football players — the same American college football players he spent his teenage years admiring from afar.
He would watch highlight reels on YouTube. He wanted to be one of them.
Two years later, he is.
But while his future UB teammates were playing high school football under the bright lights of the southeastern U.S., Avissey was sneaking onto these local football fields, determined to leave his mark on the game.
As one of three European and nine international players on the UB football team, Avissey leaves his mark at UB Stadium every day. Like German linebacker Fabian Weitz and Swiss offensive lineman Alain Schaerer, Avissey had to overcome obstacles as he navigated his way to the U.S. And like Weitz and Schaerer, his determination has earned him a home in the Queen City.
The football players aren’t the only international athletes to descend on Buffalo; almost every UB team has brought in at least one player from overseas, as UB boasts athletes from 20 different countries. The women’s tennis team has a nine-person roster comprised exclusively of international athletes. The women’s basketball team has eight foreign players, including two women from Germany and one from Nigeria.
International student-athletes serve as a support system for one another, Avissey said. They are also crucial to attracting more international athletes.
“Once you get a couple guys, then you get a chance to get a few more,” said Rob Ianello, the recruiting coordinator for the football team.
According to an Oct. 2019 NCAA report, there has been a 58% increase in the number of international student-athletes in D-I football between 2013 and 2018.
In Europe, the game is still in its early stages. But more kids are gaining exposure to the sport at a younger age.
Not Weitz, though.
He started off playing soccer like most European kids. He aspired to be a fútbol star. But he eventually lost his love for the game. When a friend asked if he wanted to join the local football team, he decided to give it a go.
“I didn’t really know anything about it,” Weitz said. “I just knew that they had helmets and shoulder pads. That’s it.”
Schaerer didn’t see a future in American football, either. He had every intention of becoming a professional bodybuilder and was “skeptical” of the sport, because he feared it would interfere with his workout program and his sculpted 230 lb. frame. And like Weitz, Schaerer admits he didn’t know much about the sport.
“I said, ‘If I play American football I won’t be able to build as much muscle as if I train every day at the gym,’” Schaerer said. “But then I watched college football videos, and I was like, ‘I want to play at that level at some point.’ That’s what made me start to take it seriously.”
Once the three Europeans started to embrace the sport, they realized coming to the U.S. to play at a D-I level would be harder than they thought. There are already the challenges that come with being an international student — language and cultural barriers, adapting to life in a new country. But for football players, there’s a different set of obstacles, including learning how to overcome barriers while also getting to know and above all, communicating with your teammates.
Luckily for these players, there’s an existing network of people that are willing to help make the transition easier.
Their stories are as much about them as they are about their support system — scouts, coaches, support staff, family members, teammates.
“I think we’re always looking for an edge,” Ianello said. “We’re always looking for someone who can help our program. Whether they’re from New Jersey or Montreal or Tampa or Québec, we’re going to evaluate those guys, and if they’re a fit for our program and the stars align, then we’re going to do everything we can to have those guys.”
‘I was overlooked in high school’
In his teenage years, Avissey chased his dreams all the way to Canada, where he played football in south-central Québec. Without his family, he moved to a brand-new high school, in a brand-new country. While he was often homesick, he understood the deeper reason behind his travels: he was giving the sport all he had.
“Sometimes, you have to make a move,” Avissey said. “That’s a lifetime decision. I felt like that’s an opportunity, a chance I was looking for. I told my family I have a chance to play football overseas. That’s it.”
Avissey isn’t alone in making sacrifices.
Schaerer didn’t have any D-I offers coming out of high school, so he committed to the New Mexico Military Institute, a junior college located in the southeastern part of the state.
He had little interest in joining a military institution, but he wanted to play football at the collegiate level. So he chose to put his pride aside.
“I thought it was only formations and uniforms before I got there, and that’s it,” Schaerer said. “But then I got there, and it’s like, ‘Where the f—k am I?’ I stayed there because it was my only chance to play under scholarship.”
The military institute was “24/7 military,” according to Schaerer. There was a merit system. And, as he remembers, “you get smoked if you do something bad.”
But he still persisted. For football.
“The most difficult thing was the school itself, not the states,” Schaerer said.
For all three players, the biggest challenge in playing at the college level was finding a school willing to take a chance on them.
Unlike their peers in the U.S., international student-athletes have limited opportunities on the recruiting trail. They don’t have access to the on-site football camps or in-person coaching evaluations that American high school students receive.
What they need is a champion. Someone to admire.
Avissey and Weitz found that in Brandon Collier.
Collier is a hulking Cleveland native with short black dreadlocks, stubble on his chin and broad shoulders. He speaks softly but talks confidently about his accomplishments — team captain at UMass, defensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles, two-year CFL veteran.
In 2017, Collier founded PPI Recruits, a recruiting database that helps connect foreign high schoolers to prospective Division-I schools.
Avissey was drawn to Collier in October 2018. He seemed to understand Avissey’s recruiting concerns on a personal level, likely because Collier went through the same struggles at Avissey’s age.
As a high school senior, Collier was looking for a home at the Division-I level. But while some high school seniors have access to a network of recruiting professionals, Collier wasn’t so lucky.
He had to recruit on his own. He learned how to call coaches and make his own highlight reels. He made a habit of waking up at 2 a.m. to make promotional tapes. He would send them out in the mail, using all the money he had.
It’s for that reason Collier decided to travel overseas and help others do the same after his playing career. According to PPI’s website, “European clubs need to be made aware that scholarships are attainable, and NCAA programs need to be made aware of the significant talent in Europe.”
Avissey saw the successes of PPI Recruits and noted that Collier had strong relations with the Buffalo coaching staff. He was glad to see that Buffalo already had players from Montreal on its roster. He also felt at home in Buffalo, which in many ways mirrors some of its neighboring cities to the north.
During the winter of 2018-19, he visited the Queen City. Shortly after, he made it official –– he would be attending UB.
The Queen City is culturally similar to Canada: pleasant, friendly people who embrace the cold climate and play the same sports.
“He was in tears about getting an opportunity,” Collier said about Avissey. “He saw what I was doing with kids, and the guy was in tears.”
‘You’ve gotta think outside the box’
For the Bulls, recruiting international prospects isn’t as much of a choice as it is a necessity.
Playing at the hypercompetitive Division-I level, the Bulls need every competitive edge they can get, which means looking for players in places where other — often larger — programs aren’t looking.
Since teams like UB can only offer 85 full-ride scholarships, they usually look for players who can make a more immediate impact, but international prospects often play for shorter periods of time before college. The Bulls have proven to be an exception.
“Maybe you can find a guy you feel like you can develop, who has a good skill set, who top-rated Power Five schools might not take because it will take him longer to develop, and you can turn into something good,” Ianello said. “That’s what our program is — to find those guys and help them develop into good football players.”
Collier says UB’s drive is a result of playing in the shadow of larger programs.
“They play in a lower level in Division I, so you kind of have to take chances on kids that have this opportunity, because you’re not Alabama or Clemson,” Collier said. “So you’ve gotta think outside the box recruiting and that’s what Buffalo is doing.”
Just as the French and Canadian athletes at UB helped Avissey ease into his surroundings, they also helped UB recruit other international players, serving as a foundation for recruiting. The Great White North, in particular, is a hotbed for UB football because it shares a border with the Queen City. “When you think Buffalo, you think Canada,” Avissey said prior to the 2019 season.
Ianello credits people like Collier for making international prospects more accessible for North American teams.
“There’s more people playing football internationally now, there’s good quality football in some parts,” he said. “And there are a couple of organizations out there who help find European players — like [Weitz] and [Avissey]. They help you find them and evaluate them.”
‘It was pretty hard at first’
For Avissey, familiarity is everything. He grew up in a French-speaking household and attended high school in the French-speaking province of Québec. To be able to play football at UB, a school that borders Canada and already has a number of French-speaking players, means everything to him.
“It’s a treat to be with people who have the same background as me — they come from the same place, I can relate to them,” Avissey said.
Safety Dev Lamour, offensive lineman Tomas Jack-Kurdyla and tight end Julien Bourassa all hail from Québec. And men’s basketball center Josh Mballa is from France, making it an easier transition for Avissey.
Like the other two Europeans, Avissey is sometimes overwhelmed in his new country. But he stresses the importance of focusing on the task at hand.
“I know why I am here,” Avissey said. “I stay focused. Sometimes, it’s tough when there’s family gatherings — things like Thanksgiving and Christmas. But you just have to stay strong mentally. Sometimes it’s rough, but I have support here.”
Weitz admits that he sometimes feels homesick. But he has made a home for himself in the Queen City, has a support system and has shared similar experiences with many other international student-athletes.
“I have two homes: I have my home in Cologne, Germany and my home in Buffalo,” Weitz said.
Avissey says the key to being comfortable as an international student-athlete is to always remember the deeper reason behind it all.
“Sometimes, you just have to jump into the water,” Avissey said. “You have to put your whole body into it. If you keep in your mind where you’re from, you’ll never make it. So when I got here, I said, ‘Okay, so now I’m here, I’m settled down. I’m building my roots here.’ I have started feeling at home.”
Justin Weiss is the senior sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com.