A former Unicorn and some Vikings walk into the Mall of America. Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, right? Actually, this happened a couple months ago when Moritz Boehringer and a few of his Minnesota Vikings teammates went shopping. Boehringer, formerly of the German Football League's Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns, had never seen anything quite like this strange, colossal place. (It's so enormous that you could fit seven Yankee Stadiums inside.) He was slightly overwhelmed, as anyone from a town without a mall might be, but he's facing an even greater challenge than navigating that monstrosity of a building: competing in the National Football League.
In April, despite having only four years of experience with the game, Boehringer became the first international player from a European league to make the jump directly to the NFL. If the 22-year-old does make the roster for his favorite professional team, he will have forged a new path to the NFL while helping to globally popularize America's favorite sport.
A WHOLE NEW GAME
Boehringer grew up in Aalen, Germany. He tried soccer, and from an early age he loved competition and challenges. "Even if I was just playing games with my family," he recalls, "I couldn't lose." He also enjoyed math, deciding to study mechanical engineering at Aalen University.
When he was 17 years old, Boehringer made a discovery that would change his life. He was watching YouTube videos when a recommended clip caught his attention. Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson appeared on the screen, shedding defenders and bolting across a field.
Because American football isn't played in most countries around the world, Boehringer had no idea what he was watching. But mesmerized by the speed and size of the people wearing helmets, he became determined to find out. Shortly after the YouTube introduction, Boehringer and some friends gathered in a park to try to play American football.
Within a year, Boehringer joined a club team about 30 miles from his home, and eventually his highlight tape was passed on to a coach with the Unicorns. In 2015, Boehringer was invited to join the team. He was named GFL Rookie of the Year after finishing the season with 70 receptions for 1,461 yards and 16 touchdowns in 14 games.
Though the level of play in the league was comparable to the NCAA's Division III, Boehringer's accomplishments were impressive enough to catch the eye of Aden Durde, a former NFL and NFL Europe linebacker. Durde had been working to find international players who could come to the U.S. to play and help raise interest in the sport abroad. Durde contacted Boehringer through Facebook and then trained him for 12 weeks. The former linebacker knew that Boehringer would need exposure to NFL scouts, so Durde planned to fly him to the U.S. for a chance to workout at Florida Atlantic University's pro day. First, Boehringer needed to get in a little prep work.
COMING TO AMERICA
For the last 14 years, Tony Villani has trained NFL veterans and hopefuls at XPE Sports Academy in Boca Raton, Florida. In February, he spent seven long days in Indianapolis watching top college players work out at the NFL combine.
Durde persuaded an exhausted Villani to meet Boehringer, who had just arrived from overseas. Intrigued by the 6'4", 227-pounder's frame, Villani agreed to watch the wide receiver run a 40-yard dash. He was floored. "I've worked with lots of great receivers, and his freakish athletic ability resembled Randy Moss," Villani says. "Just his pure size, natural speed, and explosion. And then he ran routes and he was a natural at that too."
Villani agreed to train Boehringer. Over the next several weeks the newcomer continued to impress Villani with his abilities and especially his drive, which Villani says exceeded that of most American players. In the days leading up to FAU's pro day, Villani had to prevent Boehringer from working out in order to keep him well-rested for the rigorous days ahead.
Still, Boehringer wasn't bored by the training; he was inspired. "I was pretty much born with this [work ethic], and I just want to get better every day," Boehringer says. "[Training is] what I love to do. I have to catch up on a lot of things. I have to use all the time to get better."
Boehringer also spent time working with Washington Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garçon, an eight-year NFL veteran who started playing football as a junior in high school. Garçon was familiar with the trials that accompany picking up the sport late.
"It can be an advantage or a disadvantage," Garçon says. "When you're introduced early, you can grow to dislike it, but you know the basic fundamentals of it. When you're taught late, you get used to doing things a certain way, which makes it uncomfortable or harder to learn. That can be frustrating."
Boehringer wasn't concerned. "There was no reason to be nervous," he says. "When I'm relaxed I perform better. I don't usually get nervous. I pretty much knew what I can do, so I just showed what I'm capable of."
Boehringer shone in his pro day workout. He ran a 4.43 40-yard dash and recorded a 39-inch vertical jump. What was perhaps most impressive was his time in a complicated three-cone drill: 6.65 seconds, the same time top Ohio State prospect Braxton Miller had turned in a few days earlier at the combine.
Word spread about Boehringer's pro day performance, and on the third day of the NFL draft, his phone rang. A few minutes later, proudly sporting a purple Minnesota Vikings hat, he heard his name called officially. He had become the first player drafted straight from a European league. A few days later, Boehringer signed a four-year contract.
Boehringer's goals for 2016 are simple: make the team and keep improving. Garçon says the rookie's biggest challenges, not unlike other first-year players, will be adjusting to the speed and physicality of the pro game. "He's big and fast, so he can definitely get used to that part," Garçon says. "It depends on how he learns and grows from it all. He's going to have to get used to doing what coaches are asking of him and then being able to adjust on the fly."
The fact that he will be learning the intricacies of the game from coaches at the highest level, however, could be an advantage, even if many other players have been training for most of their lives.
"He hasn't been touched by a [college or pro] wide receiver coach and hasn't been taught yet," Villani says, "but that's what makes him special."
Navigating the Mall of America seems easy compared with what Boehringer will face when he walks into his first NFL stadium filled with crazed fans.
"He's come to a different country, but the NFL football world is an entirely different environment within our country," Villani says.
The former engineering student is looking forward to the challenges ahead and hopes to one day be to the NFL what the German-born Dallas Mavericks player Dirk Nowitzki has been to the NBA.
"It's a really cool game," Boehringer says. "I think it has the potential to be a success internationally."
Photos: Jim Mone/AP (Vikings), Manfred Löffler/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP (European League), Ben Liebenberg/AP (draft)