UConn's Knappe leaves Denmark, becomes American football star
Storrs — His teammates call him Thor and UConn is counting on junior Andreas Knappe to be a hammer on the offensive line this season.
The 6-foot-8, 310-pound tackle, who sports a bushy reddish-blonde beard and flowing hair, is actually from Silkeborg, Denmark.
He grew up playing team handball — an Olympic sport that looks like a cross between basketball and soccer — and was a world-class archer on the Danish junior national team.
"They were training me to see if I could get to go to the Olympics or the World Championships or something like that," he said Tuesday during the annual American Athletic Conference's media day in Newport, R.I. "I got tired of it. I grew out of it, I guess, because I started to have a lot of growing pains and I was young."
He didn't start playing American football until he was 18-years old, and it was a case of love at first snap, he said.
"My best friend joined a football team in my town, and said to me, "You should come, this is great,'" Knappe said.
After winning the "Mermaid Bowl" as a member of the Triangle Razorbacks of the Danish American Football Federation, Knappe bought a helmet and a set of pads. He left with a scout in 2012 to attend some football camps in America, hoping to find a place to play.
"It was blind faith," said Mike Cummings, UConn's offensive line coach. "Imagine you are 18 years old and someone tells you, "Go over to Denmark, get the gear and start playing team handball, because you like the sport. It's not happening."
But it did happen for Knappe, who caught the eye of former coach Paul Pasqualoni's staff at UConn.
Former roommate Tim Willman, now a law school student at the University of Maryland, said he and other teammates knew right away they were dealing with a rare talent.
"My first impression was, 'Wow this is a big, big guy," Willman said. "He was raw, but he had this amazing strength and athletic ability that just needed to be molded."
Knappe was placed on the defensive line, and was redshirted his first season. Eventually, coaches moved him to offense and last year he worked his way into the starting lineup.
UConn offensive coordinator Frank Verducci said Knappe still has a lot to learn about football. But he has impressed coaches with his ability to pick up concepts quickly and then work relentlessly to perfect them.
"We like guys who compete in everything they do," said. "We love three sport athletes. Now, football, archery and team handball are not usually the three sports. But he's unique, that's for sure."
Off the field, Knappe (pronounced Kah-NAPP-ee) has made an even bigger impression. Willman got him involved in the Goal Line Project, a charity in which college student mentor middle school athletes. Knappe spends a lot of time with inner-city kids in Hartford, talking to them about ethics and life choices.
"Because you're a Husky, they listen," he said.
His efforts have landed Knappe on the 2015 Watch List for the Wuerffel Trophy, which is awarded to the FBS player that best combines community service with athletic and academic achievement. He's also been nominated for 2015 Allstate American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team.
UConn coach Bob Diaco said Knappe is exactly the type of athlete he wants as the face of his young program, which endured a 2-10 season during his inaugural year.
"He has a rare combination of tough gentleman," Diaco said. "He has a rare combination of aggressive intelligence. He has some things that don't normally blend together, that blend together nicely for him."
Knappe has expanded his original dream of playing in the United States to playing in the NFL and said he has no plans to go back to the bow and arrow.
"I think that ship has sailed for me," he said. "I know a couple of people who went to the Olympics and I know a couple of world champs in archery from Denmark. I'm tremendously proud of them and happy for them, but I chose a little bit different pathway."