(Photo Courtesy: UNLV Athletics)
It’s no secret that small school FBS football programs are sometimes forced to go to extreme lengths, and to extremely strange places to find recruits. Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State may be able to select a few, hand-picked players to offer scholarships to every winter, but coaches in the Mountain West, MAC and Sun Belt aren’t nearly as lucky. To find success, they need to look under every rock and comb over every patchy high school and junior college field across the country to find their next superstar.
It’s led to some pretty interesting recruiting pipelines through the years, but none may be more unique than what’s going on at UNLV right now. There, head coach Bobby Hauck will rely on a couple of Finns to bolster his starting lineup this coming fall.
Yes, you read that correctly.
“Finns.” As in players born in Finland, a small Scandinavian country known more for producing timber than elite athletes, and where football is still believed to be a sport that is played with, well, one’s feet.
Only entering the 2013 season there’s a very good chance that a pair of Finns could infiltrate UNLV’s starting lineup. Junior college transfer (and Helsinki, Finland native) C.J. Backlund arrives to bolster the Rebels’ offensive line, where he’ll be joined by countryman and high school friend Max Ehlert, a key back-up linebacker who began his UNLV last fall.
And it’s there, with Ehlert where we pick up this story today.
Because in the sport of college football, a land full of countless bizarre recruiting stories, Max Ehlert might have the strangest one of them all.
From a Finn city, to Sin City, there is no player in the country who had a path to FBS football quite like Ehlert did.
Ehlert was a natural athlete from birth, but like so many kids who grow up in Finland, a country where temperatures can reach -30 degrees in the winter, he spent his youth playing hockey. At the time, American football was the furthest thing from Ehlert’s mind; he didn’t see his first game until shortly before his 14th birthday, when the Buccaneers beat the Raiders in the Super Bowl.
And even after watching that game, it would still be a few years before he picked up the sport, even on a recreational level. At around the age of 15, Ehlert’s interest in hockey waned and he began looking for another passion to pursue. He initially tried boxing, but missed the camaraderie and teamwork that hockey had previously provided.
That’s when the sport of football came to Ehlert, much more than he went to it.
A friend’s dad decided to start a Pee Wee youth football league and Ehlert signed up, despite not knowing anything about the game, including the rules. Despite those “minor” setbacks, Ehlert enjoyed the sport from the beginning. For one, it was a natural outlet for his aggression, not to mention that football players looked pretty damn cool, too.
“I didn’t really know much about the game,” Ehlert confessed about his early days in the sport. “I knew that you get to hit and wear pretty cool gear like a Gladiator. So that was an easy sell.”
An easy sell it was, even if the conditions of Ehlert’s early football career were less than ideal. Because of an overall lack of interest from the kids in the area, the team only practiced and played no games, and as an emerging sport with little support from the community, anyone who wanted to participate was forced to pay for all their own equipment, uniforms and other expenses.
Then there were the practice conditions, which were, umm, less than ideal.
“Practice would start in January,” Ehlert said. “We would have practice where we would meet on a snow covered parking lot and there would be five guys and all we would do is hit each other and then go home.”
But as Ehlert grew into the game, so too did his fascination by it. By the time he turned 16, Ehlert was part of a Finnish Junior National Team which won that year’s Nordic Championships, and a year later the same club advanced to the European Championships, where the top teams and players from across the continent competed (Included in that group was a little known German defensive end named Bjoern Werner, who would eventually go on to be a first round pick of the Indianapolis Colts in this past NFL Draft).
As the years progressed, Ehlert remained with the Junior National Team, and it was at that point where he met a former wide receiver from Texas Tech named Robert Johnson, who became Ehlert’s first real mentor in the sport. Johnson, a two-time All-Big XII performer in Lubbock, decided to continue his career in Europe, and it was during his time in Finland where he met Ehlert and his young teammates.
There, he taught them not only the intricacies of the sport, but also a previously unknown route (at least to the Finns) on how to get noticed by American coaches and earn a Division I scholarship. It was via the magical world of junior colleges.
Still, the idea of playing American football seemed far-fetched to Ehlert, who was admittedly trying to figure out what his next big life move would be. At 19-years-old he had recently finished a military obligation with the Finnish government, and was considering a career in medicine.
“I was studying for an entrance exam for the medical university in Finland,” Ehlert said. “Life was set up pretty nicely at that point.”
Still, Johnson pushed and prodded his young mentees, and it eventually led Ehlert and his friend Janne Lehtinen (the boy whose father had started the original Pee Wee league) to send out highlight tapes to pretty much any school they could find. The pair needed just one coach to give them an opportunity, and found it in the form of Danny Calcagno, head coach at Chabot College in California.
At the time, Calcagno didn’t know what the competition in Finland was like. But with no scholarship money and unlimited roster spots, he had no problem taking a chance on a couple of kids who were willing to take a chance on themselves, and move halfway across the world to fulfill their football dreams.
“We had (Janne’s) tape,” Calcagno said. “We told him if he was willing to come over here and do all the stuff necessary, we would take him.”
(Photo Courtesy: UNLV Athletics)
Lehtinen took Calcagno up on the opportunity and flew to California in the winter of 2010, but with fewer financial resources, Ehlert initially decided to stay behind. That changed just a few short weeks later, when spring practice started at Chabot and Lehtinen sent his first reports back from the United States.
Lehtinen’s message to his buddy was loud and clear: “Dude, you’re good enough to play at this level. Figure out a way to make it work and get your butt over here!”
After some finagling and a couple concessions on his part, Ehlert made it happen.
“I sat down with my parents and looked over the money situation,” Ehlert said. “I took out some loans, took my savings and made a deal with my friend here: I would rent his couch. I wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise.”
And just like that, Max Ehlert’s journey to the United States was underway.
His journey to a Division I scholarship had hardly begun, however.
Ehlert landed on the California coast in the summer of 2010 and to a very stark and sudden realization: He wasn’t in Finland anymore.
“That kind of dawned on me,” Ehlert said about his first “Welcome to America” moment. “The first couple months its summer, you’re in California. You’re wearing sunglasses, it’s warm... the Pacific Ocean is so nice.”
But as nice as things were away from football, it took a while for Ehlert to adjust to the American game when practice started that fall. Ehlert began his career at safety, and although he was a solidly built 190 lbs., was hardly a guy that jumped off the screen on film.
“He wasn’t like one of those ‘Oh my God, this guy is running a 4.4 and is just a stud,’ guys” Calcagno said of his new recruit.
But despite his early struggles, Ehlert had made a promise to himself to earn a Division I scholarship when he came to America, and it was a commitment he planned on keeping. It led to a maniacal workout plan that offseason, one in which Ehlert lifted with the football team to gain weight, ran with the track team to gain speed and worked out on his own when everyone else went home.
To this day, Calcagno, who had worked with current Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Dennis Dixon at the high school level and many more Division I athletes while in junior college, has never seen anyone put in work like Ehlert did that off-season.
“We’ve sent guys to University of Missouri, Kentucky, Boise State, Arizona State,” Calcagno said of Chabot’s ability to turn out Division I football talent. “I have a receiver who is playing for the Bills now, Steve Johnson. I don’t think I’ve ever had a guy work as hard as Max did.”
And for Ehlert it all came together when he returned to the field that fall. With close to 25 lbs. of added muscle, Ehlert moved from safety to linebacker, and found a natural home knocking heads in the tackle box. He was named All-Conference and All-Region that season and led Chabot in tackles, sacks and forced fumbles.
It was enough to impress everyone.
Well, everyone except Division I college coaches, that is.
That’s because while his play caught the attention of opposing coaches and players, recruiters from FBS schools all told Ehlert the same thing: His skills were enough to get him a scholarship, but his size was enough to cause concern. If Ehlert were 6’2, he could play anywhere in the country. But at 5’10 he was better suited as a preferred walk-on, someone who would have the opportunity to earn a scholarship after a semester or a year.
For Ehlert, the option was unacceptable. He had bills to pay. More importantly, his pride was at stake too. He said no to every single walk-on offer.
“I’m here to play football at the highest level,” Ehlert said. “And if it’s D-II it’s not the highest level anymore. I might as well go back home.”
And as the months progressed and winter rolled into spring, it began to look more and more like Ehlert’s future might be back in Finland. Signing Day 2012 came and went, and although more schools came by, he continued to get the same message as before. FBS schools wouldn’t offer him a scholarship, FCS and DII schools could only pay partial money, and even a chance to enroll at Dartmouth (remember, Ehlert had planned on applying to med school if he stayed in Finland) went up in smoke when the school refused to admit an athlete from junior college.
Finally, Ehlert got his big break when UNLV assistant Tim Hundley swung through spring practice at Chabot one day looking for an extra linebacker. Ehlert didn’t immediately jump out to Hundley as the linebacker he was looking for, in large part because Ehlert wasn’t even in pads; he had simply stopped by practice that day to help coach the younger linebackers.
Still, Ehlert made it a point to go over to introduce himself, and to follow-up by sending his game film a few days later.
And a few days after that, Ehlert got the call he’d be waiting for all winter long. UNLV head coach Bobby Hauck was on the other line, and literally told Ehlert all he had to do was “say the word” and he had a scholarship offer.
Ehlert literally told Hauck “the word,” and just like that, he was a scholarship, Division I football player.
Ehlert accepted UNLV’s offer in mid-April, nearly two months after the rest of the class of 2012 had signed their Letters of Intent.
He also accepted it just weeks before he was set to leave Chabot, head home to Finland and give up football for good.
The ironic part about Max Ehlert’s arrival at UNLV in the summer of 2012 was that in pursuit of a Division I scholarship, it was literally the only FBS football school that he had no interest in attending.
Ehlert had visited Las Vegas with Backlund in the summer of 2011, and came away overwhelmed by the city. And not even for the reasons you think.
“C.J. and I were walking down the strip at like 2 a.m.,” Ehlert recalled of his first trip to Sin City. “And I was sweating like a mother! I remember telling him, ‘If there’s one school I’m not going to, it’s UNLV!’”
Yet when Ehlert did arrive in August, his early days in Las Vegas were quite similar to those at Chabot. By the time he got to campus the installs on defense had already been made, and a hamstring injury only slowed his development in fall camp.
Ehlert was struggling. And it was at that point in which the mature 23-year-old elected to make an unusual decision: He felt the need to apologize to UNLV head coach Bobby Hauck.
“I went up to coach at like Week 3 and told him ‘I know you haven’t gotten what you gave me the scholarship for,” Ehlert said. “But I’ll get there.”
Over the next few weeks Ehlert did get there, and by the middle of the season was a key reserve on an improving Rebels’ defense. Ehlert finished his first year at UNLV with 29 total tackles, including a five tackle, 1.5 TFL performance against No. 22 Boise State on October 20.
Most of all, he kept word to Coach Hauck. Ehlert had earned his scholarship.
“He improved drastically throughout last season,” Hauck said about Ehlert.
Entering his senior year, Ehlert is embracing his time at the school and taking advantage of all the opportunities provided to him both on and off the field. The kid who at one point considered going to med school in Finland has switched his focus to a major in Hotel Management, in large part because located smack-dab in the middle of Las Vegas, UNLV has one of the best programs in the country.
Like when he elected to pursue a Division I scholarship, Ehlert decided that if he was going to do something, he was going to do it to the best of his abilities.
“I wanted to make the most of the experience not only football-wise but also academically,” Ehlert said. “It’s the best degree you can get from the school.”
It also means that when Ehlert gets out of school he will have a number of different opportunities provided to him. He enjoys the aspects of teamwork and camaraderie found in his major (which he finds similar to being on a football team) and could get a job either in Las Vegas, or conceivably anywhere in the world once he completes his degree. Ehlert is also considering the idea of pursuing a Master’s degree while working as a graduate assistant with the football program.
Then there is of course a future in professional football.
“We’ll see,” Ehlert humbly said when asked about the idea of being the first Finn to ever make an NFL roster and play in a professional game.
Admittedly, Ehlert knows any NFL dreams are a long-shot.
Then again, that’s what people once said about his Division I college football dreams as well.
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