This import fluent in football

Preps: The NFL Scholars program brought Sergeii Berzhniuk from Germany to Cardinal Gibbons

now he aims for college and pro careers.

October 25, 1999|By Rupen Fofaria | Rupen Fofaria,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As far as football aspirations and accomplishments go, 19-year-old Sergeii Berzhniuk hasn't done much by design. Though at 6 feet 2, 240 pounds it seems only natural he's a football player, he has taken an untraditional route to the sport.

He happened to be working out in a weight room in Dusseldorf, his hometown in Germany, when he bumped into someone from the Dusseldorf Panthers. The gentleman took one look at the kid and asked him to play football.

"Sure, why not?" Berzhniuk said. "It sounds like fun."

Just like that, he chose a career path.

The Panthers are part of an amateur football league from which NFL Europe draws players. German high schools don't field football teams, so those interested in the sport join teams along with adults, and play for their town. Berzhniuk and his Panthers, with whom he has spent his short three-year football career, are the reigning champions in Germany.

Now, he is in Baltimore's back yard chasing another goal: to play college football in the United States. His success abroad caught the attention of a football foreign-exchange program of sorts, and now the Ukrainian-born, German-bred football talent is protecting the Cardinal Gibbons quarterback on offense and striking fear in opponents' quarterbacks on defense.

But that move wasn't planned, either. Berzhniuk never applied to the NFL Scholars program that brings European football players to America to show them how football is played here. Berzhniuk's talents and excellence in the classroom prompted the program to seek him. He simply realized opportunity was knocking again, and answered the call.

"It was not really a hard decision," he said. "It is tough to leave your home and mom and friends. But I knew this was a good thing for me and I had to go."

Berzhniuk, who is fluent in Russian and German, is having some trouble with English. He has made strides from mimicry and pointing at objects, but he still often finds himself repeating sentences and searching for words.

Football, though, is a universal language, and he has been fluent on the field. He has 48 solo tackles and 11 sacks in eight games with Gibbons (3-5), and has attracted the attention of Penn State, Florida State and Maryland.

"The first time I saw Sergeii, I said he was a Division I college football player," Cardinal Gibbons coach Scott Ripley said. "He has the body for it, that's for sure. And I've come to see him display the skill, too.

"We're using him on offensive and defensive line because that's where our needs are -- and he's doing great. But he's a natural linebacker, so just wait and see how he does when he moves to his natural position."

It's more than quick feet and a powerful body (Berzhniuk bench-presses 385 pounds, squats 500 and runs the 40 in 4.5 seconds) that entice Ripley. He sees instinct and determination, too. In 10 years of coaching, Ripley says, he's never seen anyone as good as Berzhniuk.

"His intensity in games and practice is amazing," Ripley said. "When he came here the first week and we saw him hitting -- he told us the first day his goal was to play college football and then go pro. Well, if he continues at the pace he's going, he'll make it."

If he does play in college, he will continue a tradition the NFL Scholars program wants to keep alive. The program began last year with two players. This year, the number has grown to eight and should increase again next year.

When an athlete makes the college ranks, he is encouraged to stay. After that, if he can turn pro he will. If not, he is asked to go back to Europe and teach American football to others.

Last year, one athlete was sent to Florida and accepted a scholarship to Tennessee. The other player was right here at Mount St. Joseph playing for Mike Working, whose ties with NFL Europe are responsible for the program sending athletes to Baltimore.

Berzhniuk is expected to become the next European prospect to go to college. Because his education in Germany already covers most of his American education, Berzhniuk is allowed to leave for college after this year. He does, however, have the option of staying in school one more year -- mainly to master English. That doesn't sound likely, though, because he's itching to get to college.

He resides with Wayne and Donna Murphy, who have four sons of their own -- two who go to school with Berzhniuk. Because he is far from home, he considers them family and is considering Maryland as an option to stay close to them.

"If I stay focused," he said, "I might make it happen and stay for college. It is my dream."

His focus is quite evident. He smiles when he admits his amazement at how large U.S. grocery stores are and how much food is packed in them. But the smile fades faster than it takes him to break through an offensive line when the subject returns to football.

Now, his face is stone cold, his words well-chosen and his speech slowed so he can get every word right. Even as he sits at this table in a conference room at Cardinal Gibbons, more than 400 yards away from the field, the very mention of the word football sparks his intensity and determination.

"Everyone can play football," he says, shrugging off any hint of praise. "You just have to believe you can do it. I think I can do it. I believe it, too. My mom says it is a bad soldier who doesn't want to be general. So I work hard to be the best.

"I remember my mom was crying at the airport. She misses me very much. It's a mom, you know. I miss Mom very much, too. But I know what I have to do here. I have goals. I have aims. I want to reach them."

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