Houston Texans' Dieter Eiselen's journey from rugby in South Africa to being starstruck by Tom Brady

Houston Texans center Dieter Eiselen was raised on rugby fields in South Africa, before moving to the US after high school to try American football. Supplied/NFL

When Houston Texans center Dieter Eiselen made a carefully timed switch from rugby and weightlifting to American football at the end of his high school career, he never dreamed that he would be here today, in his fourth year as an NFL player.

Eiselen played top level rugby at the prestigious Paul Roos High School just outside Cape Town, with the likes of international stars Herschel Jantjies and Edwill van der Merwe, and initially only planned on playing Yale football secondary to his education.

Instead, he became a 2× First-team All-Ivy League player with Yale Bulldogs, made 11 appearances in the NFL for the Chicago Bears, and he has followed that up by breaking into the Texans team this season after initially being on the practice squad.

"Rugby really helped me just lay down the framework for my athletic ability and I'm really grateful for that," Eiselen told ESPN of his development.

"I definitely didn't think that I would be going into my fourth year in the NFL when I first came over to the US. I just came over with the intent of going to play college football and get a good degree, but now being fortunate enough to go into my fourth year in the NFL is something I'm really grateful for."

Eiselen ended up in American football via weightlifting largely because he felt that his high school rugby career was not progressing quickly enough, and he saw his dream of playing for the World Cup-winning Springboks fading fast.

He explained: "I was born and raised in Pretoria and moved down to Stellenbosch when I was 14 and went to Paul Roos [one of the top rugby high schools in the world].

"I grew up playing rugby like everybody else did and dreamt of becoming a Springbok rugby player like everybody else did, but my calling in the United States took me on a different path.

"I just felt like I wasn't progressing as quickly as I should have. I played with guys who were really good, like Herschel Jantjies and Edwill van der Merwe, who were in my same grade at Paul Roos.

"I just felt that I wasn't progressing as fast as I needed to in order to get into the system that is put in place in South Africa for rugby players to get professional contracts and get picked up by provincial sides and do all that.

"We did Olympic weightlifting as part of the strength and conditioning program at Paul Roos and I really enjoyed it a lot and found that I had a natural affinity for it, so I started competing.

"Once I could see that my path was not going to be rugby, I just focused on that sport just because I enjoyed it a lot and found that I had a natural talent for it.

"It helped me a lot with football, I'd say, as well - building up my strength, power and explosiveness, so I'm happy that I did that too."

Texans' Eiselen: NFL has room for growth in South Africa

Houston Texans center Dieter Eiselen says South Africa has plenty of rugby players who could make the switch if the game is developed there.

Eiselen believes that South Africa has the potential to produce top NFL talent, but one obstacle is that young talent might be discouraged from trying sports other than rugby.

He said: "I really commend [former New York Giants star] Osi Umenyiora for all the work that he's done [scouting talent in Africa]. I've collaborated with him to get those efforts going in South Africa as well.

"The more football can expand its footprint, the better it will be - to make it more of a global sport. I think there are a lot of athletes everywhere - especially within Africa - if they are given the opportunity to play the sport, that can do really, really well.

"It's just about giving people an opportunity. They might be great players, but they themselves don't even know it necessarily, so I'm really excited to see this sport grow even more."

"I really hope [it booms in South Africa]. I think that it will take some time. I think the obstacle to that would be some people that might see it as an obstacle to rugby and wouldn't want players who are good rugby players to defect to football.

"There's definitely crossover in terms of guys who might be good rugby players and football players, but maybe there are guys who might not be good rugby players but they may be great football players. Just making the sport available to everyone is really, really important."

Eiselen started watching American football in his late teens and became increasingly immersed, his curiosity building: "At 16, I just started watching it loosely as a hobby. I remember staying up into the early mornings, trying to watch those games.

"I would pick out college games and professional games. I usually would pick out the prime time games and I would watch them after they came out and download them, so that I didn't have to stay up until 3 or 4 [AM] to watch them in South Africa.

"I loved watching it, loved watching the atmosphere of some of those games - just the physicality of the sport and how exciting it was. When it came time to apply for universities in South Africa, there wasn't really a specific course or direction that I really saw myself pursuing.

"I probably would have ended up studying accounting or something, but I felt like that was just settling, and I also felt that I had size and strength and speed for my size, and I felt like I had the ability to do this [move to the US for football], so why not just go?

"Rather [that than] just applying to a course back home and always wondering what could have been if I just tried. That's what really motivated me to try to find a way over to the States."

Eiselen's leap of faith paid off, as his journey took him to Yale after a year at Choate Rosemary Hall, but he made it all happen without much outside help... except for a friend holding a camera while he did a makeshift Combine in his back yard.

In his final year of high school, he attended a football camp in Washington DC, and after just four days he had a few colleges offering him walk-on places. But he thought that if four days could get him a walk on spot, what could a whole year of training get him?

He said of the camp: "I really had no idea what I was doing. I was just trying to soak up as much as I could and learn about techniques and learn from all the other players and the coaches who were there from surrounding universities.

"Some of the colleges there offered me walk-on scholarships and I knew that if I could achieve that in a few days without really knowing what I was doing, then I could do a lot better if I had time to develop more as a player, so I wanted to find an avenue to play without using eligibility.

"I did a ton of research once I came back home and I was really motivated to find a way to do this. I emailed 50 head coaches from all these different programs that had these postgraduate programs.

"I just sent them a long email outlining who I was, how big I am, how strong I was, what my goals were, and I filmed myself doing a mini-combine. I had a friend filming me, showing me around the 40-yard dash and doing agility drills and all that, just to show them that I can move at the size that I was.

"I essentially settled on this school called Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, where I did this one-year postgraduate program. That was my first time playing football and I got recruited there to go play at Yale."

After exceeding even his own expectations at college, where he was a key component in two Ivy League Football Championship triumphs for the Yale Bulldogs, Eiselen was signed by the Chicago Bears in 2020.

The journey into the team at the Bears was not smooth sailing by any means, but through years spent waiting his turn to become a regular player, there were special moments which reminded him why it was worth staying patient.

He said of one such moment: "My second year, we were playing down in Tampa and that was when Tom Brady was still there and I was dressed in that game and playing on special teams and to be on the same field that he was and to see him in person was pretty surreal - one of the best players ever.

"It felt really crazy to me. I came all the way from South Africa and here I am sharing a field with one of the best players in sports history. It was really cool.

"There are lots of games that I've played throughout my career, being able to see these crazy, crazy [talented] guys like Patrick Mahomes. Just being able to share a field with those guys is something that I have to pinch myself [over] sometimes.

"I'm not really as aware of it when I'm here working hard and preparing but when I'm back home and removed from it and I think back to where I was and what I'm doing, I have to pinch myself."

Eiselen is now enjoying his time at the Texans, who he joined on August 31, initially on the practice squad before being promoted to the active roster on November 11.

Just as he has relished facing the likes of Mahomes, Josh Allen and Brady, he is now thoroughly enjoying watching an emerging NFL star in rookie Texans quarterback CJ Stroud.

"I'm really happy to [have gotten] the opportunity down here in Houston once my contract was done in Chicago. We're building something special here in Houston and it's been a lot of fun being a part of it," he said.

"Being around a leader and player like CJ Stroud has been a great experience and I am looking forward to seeing where this team will go in the future."