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Editor's note: The U.S. team won a gold medal July 16, beating Canada, 50-7.
By Greg Johnson
In 27 years as a head football coach at the collegiate level, Mel Tjeerdsma won 242 games, including three NCAA Division II national championships during his tenure at Northwest Missouri State.
Tjeerdsma retired from coaching after the 2010 season, but a chance to lead the USA Football Team in the International Federation of American Football World Cup tournament has him back on the sidelines.
This is the fourth IFAF World Cup, which holds its competition every four years, and Team USA opens play today against Australia. The game will be played in Innsbruck, Austria, which is the host nation.
The U.S. plays Germany on Sunday and takes on Mexico on Tuesday. The winner of the group will compete against the winner of Group B, which consists of Japan, Canada, France and Austria, in the gold medal game in Vienna on July 16.
To prepare for the tournament, which has a grueling schedule that sees teams play three football games in five days, Team USA held two-a-day workouts at Division III Wabash College, about an hour northwest of Indianapolis.
Video highlights of all games along with previews and features are available at the IFAF YouTube site, www.YouTube.com/IFAFinsider. Live scoring updates and details of key plays will be available through www.Facebook.com/IFAF.org and Twitter @IFAFinsider. The international federation’s official website, www.ifaf.org, will stream the tournament’s medal round games. The Bronze Medal Game will air on Friday, July 15, at 11 p.m. ET. The Gold Medal Game will air on Saturday, July 16, at 11 p.m. ET. Team USA game recaps will be posted at www.usafootball.com.
Most of the players on the 45-man roster are fresh out of Division II and III schools – and some from Division I – and relish the chance to put on the pads again while representing their country.
Team USA is the defending champion of the event after beating Japan, 23-20, in double overtime in 2007. That U.S. team, the first to compete in the IFAF World Cup, was coached by John Mackovic, a former head coach at Illinois, Texas, Arizona and the Kansas City Chiefs.
This time, USA Football, which is headquartered in Indianapolis, will be led by Tjeerdsma, who leaped at the chance to participate.
“I called John Mackovic, and he told me two things about this job,” said Tjeerdsma, who led Northwest Missouri State to NCAA Division II national titles in 1998, 1999 and 2009. “No. 1 was that this is a lot of work. He said it would be more than you expect. The second thing was that it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Tjeerdsma, who never served in the military but wishes he could have, said this gives him a chance to use his football coaching skills to represent America. He relayed that message to his players, who include former Colorado quarterback Cody Hawkins and former Mount Union all-American running back Nate Kmic.
Ben McLaughlin, Louisiana College, is one of the three quarterbacks on the U.S. roster.
“It’s a great opportunity and honor to be able to play football again,” said Kmic, who is an assistant coach at his alma mater, where he ran for an NCAA all-divisions record of 8,074 yards during his career.
His college coach, Larry Kehres, Team USA’s offensive coordinator, nominated Kmic for a roster spot. Kehres has installed Mount Union’s offense for Team USA.
“I try to help guys out, but I’ve been impressed with the ability of our players to absorb the offense and understand it,” Kmic said. “Within two days we had 90 percent of our offense in and we’re ready to go.”
Kehres, who has led Mount Union to 303-23-3 record with 10 NCAA Division III championships in 25 years, was impressed how quickly his players adapted to the terminology. It has also been a good trip down memory lane for him.
“I thought this would be good for me,” Kehres said. “I haven’t been my own offensive coordinator for six years. I may change that when I get home.”
Garrett Shea, the director of the USA Men’s National Football Team, said most of the players on the roster are nominated by their former coaches. They collaborate with American Football Coaches Association Executive Director Grant Teaff, who spreads the word through his membership about the opportunity to play for USA Football.
Nate Kmic, former student-athlete and current assistant coach at Mount Union, ran for an NCAA all-divisions record of 8,074 yards during his career.
“Once they hear about this, the players kind of find us,” Shea said. “When John Mackovic was the head coach, he said that he was looking for 45 team captains to play for America. That is a great quote, because it embodies the type of player we are looking for.”
Some of the players on the roster have had tryouts or played in the United Football League, the Canadian Football League, the Arena League and in leagues overseas. The one common bond is that they all love football.
“As the program builds, I think you’ll see more NCAA players as they understand and learn about this,” Shea said. “If we had every single football player in America in one room and we could explain what this is all about, everyone in the room would raise their hand to play.”
Middle linebacker Demetrious Eaton is one of only two players on the 2011 roster who played in the 2007 World Cup. Eaton, who played at Northwestern, is advising his teammates on the schedule that calls for them to play three games in five days and on the overall competition they will face.
“The teams are better than you would expect,” Eaton said. “Germany was one of the toughest teams we played physically. They have a very big team. In the gold medal game, Japan had us down at halftime before we were able to come back and win in double overtime. We are America and this is our sport. There is an intimidation factor in this.”
He said the number of games in such a short amount of time is as taxing as it sounds.
“I remember right before kickoff of the second game, it felt like I had played in a game a couple of days earlier,” Eaton said. “You have to do all the smart things like ice your body and stay off your feet.”
Tjeerdsma, who has former Illinois head coach Lou Tepper as his defensive coordinator, knows the other countries are waiting for the chance to beat the U.S. in its own game.
“I try not to think about it as being under pressure,” Tjeerdsma said. “We have a mature group of players, and they understand why we are here. All they did at Wabash is football. The only time they weren’t doing football is when they were asleep. I would never have dreamt that we would have an opportunity like this.”