From Germany to touchdown; the adventure of Tom Kallenbach
Football. One of the most physically and mentally demanding sports. "Complicated" would not be a strong enough word to describe the chess match that is the game of football.
Tom Kallenbach, a foreign exchange student from southwest Germany, near Frankfurt, who had never watched a single game of football, scored a high school varsity touchdown in Madras' last regular season game of the year.
One of the first decisions Kallenbach, a 16-year-old senior at Madras High School, made in this country was to play American football.
"Jamie Hurd called me and said, 'We are going to have an exchange student from Germany, and he wants to play football,'" said Madras head football coach Kurt Taylor. "I have had exchange students on the team before, and they are almost always kickers. I said, 'Sure, we will take anybody.' Tom showed up and turned out to be quite the little athlete. He has made so many friends. He might be the most popular kid at school. It is unbelievable."
Living in Germany, Kallenbach was always interested in sports, participating in swimming and judo. Other than sports and school, he enjoyed spending time with his friends.
"I didn't know anything about football," Kallenbach said. "I heard of the game, and it looked like a fun American experience."
It didn't take long for the German native to make friends and memories at Madras High, being embraced almost immediately by the football program.
"Any new person that comes to the school, you don't really know him, so it is hard to make relationships with them, but it was nothing like that with Tom," lineman Jacob Hulsey said. "He wanted to come say hi to us and stuff like that. It helped having Liam (White) walk him around and introduce him. He is a really good guy."
"He is a very outgoing and positive person," Madras quarterback Ethan Graeme said. "He sits at the table, and he is really just one of the guys."
Even with Kallenbach's friendly personality, he still was nervous about making friends.
"I didn't expect something like that," Kallenbach said about his popularity with the team. "I was a little worried because I came to a new country, but it was awesome. Liam White (senior linebacker) showed me the school, and he introduced me to everyone. The school is fun, really fun, nothing like Germany. Things are really strict in Germany."
The game of football is not something you can pick up on easily. Even if you have played your whole life, just trying to explain all the different rules to someone can give you a headache. That doesn't include the immense amount of strategy that goes into not just every game or every team, but every single play.
Coaches at the varsity high school level have expectations for the level of knowledge players possess about the game. Kallenbach learned the game quickly, studying teammates and listening to coaches.
"He is super smart," Taylor said. "Incredibly smart, so it has been easy to teach him. He is only 16 years old, but he is so smart. There was a couple practices where I brought him in and did some chalk talk one on one with the whiteboard, and then we ran some bubble screens and stuff. Everything you said, he understood. It really is a testament to how smart he is."
"He is very outgoing," Taylor said. "If that was me in his shoes, I don't know if I have the gusto to do something like that, especially in another language. He is just an awesome kid. I wish he was here forever."
The game is usually learned at a young age, growing and expanding in strategy as years and experience pile up for the young athletes.
"I started playing tackle football in fourth grade," said Hulsey. "It was uncomfortable and kind of hurt the first couple days, but you get used to it over the years. I could not do what Tom has done. You come from Germany, not even watching a single game. You have no idea what is even going on. I couldn't do it."
"Fourth grade as well," Graeme said about starting football. "I don't think I could do it just because of the language barrier. I think what he has done is pretty cool."
While typical football players were trying to understand blocking schemes, alignments, blitzes, down and distance situations, Kallenbach was learning how to put on gear.
"I struggled a bit, but it started to become normal," he said. "The helmet hurt my head at first, but I recognized that with the gear on, you start to look a lot more buff, especially in your shoulders."
Once gear was in order, the next most important thing he needed to learn was tackling. Not everyone knows what it feels like to be tackled or to tackle someone at full speed. It can come as a shock to new football players when they experience their first big collision, but Kallenbach enjoyed it from the very start.
"He is really tough," Hulsey said. "I remember on one play in practice I came around the corner and I hit him really hard. I kind of felt bad, but I asked if he was good and he just said, 'Ya! I love it, I love it!' I thought, 'This is perfect. This is the kind of guys we like on the team. He isn't afraid to go in there and get dirty with us."
"That is so fun," said Kallenbach about his tackling experience. "I tried water polo here in Madras, but I didn't like it. I like football. I just like how the game is played."
Kallenbach didn't see much playing time during the season. He was mostly on the practice squads, helping his new friends get better. Even though he still didn't understand the complicated game, his athleticism and speed surprised his teammates.
Kallenbach was able to play a few snaps during the Buffalos' 28-7 home victory over Blanchet Catholic on Oct. 11, but he didn't see many plays afterward, with the Buffs playing in tough league games, must-win situations to make the postseason.
"I will remember this for the rest of my life," Taylor said. "One time we were playing in a game against Blanchet Catholic, and he said, 'Coach, when do I go in?' I told him, 'Tom, you never ask the head coach if you can go into a game ever.' He looked at me with big eyes, like he knew he did something wrong. I walked away and I brought him over and talked to him. He actually got to play a bit in that game. If he could have played another year, that kid would probably be playing a lot for us. If they allowed seniors to play at the JV level, he would be having a blast."
During the last regular season game of the year, Madras traveled to play winless Salem Academy. Madras dominated the game from the very start, taking a big 28-0 lead at halftime.
At that point, Kallenbach's teammates and coaches started to get excited about the thought of Kallenbach seeing legitimate time on the field.
Offensive coordinator Jim Ferguson had Kallenbach practice catching the ball from the center's shotgun snap, since the offense does a direct snap to their running back the majority of the time.
"Fergy (coach Jim Ferguson) had him taking snaps, like three minutes into the third quarter," Taylor said. "I am thinking to myself, 'Ferg, it is too dang early. We have rules to abide by.' I see Trey (Easterling) and Tom taking snaps from our center David Sumner and I am like, 'Oh, crap.'"
Teammates were soon giving any and all advice they could to get Kallenbach ready to run the ball.
"I was afraid that I wouldn't catch the ball and that I would drop it," Kallenbach said.
Madras soon took a huge 43-0 lead over Salem Academy, and it was Kallenbach's time to run the ball. The play was initially a run to the right, but the Madras coaching staff saw something in the Salem Academy defense and decided to go left.
"At first we didn't know he was going to run the ball," Hulsey said. "We just saw him start to run on the field, and everyone started freaking out. We started yelling, 'Tom! It's Tom! Heck ya! Tom!' The players on the other side was like, 'What in the world is going on?' I look at Ethan (Graeme) in the huddle and told him to have Tom follow us."
"Tom was saying something in the huddle, but none could understand what he was trying to say," he said. "I think he was saying, 'Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!' The play started, and we turned the corner, start blocking for him. I saw immediately, the whole left side was wide open and knew if he is following us, he would score. I look back and he was literally right there. I start yelling, 'Go!' He starts running by me, and I yelled, 'Tom! Touchdown!'"
"The whole team started to run over there, half the team was on the field," said Hulsey. "We were screaming and yelling and stuff. He had no idea what was going on. It was a pretty cool moment for all of us really. It was one of the biggest accomplishments that I will have as a lineman. Blocking for a kid that has never even seen football, for one, and had no idea what was going on and he scored a touchdown. That is something he can go back to Germany and tell all his friends, letting him know he scored a touchdown."
Graeme also knew he had to get Kallenbach in the end zone before the play started.
"I knew the play call was for Tom, so I told him to 'follow us, don't drop the ball and you will be fine,'" Graeme said. "The ball was snapped and I turn around for a second to tell him to keep following me, but the next thing I know, he is passing me. The hole was wide open and he scored. It was a pretty cool moment for Tom."
After scoring, Kallenbach was in a moment of shock. Not celebrating or yelling, just seeing his teammates surrounding him, cheering his name.
"They were more excited than I was," said Kallenbach. "I was nervous, very nervous. It was overwhelming because I didn't think that I was going to make it. Everybody made their blocks, and I just had to run."
After Kallenbach's touchdown, Madras took a 49-0 lead over Salem Academy.
"He is fast," Taylor said. "I didn't know he was that fast. His teammates were more ecstatic than he was. I think he was in shock. He told me this was something he was going to remember for the rest of his life."
Because Kallenbach has a background in judo, he is going to try out for the Madras wrestling team when football season is over.
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