HUNTINGTON — With that “five men, one mind” mindset, it doesn’t happen often that an offensive lineman has a chance to be personally involved in a major college football first.
However, it will be different for Marshall starting left guard Sebastian “Swede” Johansson in the Herd’s 2015 season opener.
When Purdue visits Edwards Stadium on Sunday, the 6-foot-5, 297-pound Johansson won’t be the only guy on the field who speaks his native Swedish.
He won’t even be the only offensive lineman on the field who speaks Swedish.
The Boilermakers’ starting left tackle, David Hedelin, is a native of Stockholm and a second-year Purdue starter as a junior college transfer. Johansson, who will make his 25th Herd career start, is from Karlstad.
The Purdue-Marshall game is believed to be the first time two natives of Sweden have played on opposing teams in an American major college football game.
“We have a few guys (from Sweden) in lower divisions, but I think in (FBS), we’ve been the only two,” Johansson said. “It means a lot. I mean, if you’re the only two representatives from your own country, it warms your heart a little bit, and to have us in the same game is really special. I’d like to see more in the future.
“I’ve seen a bunch of guys back home who have the potential, it’s just they may never get the chance. I don’t know how many guys might want to try it. Oh, they might say they have something else going on back home, and club football’s not the big thing, but they do have some athletes back home.”
Johansson and Hedelin do have FBS company this season — and a third Swedish player might be at Edwards Stadium next month, too.
North Texas true freshman tight end Kevin Dillman was born in Ostersund and raised in Ystad, Sweden. The Mean Green plays a Conference USA game at Marshall on Oct. 24. Dillman was 14 when he moved to the United States to play the sport.
Mattias Olsson, the editor and founder of a Swedish football magazine, said via email from Johansson’s homeland that he “can’t imagine it’s happened” that two Swedes have played on opposing teams in any American college football game, “certainly not in DI football.”
Olsson said his work primarily focuses on the NFL for his Swedish audience, “but we also do a podcast and we usually throw in a little bit of college football and try to keep up with `our’ guys in the U.S.”
He said Johansson, Hedelin and Dillman are the only Swedish natives in major college football in 2015. Olsson said two Swedes are on the roster at FCS member North Dakota.
Oscar Nevermann, a Wyoming linebacker for two seasons before transferring to play running back at UND, is sitting out the 2015 season. He’s a Stockholm native. William James is a senior safety from Sollentuna. James and Nevermann played club football on the same team in Sweden. Those five are the only Sweden natives in Division I football.
Johansson and Hedelin’s routes to Sunday’s game were very different.
The Herd guard spent one year — his junior year of high school — at nearby Raceland (Ky.) High School, where his size and smarts intrigued then-Herd assistant coach Phil Ratliff, the MU Hall of Famer and Charlotte assistant coach and recruiting coordinator who tragically died 3 1/2 weeks ago.
Johansson, now 24, returned to his homeland to finish high school, then returned to the Herd. Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said when he first got a look at Johansson in practice as a college rookie, the coach “wasn’t sure he’d ever play.”
As for the 6-4, 298-pound Hedelin, he lived in Stockholm through his high school years, where his school played one game per season. He then moved to Argentina, where his family owned a vineyard. He bounced back and forth between Sweden and South America and played Swedish club football — as did Johansson.
Eventually, Hedelin and his family moved to Spain where he continued to play club football, from where he landed his junior college offer at City College of San Francisco. After two seasons there, he signed with the Boilermakers.
Hedelin had offers from more than 25 schools. Johansson had one, but he has prospered with the teachings of Herd offensive line coach Alex Mirabal.
Hedelin and Johansson both fit the Swedish prototype in American college football.
“One of the guards from my hometown played for (CCSF),” Johansson said. “It’s the size. There are a lot of big guys, a lot of strong guys. Of course, we don’t have the same speed you see over here. Believe it or not, I was the smallest guy on my O-line back at home.”
Johansson said American football doesn’t register with many in Sweden, where he said the top sports are ice hockey, soccer and bandy — a game that’s a cross between hockey and soccer, played on ice, 11 to a side, with a ball rather than a puck.
“I’d say we have 30-some club teams of American football in Sweden,” Johansson said. “There’s everything from peewee football up to senior club teams, where you have guys all ages — some are 18, some are 49 or 50.
“When I was there playing in my hometown, I was 17-18-ish. Our kicker, he was 43 — and I was in the same class in school as his son. That was kind of funny.”
The NFL has had fewer than 10 natives of Sweden play in the league. However, a Swede has an American football record — all levels — that has endured for nearly four decades.
In an NAIA game in 1976, Ove Johansson of Abilene Christian booted a 69-yard field goal against East Texas State. Johansson, of Gothenburg, Sweden, previously played soccer in the Mountain State at Davis & Elkins. He later played briefly in the NFL for Philadelphia.
“I don’t think we’re related,” the Herd’s Johansson said, grinning. “He might be distant.”
Johansson, who already has his MU undergraduate degree in sports management and marketing, is looking forward to having another Swede on the field on Sunday, and he envisions a day when a major college game with two Swedes in the starting lineup for opposing teams won’t be such a rarity.
“It’s getting there,” the Herd guard said when asked how advanced American football is in his Scandinavian homeland. “Of course, it’s nowhere as big as over here. We don’t have all the tools to work with like you do over here, but I think the effort is there and the passion’s there and it’s started growing. I think we’re getting there.
“Like I said, there are a lot of big boys back home who could play, and not just on the offensive line. We had a wide receiver who was 7-1 (on his club team) and we had a quarterback who plays for my hometown team right now, he’s probably 6-5, 6-6. We’ve got some size.”
What it’s going to take, Johansson said, is coping with a side of the game that was still foreign to him once he arrived at Marshall.
“The biggest thing you need to learn is speed on this level is really important,” he said. “You can’t be dragging. And that’s something for everybody, not just Swedes coming over here, but very young kids. Your eyes got to pick up the speed, of course.
“But I’d say you have to have the `eyes’ for it. It will take time to develop it, but sooner or later you have to have those eyes. Like Coach Mirabal referred to last year, the `old eyes,’ where you recognize, you see what’s going on.
“That’s a big part of it. That’s the main thing, and I think that’s harder for people coming from overseas who don’t have the feel for it being a regular kind of deal. You just have to grind it out, stick with it, and embrace the game.”