HIGHLAND PARK — The average NFL defensive end stands at about 6-foot-3 and weighs 255 pounds, according to Pro Football Weekly. At 6-7 and 245 pounds, Lake Forest Academy junior Thomas Schaffer would tower over most of them.
A native of Vienna, Austria, Schaffer’s path to Lake Forest has been anything but typical. The defensive end, who also plays left tackle on the Caxys’ offensive line, began playing American-style football at age 13 when he was already 6-2 and 190 pounds. He made the move to Lake Forest Academy after impressing scouts while playing on club teams in Vienna and on the U19 Austrian National team at the 2012 World Championships in Austin, Texas.
His cousin, Penn defensive lineman Felix Schildorfer, played for coach Robin Bowkett at Lake Forest Academy and helped bring Schaffer to the school.
“Coach Bowkett was one of my dorm heads and I always showed him videos of Thomas’ highlights,” Schildorfer said. “So coach Bowkett started recruiting him. There were some problems about how to get the financial aid to him, but once he got it, Thomas went to LFA.”
When Schaffer — a fan of the Green Bay Packers who aspires to Julius Peppers’ playing style — arrived in Lake Forest last year, he had to make adjustments both on and off the field.
“My English was all right when I got here, but it has improved a lot,” Schaffer said. “In America, I have more long conversations with strangers. The people in America are a little bit more open [than in Austria].
“And in Austria, football is more of a hobby, but in America, people take it much more seriously. What I also noticed the first day I came to the field here is that the game speed in America is much higher. When I go back to Austria to play a couple of games there, it’s easier for me now.”
Teammate Wesley Annan, a native of Whitby, Ontario, who moved to Lake Forest Academy in 2012 and now has 25 Division I offers, commended Schaffer for his quick transition.
“Everyone’s first problem is adjusting to the game speed in America,” Annan said. “It’s different in Austria, and I know it was different in Canada. But he’s got it down now.”
Schaffer has settled in nicely at Lake Forest Academy both athletically and academically. The lineman, who hopes to study sports medicine in college, has maintained a 4.06 grade-point average. After an All-Chicago Catholic League sophomore season, the University of Illinois coaching staff noticed Schaffer during the Illinois Showcase June 6. The Illini made an official offer this summer, marking the Austrian’s first formal scholarship opportunity.
“When I came back in August, coach Bowkett told me that Illinois offered me and I couldn’t believe it,” Schaffer said. “I asked him a couple of times if I understood him correctly, that I got a full scholarship from Illinois. I was happy because Illinois is a Big Ten school. It’s higher than any Austrian has gotten.”
Bowkett said the offer will motivate Schaffer to push harder, not slow down.
“He’s going to stay humble and keep working hard,” Bowkett said. “We just have to coach him harder as he goes along.”
According to Caxys defensive line coach Will Hampton, that won’t be a problem.
“We had practice at night, and it was designed to be highly competitive conditioning practice to get the guys tired,” Hampton remembered. “There was one drill where players had to sprint 30 yards to bags in all four directions, and they could go as many times as you want. I can’t even imagine how many reps [Schaffer] did. That showed me his work ethic and his eagerness to get better.
The 17-year-old Schaffer said he hopes to use his size and work ethic to propel himself to the NFL and become just the eighth Austrian-born player and first non-kicker since 1968 to make it to football’s pinnacle.
“I will definitely shoot for the NFL,” Schaffer said. “I’m going for that goal. If I make it, I’ll be really happy. If I don’t, I don’t know what I’ll do. So I will really try to make it. I like the saying, ‘If people don’t laugh about your goals, then they’re not big enough.’ ”