The stories of Gerhard de Beer’s first days playing football are legendary at this point, and the UA’s senior offensive lineman laughs about them because, well, they really are funny.
Coach Rich Rodriguez likes to tell the one about de Beer pulling thigh pads out of his locker for the first time, turning to his teammate and asking what they were.
De Beer, from Pretoria, South Africa, had never played football in his life. He was at Arizona on a track and field scholarship when he decided to give football a try.
De Beer started out as a defensive lineman and moved to tight end before settling in on the offensive line. His size — 6 feet 7 inches and 320 pounds — is prototypical for an offensive tackle, arguably the line’s most important position. He started at right tackle a year ago, but has taken a step backwards since. A knee injury continues to restrict — and frustrate — him. As a result, de Beer has fallen behind sophomore Cody Creason on the depth chart.
Even so, de Beer happily talks about the player he used to be. The one that didn’t really know anything.
During de Beer’s first year, offensive line coach Jim Michalczik instructed de Beer to “go block the corner,” meaning the cornerback. De Beer ran to the corner of the end zone.
“He stood over there and didn’t know what was going on,” Michalczik said, laughing. “He didn’t know a (defensive back) was a corner. He’s come a long way.”
Added Rodriguez: “He didn’t know what a thigh pad was or where to put it. Now he’s reading multiple defenses and maybe even a little coverage.”
De Beer has come a long way, certainly. He was forced into the starting lineup because of injuries when the Wildcats played at USC in 2015, the first significant football game action of his life. He started three more games that season, and was impressive enough that he entered 2016 as the starter.
De Beer started eight of Arizona’s first nine games before suffering a knee injury, one that cost him the rest of the season, all of spring drills and most of the UA’s summer workouts. As a result, he started out behind the eight ball in the competition for right tackle with Creason, who filled in for de Beer while he was hurt at the end of last season.
“I’m torn up, man,” de Beer said. “I had all these visions in my mind of … I was going to work on my pass game, my run game. I was going to get so much stronger and I was prohibited not because of a lack of want to but because of physical ability. That’s what killed me most of all.
“They say control what you can control,” he added, “but it was what was out of my control that drove me nuts.”
It’d be hard to tell that de Beer was upset, or hurting, because he’s not the type to complain. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more affable personality on Arizona’s roster, a positive spirit that would put him well-placed as a motivational speaker after football.
De Beer’s knee is constantly hurting, and he says the pain probably won’t go away this season, but he’s not using that as an excuse either.
“I’m one of those people that believes everything happens for a reason. If God sends something my way to challenge me, what am I going to do? Am I going to lay down or am I going to stand up and be a better player afterwards?” de Beer said. “The past is the past and I’m going to do everything I can, right now, in this moment, in every practice, in every film session we have, in every single rep we have — be it mental, physical, doesn’t matter — I’m going to do everything I can to prepare to be a better player.”
De Beer’s approach is rubbing off on his teammates, too.
“It pushes all of us,” center Nathan Eldridge said. “We see that and he’s out there battling and we’re like dang, he’s hurting and he’s pushing through it, that makes us go even harder.”
The position battle is certainly not over yet — the Wildcats have held just 12 practices, and there’s still time before the Sept. 2 opener against Northern Arizona for de Beer to catch up. But the South African probably still won’t be 100 percent by then, or at all this season.
“I’m still hurting, but I’m fighting through it and I’m going to do whatever I can to get ready for the season,” de Beer said. “I have made peace with the fact that I’m probably going to be playing with pain in-season, but which offensive lineman in the country doesn’t? Show me and I’ll tell you you’re a liar.”
Recently, during a moment of frustration, de Beer pivoted to reflection. He thought about his first days of football, not understanding gear or football nomenclature. He jokes now that, looking back, it was “arrogant” of him to think he could just come play football at a Pac-12 school, on national television, simply because he wanted to.
But now he’s here, a senior, unsure of what’s next. He might not even start this season, at least not at the outset. But that’s fine.
At least now he knows how to put on shoulder pads.
“The other day I was so frustrated with my injury that I just took a step back and I looked and I said, ‘Wow, I’ve really come a long way,’” de Beer said. “But I have a lot more down the road to go.”