Danish CFL hopeful Steven Nielsen is used to excelling on foreign soil

Photo courtesy: CFL

Steven Nielsen’s pro football hopes may rest in Canada, but it’s not a country where the hulking Danish offensive lineman has spent a lot of time.

“I’ve been to Toronto, but I think that’s where everyone has been,” the six-foot-eight, 320-pound tackle says with a laugh.

That shouldn’t be a problem for Nielsen. When it comes to playing in unfamiliar territory, few players are more experienced.

A promising young player from the 12th century fishing port of Dragør, Denmark on the outskirts of Copenhagen, Nielsen initially followed his older brother into the sport of American football. With his sibling’s guidance, it wasn’t long before he became an imposing presence on the Danish National team, even suiting up at left tackle for IFAF’s World Team.

For a player of his caliber and uncommonly large build, the potential was endless, but capitalizing on it meant crossing the Atlantic. In pursuit of a scholarship, Nielsen would spend his final two years of high school in La Porte, Indiana, 4,238 miles away from home.

“It was difficult in the beginning just being away from my parents. I mean, any 18-year-old I think is going to be somewhat dependent on their parents, so that was definitely a big transition for me socially to not be around my family,” Nielsen recalls.

“And then, of course, there is language. I spoke the language but it wasn’t to the point where I do now, so that was definitely something that I had to get used to as well.”

The differences on the football field were an equally big transition, but it would soon pay off.

“In Denmark, we practiced twice a week and there I had practice every day and weightlifting in the morning,” Nielsen says.

“That definitely helped me to transition into college as well. It wasn’t that huge of a jump from high school to college as it would have been if I came straight from Denmark.”

Nielsen’s success in Indiana saw him commit to Eastern Michigan University, where he found an immediate role for the Eagles. Unlike most Europeans, Nielsen never redshirted and became a full-time starter at right tackle as a true sophomore.

While he flipped from the right side to the left as a senior, Nielsen never missed a game over his final three year in Ypsilanti. A third-team All-MAC selection in 2018, he performed well enough to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a undrafted free agent last season, only to fall victim to pre-season roster cuts caused by COVID protocols.

While the NFL remains a dream, Nielsen is now focused fully on being selected in the CFL’s 2021 Global Draft. While he hasn’t spent much time north of the 49th parallel, the Dane is very familiar with the Canadian game.

“I’ve been watching the CFL for a long time, so I know about the 12th man and all those different rules there are. Especially for me as an offensive lineman, the gap between me and the defensive lineman is probably the biggest change,” Nielsen says.

“I do know about the CFL and I’m just excited to play football again. I mean it’s been a year for me since I’ve put on a helmet and got to bully some guys around so I’m just excited to put the helmet on again and just play football.”

He’s no stranger to playing alongside Canadian talent either. Eastern Michigan teammate Jake Julien is regarded as the top punter in the 2021 National Draft, while Nielsen stood shoulder to shoulder with left guard Sidy Sow of Bromont, Quebec along the Eagles offensive line, a player who may well be a first-round CFL Draft pick in 2022.

In some ways, Nielsen’s evaluation process isn’t much different than what countless Canadian tackle prospects undergo. While possessing the impressive length of a tackle, Nielsen may bounce inside to guard at the next level due to some limitations against speed. His FBS pedigree ensures he’ll be drafted highly regardless.

“Playing Division 1 college is going to give me an advantage over so many of the guys coming straight from Europe,” Nielsen admits.

“I’ve been playing some of the same guys that I’m going to be facing in the CFL in college, so I know what it takes and I know how much work it is.”

Whether he finds himself in Toronto or another unfamiliar city, it’s that experience that makes Nielsen one of the favourites to stand out early in the 2021 Global Draft class.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.