Jan Jenmert was admiring the history inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Friday when he stumbled upon Bill Walsh's bust. Jenmert, the head coach of Sweden's national football team, has admired the coach since reading Walsh's book, "Finding the Winning Edge."
"That's the guy that taught me what it is I'm doing," said Jenmert, who owns an autographed copy. "That has been a bible for me. It helped me understand the complex situation of building an American football team."
Jenmert has spent the last five years slowly building Sweden's national team. He will bring 45 of the country's best football players to the cradle of American football for the International Federation of American Football's inaugural Junior World Championship that begins June 27. Sweden is one of eight competing countries from four continents. It will be joined by top-seeded Canada, the United States, Mexico, Japan, Germany, France and New Zealand to comprise the first world tournament for players age 19 and under. All games will be played at Fawcett Stadium, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame game.
"We're going to celebrate this great game and have a lot of fun," said USA Football coach Chuck Kyle, who has won nine Division I (large high school) Ohio state championships at Cleveland St. Ignatius during his 25-year career. "As we leave there, these kids will have friends not just in their community, not just in their state or their university. They will have friends all over the world. What an amazing thought that will be."
Canada received the top seed for its strong history in junior international play. The Americans received an automatic bid for serving as the host. The remaining six countries clinched bids by winning regional qualifiers around the world.
The experience level among the competing countries spreads as wide as their geographic locations. The Americans are the veterans, having invented the sport before 1900. Japan has played since the 1940s, and then there is New Zealand, which enters this world championship with its first junior national team.
"The last four years, there has been a real progression in our junior program," New Zealand coach Michael Mau'u said. "We thought American football had come up far enough to give it a try."
The Americans had a little trickier time building their roster than some other countries. While football is still largely a club sport in other parts of the world, Kyle and his staff worked to get permission from some top college coaches around the country in forming the roster. Kyle asked for any incoming freshmen who were likely to redshirt, thereby reducing the risk to the schools in case of injury.
"If there is a kid that is coming in and he's going to start, we're not going to get him," Kyle said. "And there are a lot of kids who have to go to summer school, so we're not going to get that kid. You start filtering those guys away, and you still have a lot of really good players."
Kyle received an added bonus when Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer offered running back David Wilson, the player of the year in Virginia and a consensus top five tailback recruit. Wilson is expected to play a significant role with the Hokies this year, but had called Beamer and asked to play in the event. Beamer said yes, giving Virginia Tech two incoming recruits on Team USA; the other is incoming freshman linebacker Tariq Edwards.
"I know that both Tariq and David are very excited about being a part of USA Football's junior national team," Beamer said. "Both will be outstanding representatives of our country and our university."
American football is still dwarfed by soccer overseas. Jenmert estimated about 7,000 kids play in Sweden, compared to the 1 million who play soccer. About 8,000 play American football in Germany, compared to 5 million who play soccer, according to Peter Springwald, Germany's director of youth operations.
"Soccer is and will always be No. 1," Springwald said. "I don't see any chance that anyone changes that. We could probably reach No. 2, but we'll never get to No. 1."
In New Zealand, rugby is football's stiff competition. The football team is comprised mostly of rugby players, and the season begins in August, just a couple of weeks after rugby ends.
"Otherwise," Mau'u said, "we'd never have enough players."