VIENNA, Austria — Alex Hertel came to Vassar High School as a foreign exchange student for the 2015-16 school year, but it quickly became apparent for all to see that American football wasn’t foreign to him.
The 20-year old from Vienna, Austria came to America with a good understanding of its most popular sport, because he’d been playing it for years in his home land before relocating to Vassar for a year. So when Hertel ran his way to All-Greater Thumb Conference first-team honors in his first and only season with the Vulcans, racking up 1,645 yards of total offense as a runner and a receiver with 15 touchdowns in 10 games, perhaps he wasn’t as surprised at his performance as his coaches and teammates may have been.
“It was always my biggest dream to play American football in the (United States), and I’m so happy that I got to fulfill that dream for at least one year,” said Hertel.
The 6-foot, 1 1/2 inch, 205-pound Hertel averaged a dominant 10 yards per carry that year, with his longest run going for 96 yards, as he helped lead Vassar to its most recent playoff appearance. The Vulcans’ run ended that year with a loss to eventual state champion Ithaca in the schools’ Division 6 playoff opener, as Vassar finished the year at 8-2.
“I had over 100 carries in my season with Vassar, and game experience always makes you better,” said Hertel, who also wrestled and ran track at Vassar.
With that chapter of his life behind him, he went on to show he was just getting started with what has continued to be a very successful football career when he returned home to Vienna.
Hertel first discovered American football at the age of six when he began playing flag football after school.
“I immediately fell in love with it,” he said.
His interest only grew when some of those flag football tournaments were played before Austrian Football League games of his hometown Dacia Vienna Vikings’ American Football Club. He and his teammates received free tickets to stay and watch the Vikings once their flag football games had finished, and Hertel became truly inspired.
“After a while, I wanted to try out for real American football, but my mom didn’t let me play until I was 11 years old,” he explained.
Hertel said he now has a better understanding of his mother’s concerns.
“I believe young children shouldn’t start too early with American football, because it could affect the development of their bodies,” said Hertel.
Getting the opportunity to play for the Vikings was a thrill worth waiting for, Hertel realized, as he debuted with the club’s youth program at the age of 11. He then ascended the ranks to play with the club’s second men’s team before earning his way onto Vienna’s top club as an 18-year old, where he contributes at running back and on special teams.
“I started playing for the first men’s team of the Vikings when I was 18 years old, which is really young for this league,” noted Hertel, who’s now in his ninth year as a member of Vienna’s club.
“It’s a big privilege to play for the Dacia Vienna Vikings,” he added. “The Braunschweig Lions (Germany) and the Vienna Vikings are the only two teams to win the Euro Bowl five times each, so knowing that I’m playing for a team that’s among the best of an entire continent is pretty unique.”
A sign showing him that he was on the right track came when Hertel was promoted to the Vikings’ second men’s team with a year of youth club eligibility remaining as a then 17-year old.
“That was my first time playing against grown men, and I wasn’t the starting running back at the beginning,” he recalled, “… but as the season went on, I became the starter, and by the final game I was named our Most Valuable Player.
“I enjoyed spending time with the best teammates I could ask for,” added Hertel.
Winning the Austrian Bowl, which is the Austrian Football League’s championship game, is the Vikings’ top annual goal.
After recently wrapping up its 10-game regular season, Vienna won the Austrian Bowl at the end of July for the first time with Hertel as a contributor. The Vikings reached the Austrian Bowl in Hertel’s first year with the top men’s team, but lost, and he spent the following year playing as an exchange student at Vassar.
Hertel was part of a three-man running back rotation that proved to be a Vienna strength.
“We all had different strengths, and we rotated almost every drive,” said Hertel of the team’s strategy.
A key player for the Vikings’ run to the Austrian Bowl title, Hertel tallied a combined total of 120 carries and receptions this year, good for 778 total yards, nine touchdowns, and 6.5 yards per carry.
American football in Europe continues to evolve, with the Vikings’ Bernhard Raimann becoming the club’s first player to sign with a Division I university, at Central Michigan.
“… There are even a few Europeans who’ve made it into the NFL,” said Hertel of American football’s impact on Europe.
AFL rules allow a maximum of four American players to a team, and they’re referred to as imports, said Hertel.
“They’re mostly (former college players) who didn’t make it into the NFL, but want to continue to play American football after college, and many head coaches are also from America,” he added.
Hertel doesn’t have any plans of returning to America in pursuit of a college scholarship, but not for lack of receiving any interest.
“I think if I’d not played American football in the US, I’d always regret it, and would be trying to get into any college that would take me,” said Hertel. “During my stay (in America), I visited some colleges, and it was a great experience to see all the facilities, and get to see how it looks to be a college football player.
“Before that, I could only imagine what it was like,” he added.
His only other avenue for exploring the college football landscape was through the likes of youtube footage, he added.
“Nowadays, I can say that I don’t want to return to America and play college football,” said Hertel. “After being away from home for a year, you learn to appreciate your family, girlfriend, friends, club, and the country where you’ve been raised that much more.”
Hertel hopes to see some of his current and future teammates continue to pursue their goals of playing American football, whether at a university, or professionally.
It isn’t always easy to follow what can be a bumpy road toward achieving those goals.
“There is no financial support from the government, and just a little bit of sponsoring for American football in Europe,” said Hertel. “Therefore, a club has to survive off of membership fees, and some sponsorship money.
“That means that the facilities and the coaches are not as good as they are in the US, the players are not getting big contracts like they do in the NFL, and they even have to pay to play American football,” he added. “The best (European) teams are practicing like pros, but we cannot call us pros, because we do it voluntarily.”
Nevertheless, the pursuit of passion persists for Hertel and his teammates.