Nobody on the Bears roster has traveled a more unique path to the NFL than Dieter Eiselen, an undrafted rookie offensive lineman from Yale.
Growing up in South Africa, Eiselen was an acclaimed rugby player and Olympic weightlifter who wasn’t very familiar with American football.
“My knowledge of football was just from things that I had got exposed to like ‘Friday Night Lights’ and the ‘Water Boy’ and stuff like that,” Eiselen said.
Not that Boobie Miles and Bobby Boucher didn’t provide inspiration. But Eiselen’s love affair with American football actually began in 2012 when he watched Notre Dame defeat Stanford 20-13 in an overtime thriller.
“It was the first time that I really sat down and watched a game,” Eiselen said. “It really captivated me. I was just enthralled with that first game. That really kind of sparked my interest.”
And what exactly about the sport appealed to Eiselen?
“I just really loved how it seemed that everyone had a specific job they had to do, and it was very strategic and calculated,” he said. “It seemed like even more of a team sport than rugby. You have to depend on everybody to succeed. That’s what drew me to it initially.”
Eiselen spent the next two years taping one NFL game and one college contest every week, selecting what he deemed were the most intriguing matchups.
With his passion for football continuing to grow, Eiselen decided when he was a junior in high school that he wanted to play the sport at an American college.
“My friends were all starting to apply for university programs,” Eiselen said. “I pondered what I wanted to do with my life and all the options, and none of the conventional avenues back home excited me. I just decided, ‘Why not football?’ I love football and I thought I had the physical tools to do it. I didn’t see any reason I couldn’t do it.”
During a break in Eiselen’s senior year, he flew roughly 8,000 miles to attend a high school football camp in Virginia.
“I asked my parents if I could come to a camp here,” Eiselen said. “They were a little hesitant at first, but they could see how much it meant to me. They supported me and I came over and I really had a good time. But I really had no idea what I was doing. I got some walk-on offers from a couple schools, but I knew I could do a lot better because I really had no idea what I was doing.”
Determined to hone his skills without burning any of his college eligibility, Eiselen enrolled at Choate Rosemary Hall, a private college preparatory boarding school in Connecticut where he could play one season before transferring to a four-year college.
Eiselen arrived in Connecticut in April 2015 and stayed with a host family. In July—before he had played a game or taken a class at Choate—he attended a camp at Yale and received an offer from coach Tony Reno to play at the famed institution the following year. A week later, Eiselen accepted.
The rare opportunity reinforced his decision to pursue a dream half a world away from his parents and younger sister.
“It was really hard during that time because I didn’t really know whether what I was doing was the correct thing,” Eiselen said. “All of my friends back home were [going to college], and not having my family there was really hard.
“I was really surprised [to receive the offer from Yale]. That was the moment where I felt like my dream was justified and I could make my family proud, even though they were far away and not with me at that moment.”
Eiselen thrived at Yale, becoming a starter at left guard midway through his freshman season and never relinquishing the job. It wasn’t easy, however, especially learning techniques that were so foreign to him.
“It’s something you have to work at in order to get to the point where it’s second nature,” Eiselen said. “My offensive line coach at Yale at the time (Joe Conlin) was someone who demanded a lot from me because I think he could see the potential that I had. I really adapted quickly and learned fast and was able to get a lot better in a short span of time.”
Reaching the NFL wasn’t even a blip on Eiselen’s radar when he arrived at Yale. But he made tremendous strides as a junior.
“My offensive line coach, Al Netter, told me that I had the potential to do it,” Eiselen said. “And once he said that, I started to believe in myself and I thought it could be a possibility.
“Going into my senior year, I started getting calls from [agents] and getting put on watch-lists and stuff like that. That’s when I knew that I had the potential. It was just a matter of me capitalizing on it.”