The first time Lake Forest (Illinois) Academy head coach Robin Bowkett talked to his future two-way star lineman Thomas Schaffer, he thought he was in a 1970s Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
“If you’ve ever seen Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first film, when his English was pretty average, that’s what I felt like I was hearing when I had that first conversation with Thomas,” Bowkett told Bleacher Report as he held back chuckles recalling that first interaction. “You could tell that he had some personality to him. He had a good smile. At the time, he could speak English, but there were some words he didn’t know.”
To this day Schaffer is also frequently stopped by teammates and friends at Lake Forest and asked to do impromptu Schwarzenegger impressions.
The connection to Bowkett came through Felix Schildorfer—who is Schaffer’s cousin and was a senior at Lake Forest, which is just north of Chicago, at the time. Schaffer picked up the sport with a local club team in Vienna roughly a year before his first conversation with Bowkett but still looked like a college prospect on tape.
“[Schildorfer] came to me and told me, ‘You should look at my cousin Thomas, here’s his film,’” Bowkett said. “He had size and length, which is what college coaches are looking for.”
Less than three years later, Schaffer is a 6’7”, 260-pound 3-star recruit with 18 offers from schools including Michigan State, Oregon, Stanford and Wisconsin.
Schaffer has grown in leaps and bounds on and off the field since he arrived in the U.S. in August 2013. He’s now on the cusp of becoming the first football player from Austria to play FBS football.
But it wasn’t that long ago when he was a lanky kid in Vienna who decided to give football a try at 13 years old, when playing in the States was all just a dream.
Like most kids in Europe, Schaffer grew up primarily playing soccer.
He dabbled in basketball and even judo before his aunt took him and his brother to a tryout for a local club football team in Vienna.
“I played for a small club there, so I had to play both ways,” Schaffer said. “It wasn’t really organized. In Austria, it wasn’t a big deal like it is here with high school football. It was enough to help me fall in love with the game and try to pursue it at a higher level.”
At 15, Schaffer, who was around 6’6” and 220 pounds at the time, rose up to make Austria’s under-19 squad—which traveled to play club teams around Europe on a regular basis.
He was the youngest player on the team, and a trip in 2012 to play Team USA in Texas pushed him to become serious about pursuing the game at a higher level.
“I played against an offensive tackle, and I was around 200 pounds, and that guy was committed to Georgia Tech, I believe,” Schaffer recalls. “I just enjoyed playing, even though he was so much stronger and better than me.“
He stayed behind and took a trip to the University of Texas. The atmosphere of college life at a big-time football school was mesmerizing to the wide-eyed Schaffer.
“After experiencing that and seeing their stadium, it was gigantic; after experiencing that and seeing what life is like in college and the campus and what football is like in America, I knew then that I just wanted it,” Schaffer said. “I knew in my head that I want to do this.”
Bowkett saw enough on film to be intrigued with Schaffer.
“I saw his film, and I saw that he was raw, but at the time, he was like 6’6”, 220 with decent feet, long arms and a little nasty to him,” Bowkett said.
Admittedly, the transition to the U.S. was tough for Schaffer. He was used to playing against strong guys in Austria.
However, the effect of the climate, speed of the game and competition was another story.
“It was a big change for me coming over here,” Schaffer said. “It was tough for me to adjust at the beginning. The climate is very moist and hot. That was something that I had to deal with conditioning-wise, but I got over it. The speed here, though, is completely different, so it took a while to adjust and catch up to that.”
Upon arriving at Lake Forest, Bowkett continued to let Thomas play both ways, as he had growing up in Vienna. Bowkett immediately put Schaffer at left tackle, a position he hadn't played in two years prior to his arrival in the U.S., on offense and defensive end on defense.
Bowkett estimates that is was his team’s third or fourth practice before he noticed a moment when he knew that his newest international import had a chance to develop into a special player.
The team was practicing in shells, and he placed Schaffer in a pursuit drill as the “rabbit”—the player who had the football and ran down the sideline as other players tried to tag him to record a stop.
However, it didn’t go exactly as Bowkett initially thought it would.
“When he took that ball the first time as the rabbit, he was moving,” Bowkett said. “That’s when I was like, whoa, that’s a big man moving really fast.”
Although Bowkett notes that he saw flashes of his immense talent early in the 2013 season, Schaffer’s breakthrough on the field didn’t come until the seventh game.
“It was the St. Joseph’s game of his first year, where he must have had like three sacks that game, and he was unblockable,” Bowkett said. “He also played left tackle, and he was driving guys into the safeties. He was cutting guys left and right. It was awesome. That’s when it all started to click for him.”
Bowkett noted that his confidence grew after that performance and that his level of play has maintained that standard of dominance since that point.
While he admits that he’s still learning the finer details of the game at two different positions, his adjustment period from newcomer to big-time recruit has come full circle.
Last July, he earned his first scholarship offer from Illinois.
“I’ve been developing and getting used to the game, because I’m still raw and new to the game,” Schaffer said. “It’s getting a lot better. I can tell because (of) the schools who are offering me.”
After a strong 2014 season, Schaffer is likely to head into his senior season with more than 20 offers to his credit.
Some schools like him at left tackle, but he told Bleacher Report that he prefers to play defense at the Adidas Chicago Showcase camp last month.
“I have a passion for playing D-line, but I know that I can be great playing offensive line too, and that’s why I still keep it under consideration to play O-line,” Schaffer said.
Bowkett has an idea on how he would approach Schaffer if he were a coach trying to lure him to his college. It’s a rationale that he says is comprised of his own assessment of Schaffer’s abilities and has since been verified by a majority of the coaches he’s come into contact with regarding Schaffer’s potential at the next level.
“If I was a college coach, I would tell him to try the defensive side of the ball,” Bowkett said. “If that works out, great. If that doesn’t work out and he’s third-string at defensive end, and if he could move over to offensive line and help the team out that way and possibly make a lot of money on Sundays, then that opportunity would be there for him.”
Schaffer said that he still doesn’t view himself as a high-profile recruit, simply because that idea seemed far-fetched just a few years ago back in Europe.
He admits that even considering the move to the United States in the first place was one of his biggest hurdles.
“What I did was risky, because there was no guarantee to get to college or get offers or have a way to further my education,” Schaffer said.
He’s part of a trend that has seen a number of international players come to the U.S. recently.
Last year, fellow international stars such as Arkansas defensive line signee Hjalte Froholdt, Auburn defensive line signee Prince Tega Wanogho Jr. and LSU offensive line signee Chidi Valentine-Okeke saw their recruitment blow up after arriving stateside.
Bowkett said that he’s received numerous inquiries about players from Austria and other countries who are interested in coming to the United States. While he notes that the process is far from easy, it’s something that he and other coaches will continue to monitor if they can find players who fit with their programs.
“I think you will see more of those players start to find boarding schools in the States and try to come over here before going to college,” Bowkett said.
Still, Schaffer acknowledges that pursuing the game in a land far away from home comes with a lot of sacrifices.
Despite learning a new language and playing catch-up in the game of football, Schaffer admits his toughest challenge is being away from his family.
“It’s a really long distance away from home,” Schaffer said. “I’m starting to appreciate them more. It’s more special to spend time with them when I go back home. I love just hanging out with them and going out back home and having dinner with my family. I have to email them a lot because they aren’t comfortable with Skype yet.”
The only way he knows how to pay his family back is by accomplishing the goals he set when he left home in 2013.
Whatever lies ahead, Schaffer acknowledges that he’s somewhat of a trailblazer for kids in his native Austria and those throughout Europe watching his journey closely.
His success to this point is something that isn’t lost on his loved ones back home. In fact, he notes that he has a younger cousin who has plans on following in his footsteps next year.
“I want to open up the minds for coaches in college about international players,” Schaffer said. “It’s amazing that a kid like me (can) come from Austria and get 18 offers from some of the best programs in the country. I definitely want to be an inspiration for people in different countries in Europe. They can now believe that they can make it happen if they put enough work into it.”
Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.