From Serbia to CFB

At 6'8" and 325 pounds, offensive lineman Ilija Krajnovic has a future waiting in college football and a dream of the NFL—without ever having played a game in the United States.
photo of Adam KramerAdam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterAugust 3, 2020

He is all alone in Room 225 at Ascender Hall East. It is a Friday afternoon in the middle of June. Dinnertime nears. His workouts for the day are done, and his nightly routine will soon commence. Ilija Krajnovic is both thankful for an opportunity that will change his life and homesick in a way he can't quite put into words.

His roommate left months ago, back when everything first started to shut down in the United States. Here at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, one of the most prestigious high school football programs in America, June is normally a time when the campus is flush with future collegiate stars preparing for the season. But not this year. Not with the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the world—prompting IMG to send each one of its football players home.

With the exception of one.

Krajnovic stayed. Not because he wanted to stay, but because he had no choice. First, because he wasn't allowed to return to his home in Zrenjanin, Serbia. Then, because he wasn't sure he would be allowed to come back and his dream of becoming the first player from his country to play in the NFL would be derailed.

It's a dream that has existed for only 16 months. That's how long Krajnovic has been playing football. But that short time has convinced him it can be reality.

He has yet to play in a game on American soil. And his game, by his own admission, has a long way to go. At 6'8" and 325 pounds, though, Krajnovic is blessed with a professional lineman's body and a champion's fire.

"I know this: If he was a kid in Cincinnati, 247Sports and Rivals would have him as a 5-star prospect," says Paul Alexander, a longtime NFL offensive line coach who helped discover Krajnovic. "If he came up with football, he'd be one of the top high school offensive linemen in the country."

Boston College saw the talent. The school was so intrigued by the size and the gifts and the potential that it extended him a scholarship offer before seeing him play. The 17-year-old senior-to-be didn't hesitate with his response.

Ilija Krajnovic @ilija_krajnovic

After my conversation with @CoachJeffHafley and @Coach_Applebaum of Boston College I have decided to commit! I want to thank my family and my country of Serbia for being such a huge support during this process. 🙏🏻🇷🇸 @CoachBA1010 @dzoloty @ghegamin @BCollierPPI @SAAFrs https://t.co/p9id0qOkOf

Amid chaos and loneliness, Krajnovic's breakthrough arrived more quickly than he could've ever imagined. And while he is anxious to go home and celebrate with his family and friends, he also wants to be here, where his dreams are coming true, where he knows that somewhere beyond this current life of loneliness and waiting, a debut and another step toward his future await.

From the chest up, Krajnovic looks a bit like Rob Gronkowski: lime green tank top with black trim, gray reading glasses, shaved head. Although his shoulders, neck and head seem to occupy much of the computer screen on the Zoom call, he still has a babyface and an overpowering smile that he is not shy in sharing.

"You can call me Elijah," he says through a thick Serbian accent. "In English, that's my name."

He began learning English at his elementary school in Serbia. On occasion, he'll take a long pause—not to search for the appropriate words but to gather his thoughts.   

While his English lessons began early, he credits football for his rapid improvement. Spending six months in the United States has allowed his vocabulary to flourish. Even with his teammates gone, Krajnovic says, YouTube, Call of Duty and movies have only fast-tracked his growth.

But the language Krajnovic speaks most fluently is actually music. He starts each morning by blasting electronic in his room. With the hallways empty, he can listen as loud as he likes as he showers and brushes his teeth.

"To the max," he says. "I want my mornings sounding good."

At night, after he plays a few games of FIFA 20 in the lobby with the select few athletes in other sports still on campus, he retreats to his room, and the music blasts again. Once he finds the proper inspiration, he then fires up his black keyboard, PC and speakers—things that were given to him when he arrived to help pass the time—and creates some music of his own.

While many experiences since he came to the U.S. have been firsts, this is not one of them. Since elementary school, music has been a fixture of Krajnovic's life. It started with the trumpet and then the piano and then came a love of electronic music.

As the love grew stronger, Krajnovic ventured out to electronic music festivals in Serbia. He eventually connected with a few local DJs in search of advice. In a matter of months, at the age of 15, he was DJing at nightclubs across Serbia.

"Elite nightclubs," he emphasizes. "The most elite clubs in my country."

Because of his size, Krajnovic was rarely questioned about his age. If an owner of a club asked, he never lied. Nor did they ever seem to care.

His nights often started around 11 p.m and ended sometime near sunrise. If the nightclub was close to home, he would walk home. If it was in another city, his father, Rade, would drive him and pick him up the following morning. In some instances, if the gig was in the middle of the week, he would sleep an hour or so and head to school.

The money was good. So good that Krajnovic thought it would be his calling. So good that some weeks he would earn nearly as much money as his father—who works as a forest ranger—made in a month.

DJing wasn't just a passion. It was a necessity. It was a chance to take financial pressure off his family.

"I learned that I needed to have my own money because my parents were not in a situation to provide it sometimes," he says. "I wanted to help them. They didn't have to think or worry about me anymore."

His last night of DJing came on New Year's Eve of last year. A few weeks later, he got on a plane and headed to America.

Before football, there was volleyball. Before volleyball, there was water polo. Before that, kickboxing and mixed martial arts. Basketball. Soccer. At some point or another, Krajnovic tried every sport available to him. He always seemed to gravitate to contact sports, though.

"The referee can't see what happens underwater when you play water polo," he says. "That's a nasty sport."

In his final game, after playing water polo for two years, Krajnovic was kicked in a place no one wants to be kicked. He responded with a punch, breaking his opponent's nose.

In volleyball, he was a middle blocker for the U19 Serbian team. His height provided a natural advantage. Over the course of seven years, his game blossomed. But when his coach asked him to lose weight, he began searching for something else.

His older brother, Jovan, encouraged him to try football. Jovan had picked it up years earlier, playing defensive end, and sold him on the idea.

"He told me that this was a sport where you can beat up people legally," Krajnovic says. "So, I was really excited about it."

In March 2019, Krajnovic joined a local league composed of men mostly in their 30s and 40s. Working men who, like Krajnovic, were into the idea of regulated violence.

On his first day, he was largely unable to participate because they didn't have pads or a helmet that fit him. When they found him some that did, he was immediately disruptive. Krajnovic played nose tackle at the start. Knowing little about the rules and strategy, his size took over.

When the league's season ended later that summer, Krajnovic latched onto the Serbian U19 team in the fall. He switched from the defensive line to offensive line at his coach's recommendation—a change he protested at first.

Photo courtesy of IMG Academy

"I wanted to chase and not be chased," he says.

The move was made to take advantage of his physical gifts even more so than he already was. While he fought it at first, he settled into his new role. And soon after, others began to take notice.

It was a cold, rainy December day last year in Berlin. Krajnovic and his father had just spent two days in the car, driving from Serbia to Germany for a football camp in a gymnasium normally reserved for soccer.

Rade had taken out a loan to pay for the trip. It was the second time his son had been invited to one of these camps, which are crucial for European prospects to get enough exposure to get recruited by U.S. teams. The family had declined the first opportunity. Rade didn't want to deny his son another.

"I knew that I had to do it," Rade says. "And I wanted to give him a chance to make it happen. I really didn't know what would happen, but I didn't want any regrets."

The man behind the camp, Brandon Collier, has made it his mission to place football players from around the world on college campuses in the United States. Collier, the founder of PPI Recruits, has worked with football players in more than 20 countries.

Over time, Collier has built up an expanding pipeline of coaches who recommend players. When he heard from one of these coaches about a 6'8" Serbian lineman, he had to know more.

Accompanying Collier to Berlin was Alexander, who served as the Cincinnati Bengals offensive line coach for 23 years and has worked with some of the best collegiate offensive linemen in the past two drafts.

When Alexander first laid eyes on Krajnovic, he was instantly intrigued. The size. The presence. The confidence. "He looked like a 5-star recruit," Alexander recalls.  

As the two began to work, Alexander saw just how raw Krajnovic still was. They started from scratch—with his stance—and the crash course began. Despite the obvious inexperience, there were glimpses. Enough of them to convince both Alexander and Collier there was something to work with.

In the weeks that followed, it wasn't Collier who made the first move. Instead, he received a call from IMG Academy. It needed a lineman.

Krajnovic, who had never heard of the program, developed an interest as he learned about the school's reputation. The major hurdle, however, was again finances.

Getting to Berlin was enough of a struggle; getting to the United States was almost unfathomable by comparison.

Rade thought about selling his car to pay for it. Instead, he ultimately settled on a seven-year loan—a loan he will pay long after his son is out of high school and even college.

"That's love," Krajnovic says. "They want a better life for me."

The first practice was hell. His words.

January 28, 2020. A date he'll remember for the rest of his life.

Krajnovic remembers how out of place he felt. How sore his body was when he lifted weights for the first time. How awful, even after refinement, his stance and technique were.

He was never star-struck. Perhaps because he didn't know any better. But more than likely, it's just who he is and where he comes from.  

Beneath the charm and smile, there is a fire. He was born with it. And in Serbia, it just becomes you. Krajnovic would prefer not to talk about the politics of his country—or about his family's financial struggles and how different his upbringing has been than those he meets here.

Lining up against some of the best football players in the country in a sport he doesn't truly fully comprehend yet? By comparison, it doesn't feel so bad.

"I don't give a f--k who you are or what your rating is," he says. "I'm just going to block you and you're not going to pass me, and that's it. I played with 40-year-olds who were like angry dogs. I've fought with grown men, and they couldn't pass me.

"Some kid who has so many stars and is committed somewhere thinks he can? Bulls--t. You're not."

Bobby Acosta was acclimating to life at IMG Academy when the world shut down.

Before being named the head coach of the national varsity team in late January, he had worked as an assistant at the collegiate level. This was his breakthrough job, in many respects. But then six weeks in, just as familiarity was setting in, everything changed. The pandemic arrived, his players went home and, like that, he was left with one player he knew little about who had played football for only a year.

But Acosta was fascinated. He assumed at first that Krajnovic had to be one of the most coveted offensive linemen in the country based on his appearance alone. Then he watched him struggle. Then he learned his story.

When the campus emptied, Krajnovic came to Acosta's office and bared his soul. He was scared, bored and all alone in a new country. In many respects, Acosta shared the same emotions.

"My family was still in New Jersey at the time," Acosta says. "My kids were in New Jersey. I was alone here. If it wasn't for Ilija, I think I'd also be lost."

Together, they built a routine. They found comfort in each other's company. It was born out of necessity but quickly evolved into something more.

They went fishing. They ate dinner. They drove a golf cart around campus, talking about life and football and where Krajnovic came from.

One night, Krajnovic drove the two of them in the golf cart to the football field. It was his first time driving. And then they sat, overlooking the vacant grass, and talked some more.

"He thanked me for helping him become successful," Acosta says. "And [he said] that he would take care of me and my kids in the future. That's when it really hit me about this job. I knew why I was here."

He couldn't squat the barbell when he arrived. The motion was too unfamiliar. His muscles were still so untrained. It wasn't until these past few months that Krajnovic's football life has changed.

For him, the pandemic brought heavy emotional burden and seclusion, but it also allowed him one-on-one training and a level of guidance he likely would've never received had this not occurred.

George Hegamin recognized the opportunity. The offensive line coach at IMG Academy won a Super Bowl playing for the Dallas Cowboys. He also spent a season in Germany playing for the Frankfurt Galaxy—seeing firsthand the interest in the sport outside the United States.

He too saw the rawness, and the potential. And so, each day the two worked together while navigating unique social-distancing guidelines. They began with his stance, which was completely overhauled for a second time. From there, they progressed into his technique and the terminology and the nuance of playing a complicated position.

"Had we continued under normal circumstances, he would have still gotten better," Hegamin says. "I just don't think he would have gotten as much better as fast. The pandemic basically allowed three months of one-on-one tutoring. He's benefited from that greatly."

Krajnovic was not shy about asking questions or having a dialogue with coaches about his progress. And with each day, Hegamin saw the guidance translate into results.

Those results also translated to the weight room. Krajnovic went from being unable to properly squat the bar to having a 405-pound squat. He added 25 pounds to his frame.

He also ran the 40-yard dash in 4.93 seconds. Rare speed for the position and even rarer for someone his size.

"Ilija will be a productive college football player," Hegamin adds. "With his measurables and his willpower, could the NFL be a possibility? Absolutely. Because the one thing you can't coach is size. They're not rolling out 6'8", 325-pound men that can move every day."

Photo courtesy of IMG Academy

The coaches, recognizing the progress, decided to film Krajnovic doing drills one afternoon during the shutdown on the sand volleyball courts. Not game tape. No real competition. Just drills and movement.

When Boston College saw the footage, knowing that he was still months away from playing his first high school game, it made its offer.

Krajnovic committed on the spot.

He is no longer alone in his dorm. Instead he is sitting to the left of his father at their home in Serbia.

A few days after his first interview with B/R, as travel restrictions eased and he became more comfortable with the idea that he could go home and be able to return, Krajnovic would take a 13-hour, 5,500-mile trip to Zrenjanin. Finally. Back to the place where he used to DJ at some of the country's most established nightclubs as a teenager. Back to a city that hardened him growing up. Back to a country he never thought he'd leave.

He is shirtless, having finished a workout. It is early July. Dinnertime in Serbia approaches. Father and son just spoke with the coaches at Boston College. While Rade doesn't fully grasp the process just yet, he knows his son's life is about to change and that his gamble and faith are already paying dividends.

It took Krajnovic a few days to adjust to the six-hour time change and jet lag, but he is happy to be home to see his family and friends for a few weeks.

When the two met at the airport, Ilija hugged his father, lifted him up into the air and twirled him around. Neither of them thought this reunion would come so quickly. In truth, they didn't know it would happen at all.

But it is here, even if he hasn't played a single down. And while the immediate future for football and life is still crammed with many unknowns, there is a certain peace and calm they both share.

The plan is to finish the fall at IMG Academy and enroll early at Boston College in January. But before then, plenty of questions remain. 

When will Krajnovic debut? What will it look like when he does? Will there be football played at all? Will other college football programs eventually show interest?

In time, those questions will be answered. For now, the journey remains on pause.

The grind, however, persists. Since coming home, Krajnovic has managed to work out almost every day. He's hungrier than he's ever been, and he's equipped with the knowledge and training to put that hunger into motion.

As he works, not in the pristine facilities at IMG Academy but the fields a few blocks from his home, he finds himself thinking even bigger.

"My dream now is to become the first Serbian NFL player," he says. "That is my dream. With that kind of money, I'm going to change my life and my family's life completely."

In less than a week, he will depart Serbia and return to America. Back to his dorm room and his keyboard. Back to the practice fields where there is still so much left to learn.

But at least right now, as father and son sit side by side trading occasional smiles on the other side of the world, the road ahead doesn't seem so daunting.


Adam Kramer covers college football and recruiting for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.