The road that connects Sweden to Stanford Football is not an obvious one, and in the story of Gustav Rydstedt, it was one that started when he was a 300+ pound youngster growing up in Stockholm. American football is not a big sport in Scandinavia, or anywhere in Europe, so it took a few stops before Rydstedt found his final destination.
"I've always been really big," the 6'4" Swede begins his tale. "I was a computer geek - no life whatsoever. I took a look at my life and decided I was a loser. I wanted to do something with myself and my life. I wanted to find a sport."
The first obvious draw for a European is to the soccer field, and with his oversized frame, Rydstedt was logically slotted to play goalkeeper. That was burgeoning athletic career was cut short when he caught a ball, turned a pirouette and accidentally kicked the ball into his own goal. No more soccer.
When you live in the land of ice and snow, you inevitably gravitate to hockey, and that was the next stop on Rydstedt's journey of sporting exploration. But coaches and organizers quickly kicked him out of the youth league for being too aggressive and inciting too many fights.
"I had seen some American football on TV and thought I would give that a try," he tells.
On the gridiron, the searching Swede found his element. Aggression and hitting were encouraged, and his big frame could be leveraged to his benefit. Rydstedt took the sport like a fish to water, and he began to change his body. Fat melted away like snow in the spring, and his fitness accelerated.
His big break as a football player came in 2001 when he took a year as an exchanged student to the United States. His older brother had done the same thing, and played a year of football while at a high school in Sacramento. The younger Rydstedt found himself in a greater weather and culture shock when he landed in Southaven Mississippi.
"Where I came from was so cold, and it was so hot with so much humidity in Mississippi," the Swede says. "I really wanted to excel as a football player, though, so I didn't mind. It was also a chance for me to get out of Sweden, which was a nice change."
At a lean and mean 235 pounds, Rydstedt quickly ascended to the left tackle starting job for Southaven High School, much to the delight of head coach Calvin Aldridge.
"He already knew something about football," Aldridge recounts. "He knew the terminology of all the blocks, the stances, the footwork – plus, he was a quick learner. He caught on really well."
"Whoever had him over there [in Sweden] coached him up real well," the renowned Mississippi coach praises. "He was a fine football player - great feet and a strong kid. He loved our weight program and really took to it. He has great reach and a willingness to learn. In games, he figured out an opponent pretty well after a few plays."
"I wish we could have had him another year," Aldridge waxes. "So he's going to Stanford? Good for him. They got themselves a good football player."
Rydstedt carried a new enthusiasm for weight training back with him to Stockholm, and has since built his body up to its present-day 282 pounds. You should also know that the European player is older than your average high school senior for two reasons. First, the school system over there puts kids through 13 years of school rather than 12. Additionally, they did not give him credit at IT-Gymnasiet (a school specializing in physics, math and computer science) for his one year of American education. He is currently 19 years old and will turn 20 this summer.
He continued to play football back in Sweden, on a junior club team (the Solna Chiefs) with amateur status. Rydstedt has also played for the Swedish National Team. But his big breakthrough came last year at the NFL Europe Youth Elite Camp. The best prep talents in the continent gathered to show their stuff to scouts, and a few U.S. college coaches were among the attendees.
Southeast Missouri State, New Hampshire, Houston and Louisiana Tech all spotted Rydstedt and recruited him from that point. Scottish Claymores offensive coordinator Ken Margerum was also in attendance, looking for talents for his NFL Europe team. The Swedish prep knew Margerum by reputation and that that he was a Stanford alumnus, so he approached the coach.
"I wanted Stanford academically," Rydstedt explains. "My academic goals are really big, but I also want to play bigtime college ball. I had other offers, but I didn't think those schools were academically good enough."
Rydstedt asked Margerum about Stanford and his experiences at the school, and the Stockholm star left the camp with the Claymores coach's telephone number. When he lost those digits, as he tells the tale, he called the Stanford Football office to relocate Margerum's contact information. The Swede was transferred to defensive tackles coach Dave Tipton, and the rest is history, culminating in a signed National Letter of Intent this week for Stanford.
"The day I was accepted to Stanford was the most exciting day of my life," Rydstedt gushes. "To sign this scholarship letter to play at Stanford - well, just say I died and came to heaven. From the 10 inches of snow, playing football in fields more often used as parking lots than sports, to beautiful California with awesome football and great academics. Hey, that is heaven defined."
And so Gustav Rydstedt is the 13th player to sign a Letter of Intent for Stanford in this 2004 recruiting class. He is the only defensive tackle in this year's crop, which places a burden on his shoulders, as well as the Cardinal coaches for signing a European student-athlete. The question everyone will ask is whether a kid from Stockholm has the competitive background and experience level to play Pac-10 football and help fill a very big need in Stanford's defensive interior.
This is not just another European high schooler, however. He has a year of football under his belt at one of the top programs in the South, and he also played for Team Europe in NFL Global Junior Championship VII in January of 2003. Five international teams played in that event in San Diego, and in a shocker, fourth place Team Europe held champion Team USA to just seven points in a 7-0 defeat. If you ask Rydstedt, being a leader on that defense was one of his greatest football achievements in his career.
"I think I have the motor and the will," Rydstedt offers on behalf of his football abilities and prospects. "Nobody can stop me, I think. I'm a physical player and an aggressive player. I still need to work on my strength. I am strong by Swedish standards but might be mediocre by U.S. standards."
Translating from kilograms to pounds, the 19-year old gridder can squat over 500 pounds today and can bench 225 pounds 23 times. He runs a 4.9 40 and moves very well for his size.
The book is barely begun for this super Swede's college football career, and of all the signees in this Stanford class, Rydstedt is clearly the greatest unknown. We will know more about his abilities when he gets on campus in August, but he has good knowledge and understanding of the game that should allow him to hit the ground running. How far he climbs the learning curve will be up to him. I can hear his fire and passion when I speak with him, so I like his chances.
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