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August 21, 2013
And journey is the appropriate word for the 6-7, 250-pounder who traveled nearly 10,000 miles from South Africa to play for the Wildcats. De Beer, naturally a rugby player and national record-holding discus thrower, almost never made it to the U of A, however.
Southern Methodist was the first university in the U.S. to show interest, and his cousin, Simone du Toit, competed for the program as a thrower. It was then du Toit who told him the story of Margus Hunt, an Estonian track and field athlete who eventually played football for the Mustangs and went on to become a second-round draft pick for the Cincinnati Bengals in this year's NFL draft.
SMU dropped the men's program by the time Hunt arrived, but told De Beer he could be "put on the same track" in football. The lack of a track and field program turned him off a bit.
Soon after the 2012 World Junior Championships - where De Beer won a bronze medal - Craig Carter, an assistant coach for the Arizona track and field program, got in touch and asked him to continue his career in Tucson.
"At first, I said, 'No, I don't want to come,'" De Beer recalled.
But then he had a change of heart - except, there was one stipulation.
"If I come, I want to play some football, as well," said De Beer, who is now on a track and field scholarship.
Growing up in Pretoria, it is rugby and a different type of football - or, soccer, as the U.S. has come to know the sport - that are the major events in one of South Africa's three capital cities. De Beer grew up competing in a sport that uses an oval-shaped ball and very thin padding, but no helmet.
So where exactly did the interest in American football begin and how much could he possibly know about the sport?
"Everybody (in South Africa) knows about it, but everybody has a fantasy about it, as well," De Beer said. "People think what it is but they don't really know. They don't really know the players, either.
"But when I was small, I knew who Reggie Bush was, one of the great running backs. I know who Aaron Rodgers is, one of the great quarterbacks."
However, the bigger names is where the knowledge ends. De Beer wouldn't be able to recite the history of Arizona football and identify the number of players it has sent to the NFL. Although, there's a wall in the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility that could help him out with that.
But he knew enough about the sport and saw enough videos that piqued his interest in playing.
The differences between rugby and the pace of an Arizona practice were apparent from the start. Instead of continuous motion that requires a different type of physical fitness, the start-and-stop, 10-second bursts have tested his endurance.
"It's a lot more sprints," De Beer said of football.
Certainly a raw product and far from contributing, the Wildcats have moved De Beer from the defensive line to tight end. The size is there, clearly, but it's still a matter of finding a spot that fits best.
With no particular preference because of his limited knowledge - the team had to show him how to put on his pads properly when he first joined the team - De Beer did not mind the change.
"It's really fun," he said of his new position. "I like the offense. I get to catch the ball, run with the ball a little.
"And, on top of that, I'll get to hit people while running."
But it is De Beer's punting ability, from his rugby background, that surprised head coach Rich Rodriguez and his teammates.
After informing the staff, they gave him a look after practice. With ease, he booted a ball 70 yards. Those of us in the media witnessed it after a separate practice, too, and it is no exaggeration.
"He could be the biggest punter in the country," Rodriguez said. "I said, 'If you're the punter, hopefully people won't be coming after you to hit you like in rugby."
Plenty is new off the field for De Beer, as well, and talking to him offers a different perspective compared to how others see the world. As someone who moved from Southern California, the city of Tucson comes off a bit more conservative. But in De Beer's world, one where he was raised in a more conservative culture, his new home comes off as more liberal.
Then, there is the food, which he misses most after his friends and family. In particular, it is biltong and dro?rs that he loved in South Africa.
"They say it's like beef jerky but I heard it's not the same," De Beer said. "I haven't tried beef jerky."
Initially, De Beer was "scared as hell" about the move because of the unknown that the U.S. presented. That feeling quickly went away after the Wildcats embraced him with the family atmosphere that has become a staple of Rodriguez's staff and environment in the program.
The staff and players have their own new experience, as well. The pronunciation of his name, for one, is a challenge that only the equipment staff has conquered, De Beer said.
And he fits right in, with a hulking figure - and firm handshake that could crush walnuts - that is offset by an innocent charm. De Beer uses words like "privileged" to describe his current situation. The little things like the lights in his locker still amaze him.
Charlie Ragle, his new tight ends coach, sees that breath-of-fresh-air attitude translate on the field and calls him "a joy to coach."
"I think he's enjoying himself," Ragle said, "and we're certainly enjoying working with him."