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May 25, 2011

Amsterdam trio finds home at Boise State

Cedric Febis' first high school scrimmage showed the defensive back from Amsterdam how much he had to learn to compete in the United States.

Then a cornerback at Boise (Idaho) Bishop Kelly, Febis lined up to cover a receiver. The ball was snapped, the quarterback put the ball in the chest of the running back and Febis ran toward the line of scrimmage.

That's when he learned about a play-action pass.

"I thought it was a run; I swear it was a run," Febis says. "I looked up and I saw the ball fly over my head.

"I had to learn the hard way."

Now a fifth-year senior at Boise State, Febis has come a long way -- in football and geography. He is one of three natives of Amsterdam, along with fellow Dutchmen Geraldo Hiwat and Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe, on the Broncos' roster.

All three are poised to play major roles for Boise State this season. Febis is expected to start at strong safety following the graduation of Jeron Johnson, who led Boise State in tackles in each of the past three seasons. Hiwat had five catches for 97 yards in the final scrimmage and emerged during the spring as a likely starting wide receiver. Tjong-A-Tjoe has the look of a future star, but this season, he's third in the defensive tackle rotation behind returning starters Billy Winn and Chase Baker.

If all three become impact players for Boise State, the Broncos will give credit to former assistant Romeo Bandison, who was born in The Hague in the Netherlands and grew up near Amsterdam. A former player with the Amsterdam Crusaders club team, Bandison reached out to club chairman John Mahnen in 2005 to see if any of his players were interested in playing high school football in the United States.

That was the same track followed by Bandison, who played club football in Amsterdam before moving to California to finish high school at Mill Valley (Calif.) Tamalpais. He earned a scholarship offer from Oregon, then was a third-round draft pick of the Washington Redskins in 1994. He played three seasons for the Redskins before he began a coaching career as a graduate assistant at Oregon. He later worked for Dan Hawkins at Boise State and Colorado.

At the time, Mahnen's Crusaders team included Febis, who had outgrown the club football scene in Amsterdam.

"There was no guarantee of me making it to the next level, but I wanted to see what I had, to compete against better kids," Febis says. "And there weren't better kids in Amsterdam. It was a shot in the dark to see what happens."

Boise-to-Amsterdam connection
Here's a look at Boise State's three Amsterdam natives:
Class: Senior
Position: Strong safety
Height/Weight: 6-3/202
The buzz: He's expected to start in the spot previously held by standout Jeron Johnson, who led the Broncos in tackles in each of the past two seasons. Febis, who has been a special teams standout, has 54 tackles and three pass breakups in his career. He tied a career-high with five tackles in last season's victory over Virginia Tech.

Class: Sophomore
Position: Wide receiver
Height/Weight: 6-4/200
The buzz: Boise must replace star receivers Austin Pettis and Titus Young, and Hiwat's spring performance put him in good position for a starting job. He has 11 career receptions, for 160 yards.

Class: Sophomore
Position: Defensive tackle
Height/Weight: 6-3/307
The buzz: Coaches are high on Tjong-A-Tjoe's potential, but he likely will serve as a backup to returning starters Chase Baker and Billy Winn. Tjong-A-Tjoe had 24 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss last season.

Thanks to the connection with Boise State, Febis and three friends attended a Broncos camp. While it was just a weekend event, the four stayed in Boise for 10 days.

Febis learned Bishop Kelly had an international program, so he enrolled and moved in with a host family for his senior year of high school. He joined the football team and eventually learned not to bite on the play fake; he also became an all-state performer on an undefeated state championship team.

Boise State recruited Febis but didn't have a spot for him after his high school graduation. He grayshirted before earning a roster spot. At the time, he was a raw athlete, getting by on size, speed and instinct but not technique.

"The worst-case scenario was you're going to get a good athlete who can help you somewhere and is a great kid and a great student," Bandison says. "That was the worst-case scenario. He was a guy you couldn't pass up."

Before Febis became a regular for Boise State, he was a well-known name in Amsterdam football circles. Hiwat and Tjong-A-Tjoe were teammates for another club team, the Amsterdam Panthers, when they got the idea to follow Febis and travel to the United States. The other choice was to pursue a semi-pro career in Germany, which would end any hope of competing in high school or college in the U.S.

The two worked at a movie theater and with a parcel service to earn the cash to move to the U.S. Picking Boise wasn't a coincidence.

"It was because of Cedric, really," Hiwat says. "He was already here, so that's why we decided to come, too."

Hiwat enrolled at Boise Capital for his senior year, and Tjong-A-Tjoe enrolled at Boise High. Tjong-A-Tjoe brought along two other teammates who ended up getting scholarships -- Idaho linebacker Jeffrey Bediako and South Dakota defensive lineman Donny Alves Fortes.

Talent-wise, the football in Idaho was similar to club ball in Amsterdam. Better high school teams in places such as California, Florida and Texas, though, "would whoop up on those club teams," Bandison says.

As with Febis, Hiwat and Tjong-A-Tjoe faced an adjustment period. Febis warned the younger players to be mindful of the cultural differences between Amsterdam and Boise. An 18-year-old with alcohol might not be a big deal in Europe, but it could land a player in trouble with the law in the United States.

Bandison said the culture in Amsterdam tends to cater more to young people. He cited public transportation as a big difference. Bandison never had a car until he reached the NFL, and the driving age in the Netherlands is 18. A train ride to visit friends was common in Amsterdam; visiting a friend would require a car in most areas of the U.S.

The biggest barrier, though, was language. All three arrived speaking Dutch and a limited amount of English.

"All I really knew of English was from movies," Hiwat says. "At first it was scary. My first couple of weeks, I didn't talk that much. After a while, it got better and better."

The language barrier was most evident for Tjong-A-Tjoe in football-speak, words and phrases such as "leverage" or "three technique" and so on.

"The first week or so, he got pushed all over the football field," says Bob Clark, Tjong-A-Tjoe's coach at Boise High. "He just didn't have technical skills, no fundamentals. He just worked his butt off. You could literally see him improve every day. It just clicked for him."

The quick development for Tjong-A-Tjoe and Hiwat doesn't come as a surprise to Bandison, who experienced his own quick transformation when he started playing high school football in California.

Dutch football players don't start playing tackle football until around age 14, and they play nine-man football until about age 16. They practice three times a week, which includes one light walk-through the day before a game.

Playing football in Amsterdam clearly is a labor of love. Soccer, of course, is No. 1, but how under the radar is football? Many of the friends of Boise State's three Dutch players thought they played rugby.

Amsterdam had an NFL Europe team, the Admirals, until the league disbanded in 2007. Fans could watch American college football or the NFL on satellite or the Internet, but the time difference meant they would either need to stay up late or wake up in the wee hours of the morning to watch.

For Febis, Hiwat and Tjong-A-Tjoe, playing football meant a financial sacrifice. Yearly dues for club football can be between 150 and 250 Euros (between about $210 and $350 American). Equipment can run as high as 300 Euros (about $425 American).

Moving to the United States has been a personal sacrifice as well. Febis' parents came for his high school graduation, and his dad has visited one other time. Hiwat and Tjong-A-Tjoe communicate with family by text or Skype, but the time difference makes communication difficult. Each tries to return home once or twice a year.

More often than not, the host families from high school serve as surrogate families for holidays and birthdays. The homesickness is eased somewhat for the three Boise players because two of their teammates speak Dutch.

Hiwat and Tjong-A-Tjoe still have two seasons left at Boise State, but this season is the last chance for all three to be on the field together. Febis, a redshirt senior, doesn't know the next step or next destination in his career.

"If possible I'd like to stay, but I haven't been home in so long," Febis says. "If I stay or go home, I'll be successful, wherever it is."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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