Before moving to Gwinnett County from Johannesburg, South Africa, almost a decade ago, the only thing Jordan van den Berg knew about American football was what he’d seen in movies.
“It turns out the movies aren’t that accurate,” the Peachtree Corners resident quipped.
But van den Berg’s story is one worthy of the big screen as he transitioned from rugby, cricket and swimming in his home country to football, playing at Providence Christian Academy and in junior college, and then realizing a dream — the chance to play Division I college football.
A 2020 graduate of Providence Christian, van den Berg hit the bull’s eye by signing with Penn State after spending this past season at Iowa Western Community College, solidifying his long-held belief that exposure would bring a Division I offer.
He is the first Storm football player in school history to sign with a Power Five school; van den Berg’s former teammate Skyler Jordan signed was the school’s first Division I signee, inking with Alcorn State in March.
“I felt like I didn’t have the opportunities I wanted, so I decided to walk on to Iowa Western, which is probably one of the top JUCO programs in the country,” said van den Berg, who reported to State College, Penn., in mid-June. “I felt this was where I could get the most college eyes on me.”
“He bet on himself,” said former Providence Christian defensive coordinator Ken Aldridge. “And he wound up getting three Power Five offers — Iowa, Nebraska and Penn State.”
The 6-foot-3-inch 280-pound van den Berg, who played linebacker at Providence Christian and is slotted as a defensive lineman by Penn State, played his first game of football in the 10th grade.
“All my friends played it and I just wanted to play a contact sport,” he said.
As a Providence senior, van den Berg was 6-3, 225 pounds.
“J.J. didn’t really have a whole lot of football I.Q. — he didn’t know things that you generally take for granted,” said Aldridge, who has coached football throughout Northeast Georgia in a career spanning 30 years. “But he made up for it with his effort, and he really wanted to learn. A lot of kids these days don’t take instruction or coaching very well and he took whatever you said, soaked it up and tried to do exactly what you told him to do.”
“I think I picked it up pretty quick,” van den Berg said of the early days of his ongoing football education. “I had a little bit of a disadvantage because it was my first year playing, but I tried to learn it as fast as I could.”
While at Providence Christian, van den Berg was named Region 5-A Private’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2020 and was first-team all-region his junior and senior years. He was a second-team All-Gwinnett selection as a senior and was named the Storm’s Defensive MVP his junior and senior seasons.
Aldridge — who is not coaching football this fall but will be coaching middle school softball — said van den Berg has two gears. Wide open and off.
“He’s got the best motor of any player I’ve ever coached,” said Aldridge. “I’ve coached eight players that played in the NFL and none of their motors at his age were as good as his. J.J. is the kind of kid that if you tell him he has to run through a wall in order to get to something, well, he’s going headlong into that wall. He wouldn’t ask why he needs to go through the wall — he just knows when he gets through that wall that he gets the job done.”
Although van den Berg was injured in his first game at Iowa Western (which played an abbreviated spring schedule, ending its season on May 21 with a 7-1 record), he came back to play the final few games of the season and earned first-team all-conference honors from the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference. He said the transition to the defensive line was made somewhat easier by a long preseason.
“Learning a new position wasn’t too bad because I got on campus in June 2020 and our season didn’t start until March 27, so I had a lot of time to learn the position,” he said.
While Providence Christian football has experienced its share of struggles during its short existence, Aldridge said he felt van den Berg’s ascension to Penn State is a shot in the arm for the program and the school.
“It’s huge for our school, especially for football, but for any sport,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of D-I baseball players, but people really pay attention to D-I football players, especially from the Power Five.”
Due to the COVID-hampered 2020 season, the NCAA allowed another year for affected student-athletes and van den Berg will enter Penn State as a freshman with a considerable number of credit hours already earned. He plans to study sports communications and ultimately wants to coach.
Just days before taking off to Happy Valley, van den Berg proclaimed himself pleased with the way things have turned out.
“I’m really excited,” he said “This is everything you can dream for as a junior college athlete. Growing up, you care about these huge football programs, and I knew if I got the opportunity I had to take it.”