Sander serves as the holder for France's kicks in addition to his punting duties.
One graduated from the University of Toledo, the other from Ohio State University. One was a national champion in college, the other a Mid-American Conference champion. One is in his second year in NFL Europe, the other his first. One is starting his own landscaping business, the other plans to be a professor in mechanical engineering after his football career. One kicks right-footed, the other punts left.
While the differences are endless for Sea Devils' kicker Todd France and punter B.J. Sander, at least one significant similarity exists between the two - they both led the NFL Europe league in their respective categories during week one and have proven they have the potential to be dangerous weapons for the expansion franchise this season.
In the Sea Devils opening game against the Cologne Centurions, the right-legged France, who was allocated by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, tied two all-time, single-game league records and won the Special Teams Player of the Week award, as he hit 5-of-6 field goals, including one from 54-yards. His five made field goals tied former national kickers Manfred Burgsmüller and Jesus Angoy's past performances and placed France atop all American kickers in the category. His six attempts were the most since Ralf Kleinmann in 1997, who was also a national player.
From the left, Sander, allocated by the Green Bay Packers, punted three times for 133 yards, leading the league with a 44.3 yards-per-punt net average. While one of his kicks was downed inside the 20-yard line, another was fair caught and the third was fumbled by the returner and recovered by the Sea Devils. He also kicked a 71-yarder that was called back due to an offensive offsides.
But Sander and France have more in common than just outstanding performances in the Sea Devils inaugural game. Their parallels date back to their individual childhoods, where they both grew up in Ohio. The two began by playing soccer in their hometowns - Maumee for France and Cincinnati for Sander - and the white and black ball eventually led them to the football field. In the end, however, one turned his focus solely to football much sooner than the other.
"I actually started playing football in the sixth grade," said Sander. "They were looking for a kicker and a punter for the grade school team, and I said I could do it, so it kind of took off from there. I played kicker and punter along with tight end and defensive end. Ever since then I've played football only."
France, on the other hand, continued to play soccer throughout high school despite starting his football career as a freshman in high school. His two older brothers, who have 9 and 3 years on their youngest sibling, both played soccer and football before Todd. The eldest kicked for the football team his senior year, while the middle went on to play soccer in college. The third chose to pursue football after high school, and as a result, he made the University of Toledo incredibly happy.
As a four-year starter at Toledo, France became the all-time scoring leader among kickers in the Mid-American Conference with 320 points. He finished second in Toledo's record books with 56-of-81 field goals made and missed only two extra points his entire collegiate career, connecting on 152-of-154 PATs. In honor of his efforts, France was nominated for the Lou Groza Award, which is given to the nation's top kicker each year. Just another similarity between he and Sander.
Sander chose to stay in his home state and play college ball for Ohio State. During his time at OSU, Sander was a two-time letterman after redshirting as a freshman in 1999. In 2000, he saw time in 12 games and averaged 41.9 yards per kick. The following year a back injury limited him to two appearances, and as a junior he served as a backup only. It wasn't until his senior season before he exploded on the football scene.
In that final year, Sander broke a school record with 82 punts for 3,553 yards (43.3 avg.), including leading the nation with 38 kicks inside the opponent's 20-yard line. He was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the conference coaches and won the 2003 "Ray Guy Award," given to the nation's top punter.
While the two did very well in their individual college careers, a minor difference, one that France jokingly shows his bitterness about, exists with their team performances. Both schools saw success on the football field, but it was Sander's Buckeyes who won the national championship while he was there, which remains one of the punter's greatest football memories along with the individual award he snagged. On the other side, France's squad won the Mid-American Conference championship and the Music City Bowl, both respectable honors, but he also has one other claim that Sander can't take away, which is in the conference championship, France was given the chance to score more than his regular field goals or extra points.
"I actually scored a touchdown in the MAC championship," said France. "It was on a fake we practiced the week before but didn't use, so we decided to use it in the championship. The snap went to the holder, who held the ball up, and I ran down the middle for a touchdown."
After their college careers, both Sander and France were pursued by professional teams. France has spent time with several squads, including the Minnesota Vikings, the New York Giants and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers since graduation in 2002. He also played the 2003 NFL Europe season as a member of the Rhein Fire. Sander has only been in the league one year after being selected by the Packers in the third round of the 2004 NFL Draft.
"I knew going into draft day that I had a very good chance of getting drafted, but a lot of it depends on who's drafting and what the team needs at the time," said Sander. "The Packers called me early on Saturday and wanted to know what I had been hearing. I told them a couple of teams were interested but they didn't think they would do anything until, at the earliest, the end of the third round or the beginning of the fourth round. They told me they were going to try get me, but they didn't know when...They ended up trading with Miami again later to get another third-round pick, and they took me there, so it was a pretty exciting day."
Although they took different routes to where they are now, both have learned along the way there are several misunderstandings regarding their individual positions.
"I think the biggest misconception is that, even though B.J. and I are pretty good at what we do, we're in this league because there are only 32 spots available for a kicker in the NFL," said France. "There is only one spot per team. A lot of people come up and say, "Well you can be a backup kicker," but there are no backups. It's not like teams carry two or three kickers or two or three punters, so you really have to be good and be good consistently to be in the league a long time."
For Sander, it's more about the "easy job" remarks used in reference to both the punter and kicker positions.
"It's the easiest job you can have six days out of the week, yes, but it's probably the hardest job on Sundays because you only get one shot to prove yourself, and you may not get another shot until 20 minutes later or maybe even the next week to prove yourself," he said. "If you're in another position people may not notice your mistake or you get a chance to redeem yourself on the next play or the next series. So everybody says it's easy to be a punter or a kicker; well yeah, until it comes down to Sundays when you actually have to go out there and do it."
To combat the pressures they face, the two have developed their own habits before and during games.
"I have my pre-game routine, which I like to stay in because that way I feel comfortable," said Sander. "I know exactly how I feel and when I'm going to be ready. I'm pretty set in my ways."
France, on the other hand, says he does nothing special or superstitious before or during games. Instead he focuses on what he does in practice both in warm-ups and on the field."
"I've kind of learned to fill my head with the mechanics and the fundamentals of what I'm trying to do instead of thinking about making or missing it and all the extracurricular thoughts that can run through your head at that point," said France. "As long as I'm thinking of that, nothing else can fill that void."
Both routes have worked, as Sander and France have "gone out there and done it" for the Sea Devils through the first week. The two, although they miss their families and friends back in the states, are using this opportunity to further their careers, and through week one have done a tremendous job.
"As a team I hope we make it to the World Bowl and come home with a championship, but personally I just want to get better each day at a time and get a lot of game experience," said France. "That's my biggest drawback in talking with coaches in the NFL. Obviously I want to play in the league someday, and hopefully this will be my year, but just getting the the experience is exactly what I need."
"I want to prove to my coaches back in Green Bay what I know I'm capable of doing," said Sander. "I want to show them that this is what I can do and help them gain the confidence in me that I already have in me, so they're not out there worried about what I'm going to do next."
If last Saturday's game at Cologne was any indication of the remainder of their season, both France and Sander will accomplish their individual goals, and holding a permanent place on an NFL roster will be the next similarity they share.