February 24, 2024

BEFORE 2014, GEORGE KARLAFTIS never had football on his radar.

Growing up in Athens, Greece, his sporting plate overflowed with swimming, soccer, tennis, basketball, track and field, judo and water polo, in which Karlaftis fast-tracked as a young teen. Karlaftis fit in every arena. He has a confluence of gifts — size, speed, confidence and drive — that allowed him to pick any athletic endeavor and excel. But Karlaftis ultimately pivoted away from all of those sports, and toward one that rarely, if ever, came up during his childhood.

“[Football] was perceived as very dangerous, barbaric,” he recalled. “A little bit of fear tactics for us not to play.”

His father, Matt, an accomplished athlete in Greece who competed in track and field at the University of Miami, hoped Karlaftis and his two brothers would never participate in football. Matt’s only brush with the sport had led to a traumatic head injury and surgery.

“I was scared, I never really wanted to play growing up, you know, and [in Greece], it’s not really an issue,” Karlaftis said.

But when Matt died on June 4, 2014, George’s life and athletic outlook forever changed. Along with his mother and siblings, he moved to the United States, near his mother’s family in West Lafayette, Indiana. He had to process the trauma of his father’s death while beginning school in a different language, and making new friends. His athletic talent became a way to fit in. After some initial hesitation, Karlaftis began playing a distinctly American sport, and learned to love football, as he blossomed into a star defensive lineman at Purdue.

Now, he’s on the doorstep of the NFL. The draft begins April 28 in Las Vegas, and Karlaftis’ name likely will be called on the first night. Mel Kiper Jr. has the DE being selected at No. 30 in his most recent mock draft.

“To think back on how things have gone, it’s c’est la vie, right? That’s life,” Karlaftis said. “It’s been a lot, everything that’s happened, from the time I was 12, 13 years old to now, certainly massive changes in my life and a lot of other people’s lives. I had to grow up almost overnight and become a man.”

KARLAFTIS HAS SPENT his entire high school and college years in West Lafayette, Indiana, but his roots remain in Greece. He misses many things about his homeland: his family, the food, the culture and, of course, the weather.

“The best summers ever,” he said. “It’s a different atmosphere than anywhere in the world.”

Karlaftis lived in Athens with his parents, brothers Yanni and Niko, and sister Annie. His mother, Amy, spoke English to the kids at home, but otherwise George had a traditional Grecian upbringing, from school to sports.

“They wanted us to be active and do a lot of things, find what we love and do that at the highest level we could,” George recalled.

George and his siblings had a natural path to sports because of their parents.

Their father had grown up as a talented all-around athlete in Greece, and he walked onto the track team at Miami and competed in javelin. Amy played basketball and other sports in high school, but after breaking her nose in softball, she chose to not pursue college athletics. She attended Purdue, where, as a freshman in 1994, she met Matt, a doctoral student, while playing volleyball together at the student rec center.

Four years later, Amy traveled to Greece with two suitcases to visit Matt and never left. They started their family in Athens, where Matt worked as a civil engineering professor at National Technical University of Athens. Matt wrote several books, edited research journals and earned a Fulbright scholarship and other awards.

“He became an expert in his field,” Amy said. “He was in charge of all the bus transportation for the [2004] Olympics in China. He had algorithms with what intervals the buses need to come to be able to get the athletes to their venues. When he was young, he was always thought of as this dumb athlete, but he was obviously this brilliant man. So he always wanted to instill to the kids to be good athletes, but also be good at school.”

The Karlaftis kids were natural athletes, and Amy spent much of her time shuttling them to activities. Yanni, two years younger than George, became a world champion in judo for his age group (11). After sampling many options, George took to water polo, where he played goalkeeper.

“I had the weight of the team on my shoulders,” George recalled. “Everything runs through you. When things are coming at me, I’m the one who’s going to save the team. I felt really comfortable in that role.”

George became a member of Greece’s under-16 national team. Had things turned out different, he could still be manning the goal for Greece, currently ranked No. 1 in the world.

Matt traveled often for work. In early June 2014, he went to the island of Kos to give a speech at a civil engineering conference, but he never showed. He was found at his hotel, dead from a heart attack at 44.

Amy immediately realized she couldn’t stay in Greece with four young children. Her parents, four siblings and their families were all back in Indiana.

“I knew within a day,” she said. “I made my decision.”

IN SEPTEMBER 2014, Shane Fry was teaching eighth grade physical education in West Lafayette when a Greek giant, well over 6 feet, showed up midway through class. George arrived in America after the school year had started, since he stayed in Europe to play water polo following his father’s death.

George, a bit shy, had to be coaxed into playing whiffle ball in Fry’s class.

“They talked him into batting, and he came up there and held the ball bat with one arm, looked like a caveman,” Fry said. “I pitched it and he smacked it where no one could, like a Mark McGwire home run with one arm. I think he started running with the bat, didn’t even know where to run or what that even meant.”

Life in West Lafayette presented new experiences and challenges. Although George knew English through his mother, he never used it in school.

George had visited his mother’s family over the years, and had many cousins around, including R.J. Erb, who was the same age and became George’s “built-in best friend.” Sports became a way for him to acclimate to his new surroundings.

“He ultimately wanted to be with his friends and play a sport and fit in, try and blend in with a new country and a new way of life,” said Kaia Harris, George’s longtime girlfriend, whom he met during his freshman year at West Lafayette High.

George initially competed in basketball and track, two familiar sports. When the opportunity to play football came up, he hesitated initially. At Miami, Matt was convinced into playing with the Hurricanes’ championship football team. But during the practice, his helmet flew off and he suffered a fractured skull, requiring a 12-hour surgery, leaving a noticeable scar.

“They cut him from one side of his ear to the other and pulled that forward and put plates in,” Amy said. “His skull was crushed.”

Matt’s experience impacted George, who knew his father’s family, especially his grandfather and namesake, wouldn’t be thrilled about the idea.

“I had a lot of conversations with coaches, family,” he said. “The game had changed so much: the rules, the helmets, the equipment. My friends were doing it, I thought I’d be pretty good at it. I was just like, ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a try.'”

George only played two weeks of eighth grade football, but was interested in the game and began asking Fry, the coach at West Lafayette High School, about joining the varsity squad as a freshman. Fry knew that George, already 6-foot-4 and 219 pounds, could handle the physical demands. But George barely knew the game, and he would have to learn what each position meant, and how to get in a stance.

Fry first tried George as a straight-toe kicker. Someone found a size-14.5 steel boot on eBay, which George used in games that fall, as West Lafayette reached the state championship.

“He’d turn into ‘The Waterboy,'” Fry said. “He would kick it and run down the field like a complete psycho, no regard for his body.”

The following summer, George attended a football camp at Indiana University. At 235 pounds, he posted the fastest 40-yard dash of any camper. An injury held him out of one-on-one drills, but Indiana coach Kevin Wilson approached George, telling him that the Hoosiers had significant interest.

“I was like, ‘OK, cool.’ I didn’t really know what that meant,” George recalled.

Weeks later, George attended another camp at IU and received a scholarship offer, which he also didn’t completely understand at first. By the time sophomore year started, he had fallen in love with football. Up to 6-5 and 240 pounds, George played more that season, but mostly as a pass-rusher in a run-oriented league. By the playoffs, he had improved against the run, recognizing misdirection and play-action.

More offers followed the next summer, including Notre Dame and Alabama. George began his junior season with a flurry of sacks, and soared up national recruiting boards.

“When Notre Dame offered him, it was very evident that he had no idea what Notre Dame was or meant,” Fry said. “To him, IU is a college football team and Notre Dame is a college football team. What’s the difference?”

ESPN eventually rated George as the top prospect in Indiana and the No. 79 recruit in the 2019 class. But because he was so new to football and the recruiting scene, he approached the attention differently.

Amy credited George for thoroughly researching how recruiting worked — “He’s got so much of his dad in him,” she said — and making sure he attended the right camps and combines.

“He was just green to the whole process and how everything worked, and that was positive,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said. “Luckily, from our end, we got in early and offered him, and the more you got around him, it was a unique mixture of talent, but yet extremely humble, extremely polite and just willing and eager to learn and listen. You just don’t get that with high-profile guys.”

George could have played college ball anywhere, but many forces drew him toward Purdue. He lived about a mile from campus, and could see Ross-Ade Stadium from West Lafayette High. Sometimes, late at night, George and his buddies would sneak onto Purdue’s practice field.

Amy’s family is filled with Purdue graduates, and their rental property business is known around town. Brohm, hired in December 2016, quickly got to know George’s family. His wife, Jennifer, is close with Amy, and their son, Brady, is the same age as George’s sister, Annie, and became friends with her.

George also knew that by attending Purdue, he could continue to watch over his family.

Greek law states that when a father dies, his eldest son becomes head of household. So when George was just two months removed from his 13th birthday, he understood his new reality and carried that obligation to the states.

“I had to become a man overnight and be the protector of my house overnight,” he said. “That comes with a lot of responsibility, but also you’ve got to be mature enough to handle that.”

Although Amy remarried, George still teases his stepdad about the head-of-household role.

“He’s like, ‘I’m still head of my family,'” Amy said. “It’s kind of funny, but George really believes that, and that was another reason why he wanted to stay and go to Purdue, to be close in case. Georgie, the little boy, grew up almost overnight. It’s almost sad when you think about it, like he got robbed of some of his childhood, but it came back when he was able to play and do sports.”

In October 2017, he committed to Purdue.

“He has his pillars: No. 1 is God and No. 2 is his family,” Harris said. “I knew he was never going to leave his family. He was 100% going to Purdue.”

GEORGE HAS NEVER struggled to find motivation. In eighth grade, he created a vision board, under the banner “American Dream,” including logos for the NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Quotes lined the wall of his high school bedroom, and a whiteboard in his room at Purdue. He had “One more” and “Rise, rise, rise again,” often said by Christian Burns, a high school teammate killed in a car accident. Other quotes included “They can’t catch what they can’t see,” “You are made for greatness” and George’s favorite, “Prove them wrong.”

“That was kind of his tagline,” Harris said. “Everyone has laughed at him because he’d never played football before, he played water polo. They were like, ‘Oh no, that’s not going to happen,’ because of how hard it is to get in the NFL.”

George graduated high school early and enrolled at Purdue in January 2019. By the fourth or fifth spring practice, teammates were telling him he could make the NFL. George asked Kevin Wolthausen, then Purdue’s defensive line coach, to outline what he needed to become a first-round draft pick.

That fall, George started every game, leading Purdue in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (17.5). He was second-team All-Big Ten and a first-team freshman All-American. He was on his way.

Mark Hagen had been Indiana’s defensive line coach in 2015, and remembered the 14-year-old camper from Greece who impressed the staff with his speed and size. When Purdue hired Hagen as defensive line coach in January 2021, he saw a different version of George.

“Everything was devoted to maximizing his full potential,” Hagen said.

The texts came every morning that spring. George asked Hagen when they could meet. They watched all of his reps from practice, and video from his freshman and sophomore years. Hagen gave George projects, including breakdowns of the top pass-rushers in the 2021 NFL draft, such as Michigan’s Kwity Paye and Miami’s Jaelan Phillips.

George approached nutrition and training room time to prevent injuries unlike any player Hagen had coached. After team workouts, he would meet with Purdue strength coach Domenic Reno to do hand work.

“He’s always taking notes in meetings, always in study mode, always in that mode of wanting to get better,” Hagen said. “When you’ve got guys like that, where their work ethic is off the charts, you’re going to make time to help them chase their dreams. Every minute for him seemed to be mapped out.”

George took the same approach away from football. In high school, Harris remembered George as a somewhat “goofy” guy who pounded pints of ice cream and lived on steak and potatoes. When she transferred from Air Force to Purdue, where she’s a thrower for the track team, Harris saw a different person.

“He acts like an 80-year-old man,” Harris said. “He stretches for 30 minutes before bed at exactly 9 or 9:30, depending on how early he has to wake up. He reads 10 pages of the Bible before bed, wakes up at this [exact] time, makes his morning smoothie. He’s so regimented. He makes sure he gets his vegetables and carbs, and only eats deer and bison and elk. He grew up a lot.”

Because George’s family home is so close to Purdue’s football building, Brohm would see him around “at all hours.” When George needed a laptop after the coronavirus pandemic hit and the team couldn’t be together, he borrowed Brohm’s for months to watch film.

Brohm, a former NFL and XFL quarterback from a family of football players, attributes George’s approach to his relatively short connection with the sport.

“There’s not a whole lot of burnout because he didn’t grow up just having to play football and living and breathing it,” Brohm said. “He grew up being an active, athletic young man who did a lot of different things. Because of that, shoot, he’s eager, he’s ready to go out there and prove how great he can be. I’m sure there’s a lot of other really good picks in the first round, but this is, to me, a surefire 10-plus-year veteran All-Pro, because that’s the type of guy he is.”

George thinks he would approach any sport this way, saying, “That’s who I am, that’s what I believe in.” But he recognizes his football journey is only just starting.

“My best football is ahead of me,” he said. “Without a single doubt in my mind, I know that. In my heart of hearts, I believe I should be the No. 1 [overall] pick. Whether the teams feel like that or Twitter or Instagram, ESPN, if they don’t feel like that, it’s fine. But that’s how I feel.”

After injury and the pandemic limited him to three games in 2020, George started all 12 regular-season games last fall, leading Purdue in tackles for loss (11.5), forced fumbles (3), sacks (5) and quarterback hurries (8) despite frequent double-teams. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and helped Purdue to its highest wins total (9) since 2003.

In December, George announced he would skip his final season to enter the draft. Brohm thinks George will be an elite power rusher in the NFL, most likely at strong-side end, who will also incorporate speed and moves to reach the pocket.

“He’s a guy who can play all three downs,” Brohm said.

Hagen added that George can move well as a big guy and can really excel as a pass-rusher. And throughout the draft process, George has enjoyed being able to show he’s not just this big, physical guy, that’s a non-athlete. After all, he did have a 38-inch vertical jump and a broad jump over 10 feet at the NFL combine.

“[Whoever drafts him is] getting a guy who is versatile, a guy who can play on the edge, but also, if you’re trying to get your best pass rushers on the field, bump him inside at times and create some mismatches on some of those guards and centers that aren’t quite as athletic as those outside tackles,” Hagen said.

When George first considered football, he knew his grandfather in Greece would worry, because of what had happened to Matt. His grandfather warmed to the idea after learning George could attend college on an athletic scholarship. He and George’s uncle have seen Purdue highlights, and George hopes they will be able to attend one of his NFL games.

In America, the Karlaftises have become a football family. Yanni is a second-year linebacker at Purdue and a former ESPN 300 recruit, while Niko, 14, also plays the game.

Asked what his dad would think of him now, George recalled how Matt would tell stories about men who thrived in both athletics and academics, like he did. Matt was the type to give advice, but ultimately let George make his own decisions, which he would support.

“He’d be so incredibly proud of me, even though I’m playing football,” George said. “I graduated college in three years and I’m a professional athlete. That’d be like his dream come true.”


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