This German Football Fan was a Foreign Exchange Student in Michigan 26 Years Ago. He Returned to Watch Detroit Win a Playoff Game.
| 6 min read
Usually when German resident Jan Niepel returns to Michigan – where he was a foreign exchange student in 1997 – he does so to visit his old host family. He’s attended weddings of some of the many “cousins” he grew close to decades ago. He’s spent Christmases in Macomb County exchanging gifts during holiday parties.
But this year’s overseas visit for Niepel was all about celebrating his adopted professional football team’s sudden surge of success. Niepel scored tickets to the Detroit football team's second round playoff game against Tampa Bay, where he got to bask in the same overdue feeling of euphoria that Michiganders had basked in for weeks during the 2024 playoffs.
“That experience was special,” Niepel said of Detroit's 31-23 win over on Jan. 21. “Not only the fans, the loudness, but also how quiet they can be when Detroit is on offense. That amazes me. And how friendly everyone was. I saw six, maybe seven Tampa Bay fans, that’s it. Everything else was blue.”
Niepel’s unlikely fandom started when he was 16 years old. His parents enrolled him in a student exchange program that send German students to an American high school for their senior year. Niepel remembered being scared and a little uncertain at that time, because he didn’t have a designated exchange family as he first set foot on United States soil.
“Potential families in the U.S., back then, it was like they could look into a little catalog and pick the student they would like to join their family for a year,” explained Niepel, who is a resident of a small German town called Elmenhorst, located15 miles north of Hamburg. “All kinds of students are in that catalog … by the time my German parents dropped me off at the airport, I wasn’t picked yet. So, I was a little sad and my parents were a little worried.”
“Right from the get-go, he was just so funny and such a sweet personality,” said Amy Joyce, the matriarch of the family. “He was just really cordial, respectful, helpful. He could cook really well. He was just such a cool addition.”
Niepel’s host family was larger than a football team’s roster. He lived with two “sisters” and one “brother,” but his extended family consisted of more than 50 cousins.
“I lost count myself,” Joyce said. “My husband and I both come from big families. And now you gotta factor grandkids into the mix. It’s a lot.”
Niepel quickly developed an affection for the American lifestyle. And by proxy, American sports.
“Everything is a lot bigger in the U.S. than it is in Germany,” he said. “From cars to roads to grocery stores, to, you name it. And I loved the way that in big high schools, everyone was playing so many sports. Not only your own classmates, but it was amazing to me how supportive the whole city was of high school sports. I just couldn’t believe it.”
It wasn’t just high school sports that Niepel was introduced to in 1997. The Joyces were huge Detroit fans. Naturally, Niepel followed suit.
“I think his football love started with my sister’s boys, they’re all athletes,” Joyce said. “The cousins were really into football. One actually played in the NFL, and many had Division 1 scholarships to play college football all over the place. It was a love of football that started there, and then with (Detroit) of course, it grew.”
Though the team has lost a lot more than its won since he became a fan, Niepel’s love for our hometown team never wavered. All these years later, if his countrymates run into him at a German pub on NFL gameday, he’ll likely be wearing his old Barry Sanders jersey.
“Everyone’s in there wearing Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes shirts, so when I walk in wearing my 20-year-old Barry Sanders shirt, they’d look at me like, ‘Ah, you poor guy,’” Niepel recalled. “You’re still wearing that Sanders shirt, those times were over a long time ago.”
Niepel, who is now an event manager and organizer for a German event agency, received a phone call weeks ago from one of his Michigan “cousins.” On the other end of that line was Zach Line, the aforementioned former NFL football player of the extended Joyce family. Line, an Oxford High School graduate, played fullback in the NFL for six years between 2013 and 2019. Line even played under Dan Campbell when the two were in New Orleans together.
As a former player, Line was able to secure discounted Detroit/Tampa Bay playoff tickets for his “cousin,” Niepel. You could say it was a token of Line’s appreciation.
“When he was about 6, I actually babysat him,” Niepel said with a laugh. “We have a connection that continues today.”
Though he had been to the Big House in Ann Arbor and the old Pontiac Silverdome, Niepel had never been to Ford Field in the 23 years since it opened. That changed during his impromptu return to his second home last week. While in the Motor City Niepel partook in some pregame festivities at Eastern Market, where he took plenty of pictures with fellow fans. After that, it was game time.
“I soaked up every second I could,” Niepel said. “It amazes me how friendly everybody was. You clap them on the shoulder, you make a joke and you sip a beer with them. It was like that with everybody, every fan. Those kind of things would never, ever happen in Germany. For me, it was an experience where, even though it was all so loud and there was so much energy, it was all just so friendly.”
Unfortunately for Detroit fans abroad and at home, the franchise went on to suffer one of its biggest all-time heartbreakers in the championship game against San Francisco. Niepel stayed up until 4:25 a.m. Central European Time to watch the crushing defeat.
"When I see the highlights, I'm still very upset," Niepel said. "When I think about how this one got away, it still hurts a little."
Niepel isn't sure when he might visit his Michigan family again, as he satisfied his annual return trip very early in 2024. But he'll be back, just like Detroit will be back next season. The lifelong relationship he has with his Michigan exchange family transcends sports, but at the same time, Niepel’s unlikely story is a reminder that sports can play an enormous role in building and maintaining bonds.
In a private fan page Facebook group post, Niepel shared the story of his Detroit return. The post attracted hundreds and hundreds of likes and comments from fans enamored with Niepel’s journey. Niepel capped off that post by saying:
“If someone would have told me 27 years ago, what this city, the people and the Lions would do to me, I would have laughed. Now there’s even a German on the team, breaking record after record! So proud of Amon-Ra St. Brown … Damn, I love Detroit!”
Photo credit: Jan Niepel
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