Paul Federinko had to wait a little longer than most varsity football players for his first "Friday Night Lights" experience.
Until he took the field for Atholton this fall, the junior lineman had played nothing but afternoon games in his first two varsity seasons. That's how it is when you play American football in England.
At Lakenheath High, a Department of Defense school on the Royal Air Force base where his mother was stationed with the United States Air Force, typical Lancers games drew about 140 fans -- if you count the 80 or so JV players. For Federinko, who spent his early football years in Oklahoma, that wasn't exactly what he had been looking forward to.
Finally, at Atholton's first home game Friday night, a big, boisterous crowd gave Federinko that center-stage spotlight feeling he had been missing.
"I am overthrilled," he said with a laugh. "It was just great. I loved having the band playing, cheerleaders behind us. It was crowded, and it was loud. It's so nice playing American football in America."
Night games weren't all Federinko was missing out on. At 6 feet 5, 290 pounds, he had the size, skills and smarts to draw attention from Division I college coaches, but he was too far away for them to find.
"It would be much more difficult to get him a look overseas, especially from a D-I school," Lakenheath coach Matthew Martinez said in an e-mail. "Even though we have a few kids in our league that go on to play at different levels every year, they work really hard at making contacts and going to camps stateside in the summer in order to have a chance."
After four years in England, coming back to the U.S. for his final two years of high school football enabled Federinko to attend camps last summer at William & Mary and Towson and that put him on the recruiting map. Maryland and Penn State already have shown interest.
Atholton coach Kyle Schmitt said Federinko was ready to step into the starting rotation. With good depth on the lines, the 16-year-old rotates in and out of action.
"He can help us on both sides of the ball," Schmidt said, "and he has a little bit of a mean streak to him that's not easy to teach. He finishes off plays very well. He's interested in dominating guys, not just beating them. He's the nicest kid off the field, but he's got that switch."
Federinko was eager to test his skills against boys who have a lot more experience than he has. At Lakenheath, the Lancers' season included six games, some in England and others a 10- to 18-hour bus ride away -- through the Chunnel under the English Channel -- in Belgium or Germany.
Few of the players were as committed as Federinko, and many of them had never played a down before high school. Only 11 or 12 were in the gym during the offseason, including Federinko and his brother Alex, who is trying out as a walk-on at James Madison this fall.
In addition to his size, Federinko's dedication made him one of the best in his European high school league.
"Not only was he big and athletic, but he was an intelligent football player with a head for the game," Martinez said.
"Paul continued to work on his strength, agility and flexibility, and that's what set him apart from the rest of the big guys in our league."
Federinko, who has a 3.7 grade-point average and also plays baseball, said it didn't take long to get up to speed with the Raiders.
"I had trouble getting used to their formations. We ran a completely different playbook. None of it is related to each other. That was probably the hardest adjustment."
Having moved five times to follow his mother's Air Force career, Federinko, like his brothers and sister, has used sports to assimilate quickly, but at Atholton, he found that he already stood out.
"The first day of school, everyone was like, 'That's Big Paul,' and I'm like, 'I don't even know you,'" he said with a laugh.
Federinko's name got around after he spent the summer lifting with the Raiders. With his easygoing personality and love for football, he fit right in with the other linemen, including twin seniors Kyle and Colin Gordon.
"We were expecting to be really good up front, and the addition of Paul was great," Kyle Gordon, 6-3, 290 pounds, said. "He started working out the day he came, and it just built from there. He's hardworking, and he knows what he's doing."