Berlin Wall: How Germany Produced Prime Defensive Talent For The NFL
Meet Bjoern Werner, who was drafted in the first round of the NFL draft this week. And yes, soccer came first.
TALLAHASSEE - Bjoern Werner is a handsome young man: 1.92 meters tall, 133 kg (6’3, 293 lbs), and a smile right out of a toothpaste ad.
His posture suggests at least some vanity but he doesn’t pay any particular kind of attention to the mirror in his apartment in Tallahassee, Florida, which he shares with his wife Denise and two friends. In fact, the mirror appears mainly to serve as a convenient place to post his career goals as an American football player – goals that pointed him straight, as it turns out, to the big bonanza.
The first four goals were: win the regional championship with his college team; then the Orange Bowl; sack 10 quarterbacks; make it onto the All-America Team.
He’s achieved those goals -- and more, including being one of five players nominated for the prestigious annual Bronko Nagurski Trophy given to the best defensive player in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
And now he has finally cashed in, chosen by the Indianapolis Colts in Thursday's first round of the 2013 National Football League (NFL) draft, where within seconds students become millionaires.
"The whole thing is like a dream," the 22-year-old Berliner told Die Welt. "In Tallahassee it’s already pretty blatant – people recognize me in the street and ask for autographs and if they can have their picture taken with me." But compared to the NFL, the world’s richest sports league, college football in Tallahassee is small beer.
"Every city has its sports stars," Werner says. "I’m open to everything. Just being on an NFL team – that’s a dream in itself." Still, he says, becoming a big enough star to be known beyond the team's city (Indianapolis) is the ultimate prize.
Some 60,000 fans on average attend Florida State home games, and on the posters many of them bring with them the guy who wears jersey number 95 is called the “Berlin Wall” – that, or "Bane," a reference to the superhuman bad guy in the latest Batman movie. Werner says he takes that as a compliment.
A start in soccer
Werner’s appeal for the NFL is his talent as Defensive End, where both strength and agility are required. After his Orange Bowl performance, the sports TV network ESPN was comparing him with NBA star Dirk Nowitzki, the other German export to make it really big in the U.S.
Aside from the fact that both men are down to earth, there aren’t otherwise many similarities between the basketball star and Werner. It took Nowitzki a while to fill the place Detlef Schrempf left in the NBA. Now Werner will be sailing right over the other two less highly touted Germans in the NFL, Sebastian Vollmer of the New England Patriots and Markus Kuhn of the New York Giants.
Like Nowitzki, for his size Werner is astonishingly nimble and fast. In the States, Werner says, people say that’s because he’s European: "They think all Europeans play soccer and put our quick feet down to that.”
As a kid, Werner did in fact play soccer for a club for six years. But his interest gradually shifted to American football, and by the time he moved to the States, where he was an exchange student in Salisbury, Connecticut, playing high school football for two years. To the person who originally “discovered” Werner in Germany, Wanja Müller, it’s not his past in soccer that makes him successful: “He was always an exceptional athlete.”
In his teens, Werner began training regularly and soon ended up training with the Berlin Thunder, a professional team in NFL Europe. "That’s when he first came to my attention," Müller says. "He was an all-rounder: he could pass, catch, run, tackle. That made him a relative rarity in Europe because most people who move well get fished up by established sports like soccer or track and field. American football is a niche sport so there’s less of a chance of big talent going that way."
In 2009 he got offers from nearly all the big American college teams, but ended up choosing a place where he could best develop his skills. Says Müller: "One of his big strengths always was his ability to adjust to new plateaus quickly and start developing further from there."
In his three years in Florida he only went home once – last Christmas – otherwise a Sunday phone call with his mother is just about all the contact he gets with Berlin. "I text my brothers, but my mom isn’t a big texter, she prefers the phone." The next conversation will be with her son, an NFL millionaire.