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.

Werner has been selected by the Indianapolis Colts with the 24th pick in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft
Werner has been selected by the Indianapolis Colts with the 24th pick in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft
Simon Pausch

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.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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