Commentary

Werner gets best of both worlds playing for Salisbury, Germany

Updated: July 1, 2009, 9:08 PM ET
By Chris Lawlor | ESPNRISE.com

Björn Werner first sensed it in January. There was a personal void that only a true commitment to competition a continent away could fill.

"I e-mailed Coach [Salisbury's Chris Adamson] and told him I'd like to come back," he said. "For me to become better, I need to call against the best football players, and they are in America."


Werner
That initiated his second go-round playing high school football on American soil.

Werner, a foreign exchange student from Berlin, Germany, and rising senior at Salisbury (Conn.) School, is a defensive end for the German national team competing this week at the International Federation of American Football's Junior World Championships.

The inaugural eight-nation tournament -- which drew 10,145 fans Saturday at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- is managed by USA Football, the national governing body of youth and amateur levels. The gold-medal game is Sunday at 1 p.m. ET at Fawcett Stadium. The bronze medal will be contested Saturday at 7 p.m., preceded by the fifth-place (4 p.m.) and seventh-place (1 p.m.) games.

Werner might be Germany's top prospect but there's more to know from the Junior World Championships:

• The Americans, the No. 2 seed, opened the competition by wiping out France 78-0. Team USA is comprised of 45 incoming college freshman players, representing 13 major conferences. The Big Ten tops the roster with nine players.

Team USA is headed by legendary coach Chuck Kyle of St. Ignatius (Cleveland). Since 1983, he's 353-57-1 (.815 winning percentage), with 10 Ohio state titles, including the Division I crown last fall.

• Believe it or not, the Canadians are the top seed. "We felt that Canada's exceptional record in international junior competition during recent years warranted the top seed," IFAF president Tommy Wiking said.

The team has an impressive history, having won the past three championships and four titles overall (the tournament was known as the NFL Global Junior Championships and conducted during Super Bowl week from 1997 to 2007). Canada beat New Zealand 55-0 in the first round and played Japan in Wednesday's semifinals.

• Also competing is Japan (Asian champion); Sweden and France, who finished second and third, respectively, at the European finals; New Zealand (Oceania); and Mexico. New Zealand, a newcomer to the scene, edged Australia 12-7 in the regional qualifier and Mexico became the third Pan-American team after a 26-0 blanking of Panama in February. New Zealand traveled the farthest (8,460 miles).

• The top Team USA player is Virginia Tech-bound running back David Wilson, who was named Virginia's 2008 Gatorade Player of the Year after running for 2,291 yards and 35 touchdowns for George Washington High in Danville.

• The next IFAF Junior World Championship is slated for 2012. The championship will be staged every two years.

When the competition ends this weekend, Werner will head back to Connecticut to reconnect with a host family before the school year commences in September.

Werner
Shawn Hubbard PhotographyWerner's play has impressed coaches across the globe.

Wednesday morning, Germany rebounded from a 10-7 opening-round loss to Japan to overwhelm New Zealand 52-7.

Werner, who suffered a minor neck injury against Japan, saw limited action Wednesday.

"I'm fine. It's only a stinger; nothing serious," Werner said.

Werner is now serious about playing football and several colleges seem seriously interested in him.

Though he doesn't have a clear-cut favorite, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound German is hearing from schools such as Rutgers, Maryland, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, North Carolina, Virginia, California and Boston College, while Connecticut and Notre Dame are interested.

"He [Werner] had a great year on the football field, and was widely regarded at the end of that season [2007] as the best football player in New England, regardless of his grade level," Adamson said.

Werner may have been homesick, but he made good for his local side, the Berlin Adlers, which captured Germany's youth national championship.

Wanja Mueller coached Werner with the Adlers and is encouraged with his star pupil's meteoric rise.

"As you say, 'defense wins championships' and this is true for us," he said. "We had a great offense, but in the important games, it was the defense that put us in a position to win them and Björn was a big part of that.

"He [Werner] is a great guy, very humble about his abilities. He respects the game of football and understands exactly what he needs to do to get better."

The same can be said for the state of American football in Germany, where American Football Verband Deutschland (AFVD) figures there are 270 clubs and 31,000 players. The game germinated in the mid-1970s and regularly attracts crowds of 30,000 for the championship game (German Bowl).

However, Werner must hone his skills here if he intends to reach his goal of earning an athletic scholarship.

Germany's director of operations, Peter Springwald, said, "Björn has the instincts to play football. He's our most impressive player and playing here [in the U.S.] will make him better."

Against Japan, Werner was named his team's most valuable player after recording five tackles, including three for a loss, two sacks and two pass breakups. He also punted seven times, averaging 40.4 yards.

Saturday's game with Sweden is a rematch of the European Junior Championship, held last summer in Spain. Germany took the final, 9-6, against its northern neighbors and is the favorite in the fifth-place game.

"They [Sweden] are big and strong on the line," Springwald said. "It should be a real fight."

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball, and boys' and girls' basketball. He also worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, for which he ran the Gatorade national Player of the Year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.

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