American football catching on internationally

SALISBURY, Conn.-- This is peak time for fall foliage in the Berkshire Mountains. The morning mist typically shrouds the Salisbury School campus giving way by mid-morning to reveal the brilliant pallet of colors which paint an autumn landscape.

Björn Werner, a 17-year-old sophomore from Berlin, Germany, is experiencing his first taste of Americana. He is a foreign student-athlete attending a prestigious New England prep school tucked away in the northwest corner of Connecticut. Werner's command of the English language continues to improve and he's learning the customs and traditions.

To wit, when a Salisbury varsity team wins, a crimson light in the Main Building's cupola is lit alerting the campus. All students and faculty must attend chapel services (the school is tied to the Episcopal Church) on Tuesdays and Fridays and twice weekly students eat family style with their advisor or faculty members. Students are required to wear a jacket and tie.

Faculty members responded positively about his progress in the classroom.

Chris Adamson, Werner's football coach at Salisbury, concurs.

"Björn has an instinct for the game," said Adamson, a former lineman at Dartmouth College. "He's eager to learn the game."

Werner is one of 12 foreign students (up from six in 2006) from three continents -- Germany, Mexico, Denmark, and China -- enrolled in the USA Football's International Student Program. The players, who attend six schools (mainly in New England), receive financial aid from USA Football as part of the program.

USA Football is a non-profit organization leading the development of youth, high school, and international amateur football. The second-year outreach program, fueled by nine German students, looks to promote the country's most popular sport by bringing international students (16-19 years old) to American schools for academic, athletic, and cultural purposes. Students are selected for either a three-year or post-graduate stints.

"The goal is to give (international) players a chance to rise and go onto to play on the next level (college)," said executive director Scott Hallenbeck of USA Football.

Football is becoming a niche sport internationally but woefully trails other North American favorites such as basketball, baseball and hockey.
Globally football means soccer.

Werner, who grew up playing soccer, picked up American football following an ankle injury. His first taste of the game was flag football. After two years, Werner, then 15 years old, suited up for the Berlin Adler, a club team for teenagers. With Adler, Werner's interest in the game intensified.

Saturday's game against local rivals Kent School -- located 20 miles south on winding Route 7 -- at Wachtmeister Field highlights Parents Weekend on campus. Salisbury has won all four games this season, with four remaining on the schedule, but it marks the final home game for the Crimson Knights, who sit atop the Erickson League standings.

Werner won't be the only German on the field Saturday as Kent boosts two players -- Paul Mehling (a second-year ISP player) and Gregor Litzau -- from Berlin.

"I'm friendly with them," Werner said of the fellow Berliners, but is focused more on winning the game.

Werner, though, isn't a trail blazer. That's because Constantin Ritzmann of Mellensee, Germany, went onto to captain the Tennessee Volunteers after a successful run at North Florida Christian in Tallahassee. Ritzmann, a defensive end, was the most valuable player of the NFL Global Junior Championship for Team Europe in 1997, '98, and '99. Ritzmann, who currently plays professionally in Berlin, has spent time on practice rosters of the Buffalo Bills (2005) and Atlanta Falcons (2006).

In New Hampshire, Long Ding, 19, is the first American football player to emerge from China as part of the initiative. When he arrived Long figured to be primarily used as a kicker or punter. After a few practices New Hampton head coach David Perfield decided Long could contribute on both lines.

Long (6-foot-1, 200 pounds), a native of Wuhan, China, made quite a debut. In a 35-33 victory over Hyde-Woodstock (Conn.), Long converted three extra points, made three tackles as a defensive end, and played offensive guard.

"We put a lot of trust in him and he delivered," Perfield said.

His hard-nosed, no-nonsense play has earned Long the nickname "Rambo" after the Sylvester Stallone action-film character.

"You really don't know what you're going to get until you see the student in person, but he has been great," Perfield added.

Long was weaned on rugby and soccer. He was seven years old when he watched football on ESPN.

"I thought, 'What a strange game,'" Long said.

Despite attending school nearly 7,000 miles from home, Long relishes the experience.

"I talk to my mother and father and my grandmother on the telephone," Long said. "I want to stay here and go to college."

An athletic scholarship could be in the works for two players at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H.

Two-way lineman Timm Kaminski (6-3, 270) and fullback-linebacker Ruben Austin-Schmidt -- both second-year players from Germany -- could have what it takes to lure college scouts to the 1,300-acre rural campus located in southwestern New Hampshire.

Kaminski, from the German city of Kiel (on the Baltic Sea), played in his first full game last week after nursing a hamstring injury.

"He's really raw and how well he plays the rest of the way will determine what level (of college football) he'll play," said Kimball Union head coach John Lyons, whose team is 4-0.

Lyons should know. His outstanding coaching pedigree includes a three-year stint as defensive coordinator with the Cologne Centurions of defunct NFL Europe and 13 years at nearby Dartmouth College, where he guided the Big Green to two Ivy League titles.

Austin-Schmidt came to Kimball a schooled player who competed for the Dusseldorf Panthers, an elite club team. "Ruben's from a club which sent many players to NFL Europe. He's a good blocker but his best days will be as an outside linebacker or strong safety," Lyons said.

Austin-Schmidt (6-0, 210) is a hard-nosed, blue-collar kid who has received interest from Massachusetts and Holy Cross but he hopes to find a school in Michigan "so I can be closer to close family friends," Austin-Schmidt said.

He became interested in football after watching American TV shows. Like Werner in Berlin, he started out playing flag football but quickly switched over when he turned 14.

"Football is like a chess game on the field," he said. "It's a thinking man's game. I want to play football at the highest level possible."

Last year Austin-Schmidt's toughness was tested as he played with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Lyons said he was unaware of the injury. "Ruben never complained or said a word. I like to say it got lost in translation."

Despite the pain he soldiered on and made sure his future teammates from Germany would have a smooth transition this fall at Kimball Union.

Joining Austin-Schmidt and Kaminski were linebacker-kicker Christoph Kurzer and end Kasim Edebali (6-3, 230) of Germany and wide receiver-linebacker Kevin Gangelhoff from Odense, Denmark.

When assessing international players on all levels, Lyons found a common thread.

"They're all receptive to coaching," he said. "They want to learn the game and feel they're making up for lost time and are more serious about it.

"All five players have contributed on both sides of the line in all our games."

An international influence was evident last Saturday on point-after attempts in Kimball Union's 42-21 victory over New Hampton. The right side of the line featured the four German players, with Gangelhoff kicking.

"We called it the Berlin Wall," Lyons cracked.

The program isn't confined to New England prep schools.

Additionally, Danny Agee, a tight end-quarterback-linebacker from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and lineman Hannes Toewe from Jersbek, Germany both attend Christ School in Arden, N.C., while lineman Curtis Feight from Schönefeld, Germany attends Mercersburg (Pa.) Academy.

As for the future of ISP?

"We'd like to see it (the program) grow," Hallenbeck said. "It'll probably stay at 12 students next year (2008-09) and we'll see after that."

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 for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where 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.