End game

Bjoern Werner likely will be the final product of NFL Europe's short-lived pipeline

Originally Published: April 18, 2013
By Mark Winegardner | ESPN The Magazine

Bjoern WernerSteve Boyle for ESPNBjoern Werner will become just the third German national ever drafted.

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IN A SMALL apartment in a working-class neighborhood in Berlin, as Andreas Werner watched his son Bjoern take his first steps, he was already imagining the damage this big kid might someday do on the soccer pitch. Andreas' 3-year-old, Pascal, was already showing a flair for the game. Why would Bjoern be any different?

Andreas and his wife, Martina, were barely aware that in 1991 the NFL had just come to Germany in the form of the World League of American Football's Frankfurt Galaxy. They could have never imagined that this was blazing a path that would one day make their son a millionaire. Martina was a cleaning lady. Andreas was a bricklayer for 15 years, then a low-level clerk for the postal service. That was what mattered: hard work. That, and sports.

"What was important to me and my wife," Andreas says, "was that sports be played in the family, that they do something sports-related and sensible to keep them off the streets. Sports provides the means whereby you can develop and master inner resolve and resources and benefit from the world around you."

Whether that sport was tennis, handball, boxing, karate -- no matter. Just play. That said, sooner or later, Andreas presumed that his boys would come back to the beautiful game, the game in which Andreas was a star club player for 35 years.

"We were a soccer family," Bjoern says. "My dad played soccer, watched it like people in America watch football every weekend, you know what I'm saying? Both my brothers played soccer, everyone. I mean, I love soccer; I played it, too."

There was just one problem: Bjoern -- bigger and heavier and a head taller than all the other kids -- wasn't built like a soccer player. "Soccer is hard on your ankles, you know?" he says. "Even at a young age, I was getting a lot of sprained ankles. Then one time, I broke my foot."

He was only 10 years old, but the injury, Bjoern says, marked a turning point. For a year and a half, he had to stop playing soccer and even table tennis, at which he'd been a standout for a club team. Then, at about the time he was fully healed, a pal who belonged to Berlin Eagle (an American-football club) made a suggestion. "You can throw the ball," the kid said, "you can catch it, you're real athletic. Why don't you join the flag football team?"

"Why not?" Bjoern said. He was, in fact, eager to give the game a try. American football, especially among young Berliners, was enjoying a surge in popularity. The World League had been relaunched as NFL Europe, and its former London team had just set up shop as the Berlin Thunder. Kids already fascinated with American culture -- movies and TV, rock 'n' roll and hip-hop -- had a cool new way to mystify their parents.

Berlin Eagle, like all the other members of the 24-team German Football League, restricted its players under 14 to five-on-five flag football. From the beginning, Bjoern, one of the youngest players but also one of the biggest, was too good for the competition. He threw farther and kicked farther than anyone else. He ran faster. He blocked harder. On defense, every play, it seemed, ended with Bjoern tipping a pass, intercepting it or ripping the ball carrier's flag.

"When a kid at such a young age just falls in love with a sport," Werner says, "you're like, 'I want to be the best,' you know what I'm saying?"

Naturally, it wasn't easy for a preteen boy in Berlin who hadn't yet played a down of tackle football to forge any coherent idea of what the lofty goal of being "the best" at American football might look like. But the logical place to start was cavernous Olympic Stadium, where the Berlin Thunder, the best team in NFL Europe at the time, played their home games.

The Thunder also led the league in attendance, although for most games that meant just 15,000 or so fans. NFL executives would have looked around Olympic Stadium and seen 60,000 empty seats, concluding that the league was a doomed, hopeless money loser. What they might have overlooked, though, were the wide-eyed faces in the crowd. Kids like Bjoern Werner and his (albeit smaller and less athletic) Berlin Eagle teammates, dreaming that someday they might play against the best players in the world. Or, at least, against the best players relegated to NFL Europe.

"Each team had to have a couple of Europeans, and that was my goal at that point," Werner says. "Everybody in Europe wanted to be on an NFL Europe roster, so maybe they play good there and get on a practice squad for a real NFL team."

When he was barely 13 (already 6-foot-4) Bjoern began practicing with the Berlin Eagle senior team, although he was still unable to play tackle in an actual game. Most of the other guys were in their mid-20s or a little older, and two or three were American imports who had played at small colleges. Bjoern had been in love with the game before, but lacing on those pads, pulling on that helmet, laying waste to grown men, took things to another level. "It was just amazing, hitting people," Bjoern says, laughing.

He played so well in practice that he was named to the German senior national team; days after he turned 14, he was on a bus with the so-called Men in Black, bound for France, where they were playing an exhibition game against Team France. Bjoern had never been to France before -- his family was too poor to travel far from home -- but all that mattered to him was that he was going to do what, already, he felt born to do: line up across from the tackle with his hands in the dirt, then explode, slamming into or slipping past his opponent, wreaking various forms of violent, improvised havoc in the backfield. He was four years younger than anyone else on the field yet had three sacks, and Germany won.

The next year, Bjoern starred for Berlin Eagle's tackle team at defensive end, wide receiver and place-kicker. When other kids found out Bjoern was playing American football, the first question, invariably, was, "Does it hurt?" He'd break into a smile and tell them not really. His teammates told them they should ask his opponents.

"I was just dominating," Werner says now, shrugging. "You know what I'm saying?"

That domination was about all that his father could fathom from watching Bjoern play. "I would go to all Bjoern's home games and stand there like a donkey in front of a gate," Andreas says. "I knew what a touchdown was. That the quarterback is the only one who is allowed to throw the ball. When Bjoern came home with all the rules he had to learn, I just thought, oh man, soccer is a whole lot easier."


AMERICAN FOOTBALL WAS always meant to be bait for the kids. From its first incarnation in 1991 as the World League of American Football through its rechristening as NFL Europe in 1995, the league wasn't just a developmental league for raw or fringe talent: It also was supposed to be a loss leader that would get a new generation jonesing for the most popular sport in the U.S.

"The core mission of the World League was to take American football and spread it around the world," says Joseph A. Bailey, who was the league's COO when it launched in 1991. "And the only way that you can ultimately do that is to have feet on the ground and develop teams that the youth begin to emulate."

[+] EnlargeBjoern Werner
Steve Boyle for ESPNBjoern Werner has been knocked for being stiff in workouts, but his 13-sack tally was third in FBS.

From the outset, NFL Europe coaches were expected, in the offseason, to stage clinics and camps in which they'd develop Europeans who at some point might be good enough to occupy one of those non-NFL player roster spots. Then, in 1997, Patrick Steenberge, a former Notre Dame quarterback, managed to persuade the NFL to sponsor a game during Super Bowl weekend that would showcase international talent. Steenberge would find the talent and organize the game. All the NFL had to do was underwrite it.

The MVP of the first game (and the two after that) was Berliner Constantin Ritzmann, who had learned the game playing pickup with American GIs. Steenberge helped Ritzmann enroll for a postgraduate year at a Christian high school in Tallahassee, Fla. Two weeks into the season, he got a scholarship offer from Alabama. A dozen or so more followed. He took the one from Tennessee and was a captain his senior year, although people back home didn't really take note until Ritzmann was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Bills in 2004. The next season, the Falcons picked him up off the practice squad, and he got onto the field for one game. "It started to become a big deal in Germany," says Ritzmann, chuckling. "It was like, oh, here's the next Dirk Nowitzki -- the NFL's Dirk."

In the wake of Ritzmann's success, Steenberge says, the NFL asked him to create something called the International Student Program. "NFL Europe coaches would identify some top players. My job was to find schools where international kids could go to school for a year or two and play sports with the goal of them going to college and then eventually the NFL."

The ISP, indirectly underwritten by the NFL, was a small-scale endeavor, with five or six kids a year playing a year or so on scholarship at boarding schools in New England. About half, Steenberge says, went on to play college football, a few at major programs such as Boston College, Syracuse and West Virginia.

Bjoern Werner knew none of this until 2006, when he stumbled onto a story about the ISP on the Berlin Thunder's website. Werner applied and sent a highlight video, clips of him on fields without a single stand of bleachers, sacking some poor German for a 20-yard loss, right in the middle of the ghostly outline of a center circle on the pitch.

In short order, Werner got a letter saying that he was, in his words, "one of the chosen ones." Steenberge gave him a list of schools to choose from. Bjoern chose Salisbury School in Connecticut because it had won its league championship the year before. Also, it wasn't far from New York. He had a new girlfriend, Denise Wrobel, and, however quixotically, they figured that they could see each other, once in a while, if he wasn't too far from New York.

Andreas and Martina didn't balk at letting their 16-year-old son leave home to go to a high school 4,000 miles away. "From the moment he first played flag football, he said his dream is to go to America and play for the NFL," says Andreas, who has never been able to afford to come see his son play. "We couldn't deny him the opportunity to go after his dream. That just wouldn't have been possible."

Meanwhile, NFL Europe was foundering, losing $30 million a year. It was a creation of the Paul Tagliabue reign, and the new NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, had the chance to rid the balance sheets of $30 million worth of red ink. And so it was, days before Bjoern Werner left for Connecticut, that the NFL announced that it was pulling the plug on NFL Europa so that it could refocus its international efforts on pursuing media coverage and playing an occasional regular-season game abroad.

No one outside Europe seemed to notice or care that the death of the league also meant the end of the camps and clinics. Player development was ceded to the tiny, underfunded governing bodies in individual countries and to something called the International Federation of American Football, the sport's penny-ante equivalent of soccer's mighty FIFA.

Bjoern Werner would be part of the final group of international high school players the league helped bring to America.


AS A SOPHOMORE in high school, Werner says, he struggled with English, although, according to his coach at Salisbury, Chris Adamson, "there was never a language barrier with football. Whatever we told him in football just seemed to be automatic." Werner, still raw, starred on offense and defense and as a kicker. But neither that success nor his popularity with his classmates was enough to help him overcome his homesickness. Bjoern had barely ever been away from home. And he was awash with unbearable pining for Denise, his first love. They'd been together only five months when he'd left for America. She had never seen American football and knew nothing about it beyond the rules she had printed out from Wikipedia.

"Love is crazy," Bjoern says now.

"Yes," Denise says. "Love is crazy."

[+] EnlargeBjoern Werner
Steve Boyle for ESPNDespite falling in most mocks, Bjoern Werner will attend the draft on April 25 with his parents, who have never been to America.

When he came home for winter break, things between the two of them were better than ever, and thus, once he returned to Connecticut, worse than ever. When school let out for the summer, Bjoern told Salisbury he wasn't coming back for his junior year. "I was crushed," Adamson says. "I knew he was going to have offers piling in, at least from schools on the East Coast. It was clear that he had a very special gift that he was potentially going to walk away from, which was really hard to take."

Back home, Bjoern and Denise got to have a normal relationship. He went back to school and back to playing for Team Germany and Berlin Eagle. Denise might not have understood football, but it was obvious to her how much Bjoern loved the game, how determined he was to be great at it. They'd watch NFL games on ESPN America and she could feel what it meant to him to play at that level one day.

Werner and Adamson stayed in touch. The college scholarship offers did, indeed, start coming in. The tone of Bjoern's emails began to change. He would talk about his parents and his girlfriend and how lucky he was that they believed in him so deeply, that they were so committed to seeing him following through on the pursuit of his dreams.

"Halfway through his junior year, he decided that he wanted to come back for his senior year and make a run for it," Adamson says. "When he told me, I actually ran to our admission director's house and knocked on his door and said, 'We've got to get this done. We got to get him back here.'"

Adamson says that the qualities NFL teams like about Werner now were already on display: passion, work ethic, instincts, athleticism, strength, a remarkable ability to get underneath blocks, an uncanny knack for batting down passes. He was smart. He was vocal. He was a leader.

Adamson sent a highlight video to every good college program in the country, but it wasn't until late in the season that recruiting services, which hadn't seen Werner anywhere other than YouTube, noticed that he was getting offers and started adding stars to his rankings. When then-Florida State assistant James Coley and Jimbo Fisher, the head coach-in-waiting at the time, sat down to watch Werner on film, they were sold. Fisher says he has never recruited a player with less football background, and it was far from certain where Werner would play -- tight end and every position on the offensive and defensive lines were possibilities -- but even Coley's iPhone video of Werner playing basketball made the FSU staff fall in love with the kid. "I said, just offer him," Fisher says. "We'll figure out a place to play this daggone guy."

Werner wasn't making another move without Denise. From the outset, she was enthusiastic about Florida. She'd even been there once, as a kid, with her parents.

"I'm from Germany," she says. "It's cold, so …"

"Florida," Bjoern says. "You know what I'm saying?"

And just like that, at the age of 19, Bjoern and Denise were married.

When he arrived on campus, he seemed much more focused and mature than the average freshman. He'd been a likely redshirt, but, by the end of two-a-days, it was clear he was as good as any defensive lineman on the team. He played in every game as a freshman but was still under the radar of even most Seminoles fans, although Fisher marveled at Werner's intelligence and his relentless attention to detail studying film.

In the space of a year, he had gone from a raw, passionate kid who had never played against competition better than Europeans and Connecticut schoolboys to what he became his sophomore year: one of the best players on a defensive unit that ranked in the top 10 in the nation in nearly every major category. As a junior in 2012, he compiled 13 sacks, good for third in the nation. His 18 tackles for loss resulted in 134 total yards, best in the nation. He became a consensus first-team All-American, ACC Defensive Player of the Year and a finalist for the Nagurski Award and opted to forgo his senior year to enter April's NFL draft.

Soon, the 23-year-old will become only the third German national ever to be selected -- defensive tackle Markus Kuhn, a Giants seventh-rounder, and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, a Patriots second-rounder, being the others -- and quite possibly the last.

"My main goal is to try to empower more people like me when I was at a young age," says Werner, commenting on the decreased presence of American football in his native country. "I can help bring them over. There's so many people that wanna be in my spot, you know what I'm saying?"

On April 25, that spot will be Radio City Music Hall. At some point in the first round, Goodell likely will call his name, causing Bjoern to smile his big, goofy smile and give Denise a bear hug. Then he'll turn to his parents and hug them, too. It'll be their first trip to America -- courtesy of their soon-to-be-millionaire son -- and they'll be under the bright lights of our biggest city, on live TV, beamed via satellite all over the world.

As Andreas Werner watches Bjoern take his first steps toward the podium, surely he'll be imagining the damage this big kid might do on an NFL football field.

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