The first German to be taken in the first round of the NFL draft, Colts linebacker Bjoern Werner talks about the state of the game on both sides of the Atlantic
The outside linebacker, a Berlin native, became the first German player to be taken in the first round of the NFL draft when the Colts selected him out of Florida State in 2013. Today he's one of five German-born players on active NFL rosters, along with Sebastian Vollmer (Patriots), Markus Kuhn (Giants), Kasim Edebali (Saints) and Mark Nzeocha (Cowboys). Each of the players reached the NFL via a different path — for Werner, it was through the International Student Program run by former Notre Dame player Patrick Steenberge, which gives high schoolers from other countries the chance to study and play football at a prep school in the U.S. From the Salisbury School in Connecticut, Werner earned a scholarship at FSU.
Werner's NFL career hasn't been smooth sailing; he's been limited by a litany of injuries during his first two seasons. But one of his motivations to maximize his NFL opportunity is to help grow the sport back home in Germany. This spring, the club where Werner first learned the game, the Berlin Adler, was at risk of closing its doors and started a crowdfunding campaign for 35,000 euros to be able to play in 2015. When Werner caught wind of this, he donated money and signed jerseys, though he downplays his involvement. "That's my home team, so I try to help a little bit," he says. "But I need to focus on my own career, because the more I get comfortable here, the I more can do more over there."
VRENTAS: How were you introduced to football in Berlin?
WERNER: I was 12 years old. A classmate of mine already played for my club team, the Berlin Adler, in flag football. I played soccer until I got too big. I was always an athletic kid, so I wanted to play something else. He said, "Why don't you try out for our team?" He brought a football to school, and I played around with it a little bit. It was exciting, and I just fell in love with football.
VRENTAS: Growing up in Germany, what was access to the game like?
WERNER: Until I was 12 years old, I didn't know what American football was. I didn't know anything about it. As soon as I started playing, I got into it so much. I started playing Madden, watching NFL games, and just learning about where it comes from and all the teams. I got caught up with the NFL. I'd usually watch online, more on NFL.com the highlights of the game on Monday morning. Because the games were Sunday in the middle of the night, and it was pay TV, and I didn't have that. So I watched online, the recaps.
VRENTAS: Were your friends surprised you picked football over soccer?
WERNER: Yeah, that's Germany for you. Everyone plays soccer. That's the main sport.
VRENTAS: How many people played on your youth teams?
WERNER: There were around 50, 60 kids in the tackle football junior club. For flag football, there were like 30 kids, from all over the city of Berlin. We played all over Germany. We played everywhere that had teams. Hamburg, south Germany. It was everywhere.
VRENTAS: How did you get the idea to come to the U.S. for prep school?
WERNER: A few coaches knew about the International Student Program that Patrick Steenberge ran. It happened so fast. I literally saw it online, applied and was accepted. They made a little research on how good a football player I was, and then they sent me and four other kids over to these prep schools in New England. Early on, I had made a name for myself among some of the big coaches in Germany at the time, and they asked about me. Do you know the kid? They said, "Yeah, he's good, and so they said, yeah, come over."
VRENTAS: What did your parents say when you told them you wanted to do this?
WERNER: They were like kind of laughing at me. They said, "We don't have the money." Usually you associate going to the United States with an exchange year, which you have to pay for and which costs a lot for the host family. But this was something different. I figured it out mostly on my own, and two friends and my coach helped me. We did the application, and I got financial aid, so the school paid for it all. The only thing I had to pay for was my flight over there and my insurance. Once I had everything settled, I told my parents, "Look, this is how it's going to go. I'm going to go to America, to this high school in Connecticut, and you guys don't have to worry about anything, moneywise." They couldn't believe it, that I figured it out on my own. And I just went over there. My grandma helped me out with one flight and the insurance. And I had some small jobs to pick up a little income and saved up a little money on the side.
VRENTAS: What made you want to go to America and play football?
WERNER: Once I touched a football, and I got into it, there was nothing else for me. I was always a sports guy. I always loved sports. I was just playing soccer in my free time, playing some basketball in my free time, just doing something athletic. I was always good at it. I wanted something else, and I fell in love with it so quick. You can tackle people; there's the physical part about it. At a young age, I was pretty good for the German competition, so I said, "Man, this is my game. Why not?" It became a dream really quick. I knew I had to get to America early to go through the whole American process to make it to the top. It doesn't usually happen that someone from the German Football League can jump over to the NFL. There's one guy who just did it actually, the defensive tackle from the Vikings, Babatunde Aiyegbusi . He was a Polish guy playing for the Dresden Monarchs, and now he's in the league. That's crazy.
VRENTAS: The program that helped you come to the U.S. is now defunct. If other countries want to keep their best athletes at home, it seems like there could be fewer pathways for kids to make the jump that you did. Do you think there should be more channels for international athletes to come to the U.S. to play football?
WERNER: Definitely. But I think the sport is growing at the same time. Just in Germany, we have five people in the NFL right now. I feel like every few years there is a guy coming up. There are a lot of guys in colleges right now, too. It's growing, but at the same time, there were a lot of opportunities taken away. That's one of my goals later, to build up something like that, like a pipeline, where I can find talent and bring it to high schools and colleges. That would be my dream, and I would really be passionate about it, because I lived it. I know how hard it is, the opportunities that would have to be there. People guiding you through the right way. I was very fortunate to have that people like that, and opportunities. So I will try to create that pretty soon.
VRENTAS: Leagues like the NBA and NHL have more of an influx of European players. How can the NFL bridge that gap?
WERNER: That's a good question everyone is trying to figure out. I hope I can be the answer soon. I think the more people we get over here. All five German guys in the league right now came in through a different way, basically. They each had a unique way. More kids are going to find a way. Hopefully by then, there are 10 guys in the NFL, and then the general media is gong to be more into it. People with money in Germany will invest more in the game, in the sports clubs, and things like that. At the end of the day, it's all about money and how you invest it. It's a good question, and a lot of people have been trying to figure it out for a long time. But it's growing, and that's a good thing.
VRENTAS: Are there Colts fans in Berlin?
WERNER: The TV viewers are growing every year. The Super Bowl just broke another record in Germany. It's in the middle of the night, people have to work the next day, and people are still watching. The numbers tell you it's growing. More people who don't even know football are starting to watch it. Usually it's just the guys who play football watching it. Now normal people are watching it. This is a big thing.
VRENTAS: The NFL has mentioned expanding the International Series outside London, and Germany is one of the countries mentioned. How do you think an NFL game in your homeland would be received?
WERNER: It would be awesome. I would love that. I hope I would play in it, too. The whole NFL Europe was basically in Germany, so I don't understand why that's not the first option, because they have the most fans over there. I wish [I could talk to the NFL about Germany], but I don't have the big name yet. Maybe I can change that in a few years.
VRENTAS: This is an important third season coming up for you. What are your goals?
WERNER: Just improvement as a football player. That's the most important thing for me. Of course everyone looks at stats, and sacks, and of course I want to improve that, but I can't control that. I can only control the work I put in to become a better football player. I'm just going to be out there using my opportunities in this lovely game. I'm happy to be here, and I'm fighting every day to get better. I've had my ups and downs with injuries, but those are things I can't change. I can only focus on getting healthy again and getting out there and having fun with my teammates.
VRENTAS: You played through a few injuries last season, and the year ended for you with being inactive in the AFC Championship. How trying was last season?
WERNER: That was definitely tough. There were a few things. I had a knee injury, a shoulder injury, and I was playing through it, trying to be the tough guy. But at the end of the day, it's the NFL, and everybody is good, and if you're not close to 100 percent, you don't look good out there. I take pride in as long as I can walk, and as long as I can run, I'm going to be out there. The coaches have to make the decision. And that was the case. Coach [Chuck] Paganao made the decision [for me to be inactive in the AFC Championship], and I accepted it. I respect him for that. Now it's my turn to prove I'm healthy, and I'm getting healthy, and I want to be out there again. That's professional sports right there. Not everything works out perfectly that you want to. Sometimes you have to keep fighting.
VRENTAS: You're still relatively young in the sport. How are you developing as a pass rusher?
WERNER: Pass rusher is such a unique thing. Everything has to be right. The shoulder injury I had was late in the season, that wasn't something I had the whole time, but half the season, I was dealing with knee issues, and I'm still trying to recover right now. That makes you a half-step slower. And being that extra half-step slow, that's not getting you to the quarterback. That's how it goes. That’s football. We get injured, then we get healthy again, then we just have to keep going.
VRENTAS: Do you feel a responsibility to do well to represent your country?
WERNER: I definitely do. I hope so. I want kids back in Germany to see it's possible. I made it. Some other guys made it. You can do it. Why not? Why not you? That’s the message I want to get to them, and tell them, "Hey, no dream is too big."