Football brings Werner from Germany

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Bjoern Werner played soccer as a kid. It was simply the preferred sport as he grew up in Germany.

Then a friend at his school in Berlin asked if he were interested in playing flag football. Werner was hooked.

"It was just a little five-on-five flag football," Werner said. "It was pretty fun. It was the first time I touched a football."

He laughs at the thought, the memory of a 12-year-old version of himself, tall but not nearly the hulking, 275-pound defensive end that he is now at Florida State.

What position did he play back then?

"You don't want to know," Werner said with a laugh. "Safety and wide receiver."

His journey to Tallahassee might not be unique, but it's far from the norm for an elite college football prospect. Most kids grow up tossing the football around the front yard and playing peewee tackle football before they play on teams in middle school and high school.

Werner didn't play a down of tackle football until he was 15. By that point, he had filled out. And he was very good.

So he scoured the Internet and found the USA Football International Student Program. He was soon attending the Salisbury School in Connecticut.

"It was in the middle of nowhere," Werner said.

Werner had communicated with Salisbury officials and football coaches via email. The shock came when he arrived in the United States and realized his English wasn't very good.

"We take English as a second language in Germany," Werner said. "But, honestly I didn't really care about English in the first place. I was like, ‘I don't need it.' It's like people take Spanish here for five years. In the 10th grade, I was like, ‘I want to go to America.' I should have listed to all this English stuff."

He got away by using hand signals for a while, but being immersed in the language and the culture allowed him to adapt and learn.

His sophomore season, he had 54 tackles and 12 sacks. But he was also homesick. So after that school year, he went back to Germany, where he went to school and played for the Berlin Adler club team.

Werner returned to Connecticut for his senior season so that he could pursue his dream of attending college and playing football in the U.S. In Werner's senior year, he had 57 tackles, three sacks and four forced fumbles. The recruiting services took notice. Scout.com gave him a four-star ranking.

The only question now: Where to go to college?

Offers came in from dozens of schools across the country. Werner didn't know a top-25 program from a basement-dweller. He had no idea which colleges to visit.

"I had no clue what's going on," Werner said. "I was getting tired fast from recruiting."

Werner considered his high school coach, Chris Adamson, as a father figure in the U.S., and Adamson helped him narrow the list of suitors. He took visits to California, Maryland, Rutgers and Oregon.

Every school wanted him to play defensive tackle. Werner wanted to play defensive end.

Then he made his final visit to Florida State in January 2010. Coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff said the magic words.

"At the last point, they told me, ‘We're going to let you play defensive end,' " Werner said. "I was like, ‘OK, I'm coming.' "

Also coming along for the ride was his girlfriend, Denise. They had dated for years, even when Bjoern was in Connecticut. After some serious discussions about their future, they decided to get married in the spring of 2010.

Werner is the only married football player at Florida State.

"I love it," Werner said. "When I have a bad day at practice, I can talk about it. People ask me why you married that early, and I was like, ‘I don't know. It just happened. I didn't plan it.' It happened to be that I'm married really young and I love it."

Denise is taking classes at Tallahassee Community College. She also immersed herself in the world of football so that she could talk with Bjoern about the game.

"When I met her, she never knew what football was," Werner said. "She printed out 20 pages on Wikipedia and read all the rules to talk with me about football. I was kind of surprised. She even highlighted sentences."

Werner's first impression of Division I offensive tackles was that "never knew that people could be that big." But now those linemen are facing a worthy challenge. Werner was a backup to starting left defensive end Markus White last season but still enjoyed a productive freshman season, with 20 tackles and 3.5 sacks.

What may be more impressive is that he did it with a torn meniscus in one of his knees. The injury was discovered in August, but he opted to postpone surgery until after the bowl victory over South Carolina.

Werner had no idea what to expect when he ran out of the tunnel for the season opener against Samford but was amazed by how many fans had come to watch a college football game.

"Professional soccer is the same way (in Germany) as college football here," Werner said. "I was shocked. The only thing is we don't get money. That's the only difference.

"This stadium (Doak Campbell) is bigger than my professional soccer team in Berlin. I think 70,000 people fit in there. Here, 83,000 people fit in."

His parents have been able to catch a few of his games on TV or online back home. Football made some inroads with the now-defunct NFL Europa, which was a hit in Germany.

But the league didn't have much of an impact on Werner, who said he knew little about football growing up and still finds himself explaining the popularity of college football to his family and friends back home.

"When I tell my family, they are like, ‘What? Why are people loving it that much?' " Werner said. "I was like, ‘I don't know.' "

The way Werner has been playing, fans in both the United States and Germany will be taking notice.

"He just consistently puts his face in there, uses his fists, rushes the passer good," Fisher said. "Bjoern is a very good football player. He's a great young man."


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