So far, anyway, the relationship has been mostly one-sided. The NFL has been exporting its product overseas, and the trade imbalance has been rather significant because not much has been coming back to the shores of the United States.
But that’s starting to change, and expect to see some examples of the degree of this change during the three days of the 2013 NFL Draft, with two “examples” of how American football is becoming a game that can be played by athletes from all over the world expected to come before the end of the first round.
Their stories – of how these future professionals came to America, and of how they came to play football – are unusual and therefore interesting to the huge media presence that always surrounds an NFL Draft, but the people whose employment depends upon adding quality players via the draft cannot be seduced by interesting stories. They need guys with ability, and that is the intersection where Ziggy Ansah and Bjoern Werner become parts of this story, because via Round 1 of the upcoming draft is where Ansah and Werner – both projected as defensive ends in the pros – figure to become part of the NFL.
Ziggy Ansah was born in Ghana, and while playing soccer and pickup basketball at his local school he met Mormon missionaries and was baptized into that faith at the age of 18. The missionary who baptized Ansah kept in touch after returning to America, and he later suggested that if Ansah was serious about basketball he should apply to BYU and try out for the basketball team. Ansah was accepted at BYU, and in his 19-year-old mind he played basketball like LeBron James. But he turned out to be not good enough to play Division I college basketball and was cut two different times. Obviously still an athlete, Ansah then walked on to the track team, where he posted a 10.91 in the 100 meters and a 21.89 in the 200. That’s when the BYU track coach walked Ansah over to Bronco Mendenhall’s office, and when Ziggy left there he had been persuaded to try out for the football team.
“You want to help him, because he’s just so sincere, with this combination of naivety and a genuineness that is so contrary to college sports or even professional sports. You just want it to work,” said Mendenhall, BYU’s head football coach. “Anyone who underestimates what he is capable of learning and how fast he can comprehend it and apply it, that would be a grave mistake.”
Ansah (6-foot-5, 271-pounds) is still learning the game, literally, and heading into 2012 he had only 10 total tackles at BYU. He began playing on special teams in 2010 and increased his role to nickel pass rusher in 2011. Ansah’s breakthrough came during spring practices in 2012, when he seemed to make a play – a sack, a tackle for a loss, a forced fumble, a batted pass – on every series.
And then in his final college season, Ansah exploded with 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, nine passes defensed, an interception, and a forced fumble. He followed that up with a Senior Bowl performance where he won Most Outstanding Player honors with seven tackles, including 3.5 for loss, plus 1.5 sacks, and a forced fumble.
“When he comes up on that stage on draft day, I hope he knows that anything I did in driving him, probably more than anybody else, it was because of who I thought he could become,” Mendenhall said.
The media attention, the celebrity, that comes with being a college football player in the Southeastern Conference are things Bjoern Werner could do without. But when some of the attention started coming from media in his native Germany, Werner’s opinion changed somewhat.
“It’s funny,” Werner said, “but I’m trying to spread it around. I’m trying to make (football) bigger in Germany.”
Werner estimates there are about 100,000 Germans playing some variation of American football, but that remains just a small fraction of the audience for soccer. But because Werner won’t be the first from his country to play in the NFL shows that American football is more than just a novelty there.
New England drafted OT Sebastian Vollmer on the second round of the 2009 Draft. Vollmer, from Düsseldorf, Germany, attended Quirinus Gymnasium in Kaarst, Germany, before ending up at the University of Houston, and now he’s a starting tackle for the Patriots. Markus Kuhn, from Weinheim, Germany, was a No. 7 pick by the Giants in 2012 and saw some playing time as a rookie defensive tackle. Kuhn attended Weinheim High School before ending up at North Carolina State.
“I always looked at it like, ‘I want to do that,”’ Werner said about following Vollmer and Kuhn to Division I college football and then on to the NFL.
Werner grew up in the Berlin, Germany, neighborhoods of Wedding and Reinickendorf, where he first played football for the Berlin Adler. In 2007, Werner attended Salisbury School in Salisbury, Connecticut, as an exchange student where his sports career blossomed. Werner played football at Salisbury in 2007, he returned to Germany for his junior year of high school, and then in 2009 it was back to Salisbury for a senior season that was what attracted the attention of some major colleges. Despite playing high school football for only two years, Werner was able to choose Florida State over Oregon, Miami, and California. And during his first college spring break, Werner married his girlfriend Denise, whom he had met in 10th grade in Berlin.
Werner (6-3, 266) broke into the Seminoles’ starting lineup full-time in 2011, and he finished that season with 12 tackles for loss, seven sacks, eight passes defensed, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery that he returned 25 yards for a touchdown. In 2012 Werner improved to 18 tackles for loss and 13 sacks, to go along with another eight passes defensed and a forced fumble, and because of that production he was voted a consensus Associated Press All-American.
“I’m a German All-American,” said Werner. “How awesome is that?
“There are so many other kids back in Germany who were 15, 16 when I decided to come over, and they had the same dream,” he said. “But somebody’s going to have to make it happen, and hopefully I can change that a little bit by having a nice NFL career.”
When the final chapter of this story is written, it could come to pass that the kid from Berlin ended up helping the guy from Manchester.
Menelik Watson was born and raised in Manchester, England, where he attended Burnage High School – now called Burnage Media Arts College – an all-boys secondary school in Burnage, Manchester, England. There, Watson was a basketball player, and after he graduated as part of Burnage’s Class of 2006 he went to the CDA Academy in Spain to continue in that sport. He accepted a basketball scholarship to Marist College, where he spent two years.
After becoming disenchanted with basketball, Watson transferred to Saddleback Junior College in Mission Viejo, Ca., where he began to play football. From there, he selected Florida State over Auburn, California, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Rutgers, and where as an offensive tackle he met up with Bjoern Werner across the line of scrimmage on a Seminoles’ practice field.
“Even when I was young, people used to always tell me, ‘When you go to America, people are going to make you play football,’” said Watson after Florida State’s win over Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl. “And I said, ‘I ain’t going to play football. I don’t like it.’ I was a rugby guy. But at Marist, I used to go to the football games there, and then I knew I could play the sport. I just needed the right coaching.”
Before Watson arrived at Saddleback College, he never had lined up to block anyone, but when he left Florida State he had lined up and blocked some of the top defensive line talent in the country, headed by Werner. Very soon, Menelik Watson will take his talents to the NFL, very likely before the end of this draft’s third round.
“When I made the decision to switch over (to football), I said, ‘I’m going to give it everything I’ve got,’” Watson said. “If it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out. If I came here and I couldn’t handle it, I tip my hat and say thank you and roll on. It’s all mental, really. If you tell yourself you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it.”
The small town of Karksi-Nuia, Estonia, is where Margus Hunt grew up, and it’s where he took up sports because “there wasn’t much to do.” After trying decathlon he decided to concentrate on the throwing events – discus, shot put, and hammer. In 2005 he won his first title at the European Junior Championships; in 2006 at the World Junior Championships in Beijing, Hunt established a new world junior record, and his gold medal was the first World Junior gold medal for Estonia.
Shortly after, Hunt moved to Texas to train for the shot put and discus with SMU track coach Dave Wollman, and somehow ended up trying out for football where he would come to find himself on the Mustangs’ defensive line. In 2012, his only season as a starter, Hunt finished with 31 tackles, including 11.5 for loss, plus eight sacks. He also left SMU having blocked 17 kicks on special teams.
At 6-8, 277, Hunt is an athletic freak who is being projected as a second-to-third-round pick. He will enter the NFL as a 26-year-old rookie.
There were a lot of different ways that different Alabama players celebrated their BCS Championship Game win over Notre Dame, but Jesse Williams’ had to be the most unique.
Williams got a chance to commiserate about it with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard via Skype from inside the Alabama football offices. You see, Williams is a native of Brisbane, Australia, where he grew up playing rugby and basketball, and that’s how he was able to have about four minutes of the Prime Minister’s time, during which the pair not only discussed the BCS National Championship but also Williams’ life at Alabama, and the incredible bush fires that were ravaging Australia at the time.
“It was great to speak to the Prime Minister and to know that I have the support of the entire country, starting with her,” Williams said. “It was great to be recognized for the success I’ve had outside of Australia, playing football at Alabama.”
What Williams (6-3, 323) accomplished at Alabama was to start 26 games over two seasons as a defensive end and nose tackle, where he used his considerable strength to help anchor the Crimson Tide against the run. Projected to be a nose tackle in the NFL, Williams could come off the board before the end of the third round.
If the pre-draft projections hold, there will be five foreign-born prospects drafted by NFL teams before the close of draft business on Friday, April 26. Former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah believes this is the start of a trend and not a one-year anomaly.
“I think we will see more of this in the future,” said Jeremiah, who worked for three NFL teams as a scout and now works for NFL Network. “Most of these guys were playing other sports in their countries: Hunt came from track, Watson from hoops, Williams from rugby, and Ansah from hoops. College (football) coaches are looking for athletes, and some of these other sports are filled with exceptional raw athletes.”