Bjoern Werner's international success story is truly one of a kind

  • By Michael Preston Special to NFL.com
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Seven years ago, Patrick Steenberge created an avenue for particular international athletes -- those whose abilities in the game they called "American football" had outgrown the competition of their backyard -- to come and hit the gridiron in the United States.


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"Living the dream," he calls it.

On Thursday night, as the 2013 NFL Draft begins, one of those foreign standouts will be sitting nervously in the green room at the Radio City Music Hall, hoping his name is called during the event's first round.

Bjoern Werner, the 2012 ACC Defensive Player of the Year, came to the United States in 2007 through the International Student Program, which was devised by Steenberge's company, Global Football. After establishing himself as a prep dynamo at the Salisbury School in Connecticut, Werner went on to star for three seasons at Florida State.

Now, he is about to become only the fourth European-trained player -- and certainly the most high profile of the bunch -- to be drafted into the NFL.

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Starring as a high school quarterback at Erie Cathedral Prep in Western Pennsylvania and having the opportunity to play at Notre Dame was a rite of passage for Steenberge. Back in the late 1960s, he set school passing records only recently broken in Erie and played under the legendary Ara Parseghian for the Irish. A shoulder injury, treatable with today's medical advances, denied Steenberge a shot at the NFL, and he eventually found his way into sports marketing.

In 1997, his Global Football company created the Global Junior Championship, an international all-star game that was tentatively -- and eventually, fully -- endorsed by the NFL at a time when the league's international branch was in its infancy. That tournament, played annually on the eve of the Super Bowl in the host city until 2007, showcased a number of raw talents, including a promising German by the name of Sebastian Vollmer who dominated the trenches as an offensive lineman. Vollmer earned a scholarship to the University of Houston after impressing in the event and eventually was selected by the New England Patriots in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft.

It was clear to Steenberge that the rest of the world had gifted young players who simply needed an opportunity to prove themselves on the highest stage.

"When NFL Europe closed its doors, there appeared to be nowhere other than on club teams at home for these youngsters to showcase their talents," Steenberge said. "There are some excellent teams, particularly in Europe, in Germany, Austria, Italy and France, but 16- and 17-year-olds can only improve to college football standards by coming to America to play at the high school level."

And so, the International Student Program (ISP) was born in 2006.

Steenberge had prior experience in the area, having worked with NFL International in bringing Constantin Ritzmann -- a German star of the Global Junior Championship -- to Florida to play high school football. Ritzmann earned a scholarship to Tennessee, but direct NFL involvement in his placement brought about a one-game suspension for violating NCAA rules.

Having learned from this lesson, Steenberge decided to operate the ISP himself, under the umbrella of USA Football, the NFL's developmental partner. Through the program, student-athletes chose a prep school of their choice from a list of participating institutions (mainly in the Northeast), then lived and studied on campus throughout a stay of two to three years.

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Werner wasn't the only gifted player in the ISP class of 2007. The group included Chinese kicker Long Ding, who, despite barely speaking English upon arriving at New Hampton School (N.H.), made the dean's list. Ding attended junior college and in 2012 was invited to a tryout for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Meanwhile, linebacker Kasim Edebali, a friend and former German national teammate of Werner's, became a starter at Boston College after playing at the Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H. And offensive lineman Curtis Feigt (another German) earned a scholarship to West Virginia, having impressed at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. All three still harbor NFL aspirations.

But it was Werner who stood literally head and shoulders above the rest.

"His ability was evident from the moment you saw him walk onto the field, and it was matched by his humble demeanor and how grateful he was to be playing over here," Steenberge said. "Our network of coaches in Europe had told us he would be the next Ritzmann and projected he had the ability to play at as a high a level as he liked, and they were right. Now here he is, on the brink of the NFL, and he deserves it."

The Werner express almost came off the rails following his initial year at the Salisbury School. Fresh off a dominant debut season, Werner stunned Steenberge and Salisbury head coach Chris Adamson by heading back to Berlin. Suffering from homesickness and needing to earn tuition money, he returned home for a year. But he always planned to return.

"When I went back home, I knew I wasn't going to quit on football," explained Werner, who continued to play for the local club team that introduced him to the sport, the Berlin Adler. "I was going to come back. I just didn't want to be there for three years, without my family, my friends, my girlfriend, so I took year off.

"They told me in the 10th grade to work on my language skills, which I did. When I came back, I was a senior and it was different because I was thinking about college and how to show them I could play at the highest level and get as many scholarship offers as possible."

Werner's focus paid off, as the college offers came flooding in. After eliminating West Coast schools simply because of the added distance from Germany, Werner chose Florida State. He appeared in all 14 games as a true freshman and took over a full-time starting role as a sophomore. As a junior this past season, Werner ranked third in the country with 13 sacks, earning unanimous All-American honors. He then decided to forego his senior season to enter the 2013 NFL Draft.

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Unfortunately, the trail blazed by Werner has gone cold in recent years.

Funding from the NFL to USA Football was allocated to different priorities, and the game's world governing body, the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), revised the ISP player selection process. Arguing that top foreign players should remain at home to elevate the standard of domestic play, IFAF shut the door on future Werners, and by 2009, the initiative had died.

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Other talented international players have found their own way to the U.S. In fact, a total of eight international prospects will wait to hear their names called this week, including Australian Jesse Williams, Estonia's Margus Hunt and Menelik Watson of the U.K. But those players made it to this point through their own endeavors, not by the design of those charged with growing the game internationally.

"I'm really sad the program was closed because it was successful and there were so many people at colleges here who did well," Werner said. "I am definitely going to try to help players do what I did and find a way to come here and play high school and college football."

As for his own immediate future, Werner, whose family could not afford to travel to the United States to watch his career unfold, is almost blasé when evaluating the times that likely lie ahead.

"I think it will feel awesome to have some financial security, to be able to put food on the table and to know I can afford to go home to Germany to visit," said Werner, who took a job with a cleaning company between his sophomore and senior years at the Salisbury School just to afford his return trip to America.

"Next time, I will be able to fly home first class and look after my family."

Just like Steenberge says: "Living the dream."

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