This is how much Bjoern Werner wanted to play football in America: Between his sophomore and senior years at the Salisbury School in Connecticut, he went home to Germany to earn tuition money. By being a janitor.
"It wasn't a big deal," he says now with a laugh, one week before some NFL team makes him a millionaire.
The first few rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft will feature an international flavor unlike those of any other year before. There are five legitimate first-round prospects who hail from overseas, big men making a big statement in the globalization of this game -- and dancing a rumba in which their birthplaces are sometimes irrelevant and sometimes mean everything.
There's Werner, a defensive end out of Florida State; Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, a BYU end from Ghana; Estonia native Margus Hunt, an end out of SMU; Menelik Watson, a right tackle out of Manchester, England by way of Florida State; and defensive tackle Jesse Williams, who was working in Brisbane, Australia before landing at Alabama.
In draft war rooms around the league, these players' first languages or accents aren't moving many needles. As one personnel director said, "They're big. You're big, you have a chance at anything." And Werner said that, through every meeting at the NFL Scouting Combine, every visit with a coach and all four of his team visits, he was never even asked about spending that junior year of high school back in Germany. He said no one seemed to care how he got to America; they just seemed to care about how he plays today.
As the NFL continues to ignore borders, these players are key to that growth, their stories both instructive and insightful. Hunt, Watson and Werner all trained together in Florida ahead of the combine; Werner said the three "were definitely a little European club. Of course you are drawn to each other." And, Werner said, there was absolutely a commonality beyond their enormous frames and positions in the trenches.
"We're really mature. We're leaving our country, leaving our family behind; we're probably more mature, and that really pays off," Werner said. "We're not going to take it for granted, either. The few international guys, they come to start a new life. They take it serious and don't waste time."
Hunt agreed with that thesis, openly acknowledging that economics first pushed him to football. A junior world champion in the discus and shot put, he left Estonia to train with SMU's track and field team. The program eventually folded, but Hunt wanted, he said, to stay at SMU. "I only had financial support for one year, so I had to find an alternation. I had to try out for football. I went to the defensive line right away, hit the bags, ran a 40 and here I am."
Here, in a potentially powerful spot. Hunt said an Estonian journalist told him last week that there is an Estonian network aiming to negotiate the rights to air the games of whichever team he goes to. He didn't see his first football game until he came to SMU; he's fairly sure his mother still doesn't quite understand the game he is making his profession. ("I think she was a little scared when I explained it to her," he joked.)
American football is broadcast in Germany, but, Werner said, as part of a pay tier that his family couldn't afford when he was a child -- he watched YouTube highlights on the Internet. He's hopeful that as he, New York Giants defensive tackle Markus Kuhn, New England Patriots offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and other Germans carve out spots in the NFL, their games will be more accessible in their native country.
"It's really good to see so many of us from places other than this country," Werner said. "I want to show people we can play the sport. And if we can do it, they can, too. It's kind of like the NBA going to Europe to get players. I hope we are just the first wave."
Maybe. Here's a quick look at that wave:
Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, DE, BYU
Birthplace: Accra, Ghana
Ansah, 23, twice tried out for BYU's basketball team -- and twice was cut. He gamely joked at the combine that he still doesn't know why he didn't make the team. Ansah played football for the first time in 2010. He finished the 2012 season with 62 tackles and nine pass breakups. He is raw, but has proven to be a fast learner. His name could be one of the first 10 announced by Commissioner Roger Goodell on Thursday night.
Margus Hunt, DE, SMU
Birthplace: Karksi-Nuia, Estonia
Once a rising track-and-field star, the 25-year-old Hunt said he has no feelings of longing for his old sport: "I like the team environment, the physical contact of football. I'm having fun every day." He said he's visited four teams: the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He loves the warm weather, but should a cold-weather team draft him, he'll be fine. After all, he grew up in the cold.
Menelik Watson, OT, Florida State
Birthplace: Manchester, England
Watson, 24, initially went to Marist on a basketball scholarship. After little play and a losing season, he transferred to Saddleback Junior College with some vague idea of becoming a football player -- and proved to be a natural. A few weeks in, he was fielding college offers. After only one year at Florida State, where he started 12 games and allowed just one sack, he declared for the draft. Hunt said Watson might be one of the funniest men he knows. Scouts say he has absurdly quick feet and an explosive first step.
Brandt: Need-to-know no-names
As the draft nears, Gil Brandt finds 13 prospects with little name recognition but plenty of big-time pro potential. More ...
Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
Birthplace: Berlin, Germany
Where Ansah and Watson were failed -- or converted -- basketball players, and Hunt was a track-and-field refugee, the 22-year-old Werner first played American football at 12. After growing too big for soccer, he immediately fell in love with the game. When he was 15, he told his parents he was going to America to get noticed, first by a college and then by the NFL. "They laughed," Werner said. "They said we didn't have money for tuition, and I said, 'Don't worry, I'll figure it out.' " He did. Garnering multiple big-time offers, he settled in at Florida State, and his 13 sacks last season propelled him to ACC Defensive Player of the Year and All-America honors.
Jesse Williams, DT, Alabama
Birthplace: Thursday Island, Australia
Williams, 22, has told teams he grew up playing soccer and rugby in Brisbane, transitioning to American football as a teenager. He played defensive end, nose guard and fullback for Nick Saban and he's tweeted pictures of himself bench-pressing 600 pounds.