Growing up in a country in which American football did not exist prior to 1977 except on U.S. Army bases, didn’t help a young Bjoern Werner as his fascination with the sport started to build.
So to get an idea of how the sport was played, he did what any other teenager around the world would have done … he asked for a PlayStation.
“Ray Lewis,” said the Seminoles’ defensive end, who mainly played soccer in his native Germany, when asked about his earliest memories of American football.
“I always played Madden with him. I started playing flag football but that’s not real. That was in school. We had a little break, so instead of having a soccer ball, the weird guys were over there with a football. I was like, ‘what are they doing over there? Maybe I should check it out.’
“I tossed the ball around a little and it was a lot of fun.”
Fun is not the term opponents are using when the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Werner appears on their video. Just ask Northern Illinois, the team that will have to deal with Werner in Tuesday’s Orange Bowl against the No. 12 Seminoles (11-2).
“The guy has a motor, he never takes a play off,” said quarterback Jordan Lynch, who has lead NIU (12-1) to a No. 15 ranking. “Sometimes he’ll get cut block. He’ll get right back up and make a tackle. It’s pretty impressive. He’ll go sideline to sideline and make a tackle.
“He’s one of the most complete football players we’ll play against.”
Maybe one of the most complete in FSU’s history. Werner is the fifth Seminoles defensive end to be consensus All-America — but just the second, joining Peter Boulware, to earn the distinction as a junior. Werner, of course, is the first in school history to start his improbable journey as a soccer star in a foreign country.
“I’m a German All-American,” he joked. “How awesome is that?”
Werner’s introduction to tackle football came at the age of 15. He played for Germany’s under-19 national team before enrolling at Salisbury prep school in Connecticut for two more years of seasoning.
And even then, even after such limited experience, Werner had a plan.
“To show Americans that Germans can play football,” Werner said. “My main goal when I left (Germany) was to play in the NFL and I knew it takes high school level and college level to get there.”
Werner even knew his best route. FSU recruiter James Coley went to Salisbury thinking Werner was an offensive lineman. Sure he was big (6-4, 275 at the time) but Coley had not seen enough of him to think he had the skills to rush the passer.
But Werner had other ideas.
“A lot of people tell me I was going to be an offensive lineman,” Werner said. “I told them I’m not going to come to your college. The same with Florida State. They said, ‘offensive lineman.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll see you later.’ ’’
Coley was intrigued and went to watch Werner play a pickup basketball game on campus.
“And you can see his athleticism running up and down the court, jumping,” Coley said. “He was fouling everybody. They stood no chance. (But) you could see his skill set.”
Coley called FSU coach Jimbo Fisher and they decided to offer Werner a scholarship on the spot.
Three years, 23½ sacks and 97 tackles later, FSU is prepared to say goodbye. Werner will not make it official that he’ll skip his senior season, but being one of the top two rated defensive ends and projected as a top-five pick (one board has him going second to Jacksonville) is difficult to turn down.
Werner says his mind is made up but that “you can change your mind so many times.” He said he will sit down with his wife of three years, Denise, a Berlin native who attends Tallahassee Community College, and made his decision final soon after the Orange Bowl.
That decision should be easy when comparisons to NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans are surfacing. Watt leads the NFL with 20½ sacks.
“Yeah, but he’s 6-6 (actually 6-5) 290. I’m 6-4, 260. You know what I’m saying?” Werner said. “Maybe I play the same style of play, but that’s an honor for people to compare me to him.”
Werner describes Watt as “hungry” and says when he watches him “he’s all over the TV.”
It was at turns clunky and hard to watch, but it was entirely sweet.Georgia Tech played perhaps its most memorable game in the young history of McCamish Pavilion, rallying from 12 points down with less than seven minutes to go and four down with just over a minute left to claim a 67-64 win over Illinois on Tuesday night.