x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Vollmer's unlikely journey

Ron Borges looks at how the massive German offensive lineman has made to the National Football League.

Sebastian Vollmer, pictured above in is Houston Cougars kit during his time at the University of Houston, was selected as the second round draft pick by the New England Patriots.
Sebastian Vollmer, pictured above in is Houston Cougars kit during his time at the University of Houston, was selected as the second round draft pick by the New England Patriots.

That Sebastian Vollmer was a different kind of rookie was apparent to New England Patriots' public relations director Stacey James early into the massive offensive lineman's second conference call with interested media members who wanted to hear of his unusual voyage to the NFL. "He didn't speak English for 32 minutes,'' James said of the three-time Super Bowl champions' second round draft choice in this year's selection in April, wonderment still in his voice.

That's because the 6ft 8ins tall offensive tackle was born and raised in Kaarst, Germany, a suburb of Dusseldorf, which is a strange place to begin a career in the National Football League unless your father is a member of the United States military, which Vollmer's was not. Born and raised in Germany, Vollmer was following the traditional path of most European boys, playing football and swimming, yet feeling all along that something was missing. At 14, he found what it was.

"I was looking for something more exciting,'' Vollmer said following his first week of training with the Patriots after becoming the 58th player taken in April's college draft. "I used to watch NFL games and NFL Europe games. I liked American football. In Dusseldorf there was a club team called the Dusseldorf Packers so I tried out and absolutely loved it.'' The game quickly loved him back. It loved that he was bigger, faster and more athletic than most of his peers and most of all it loved that, untutored as he might be, Sebastian Vollmer had an aptitude for knocking people over.

His combination of size and athleticism quickly made him as much of a star as one can become in a country where American football is a sporting footnote on the grand stage despite the popularity of the now defunct NFL Europe in Germany. By the end of the NFL's experience with a spring league in Europe for young, developing players five of the six teams were based in Germany (the other was in Barcelona) with the Rhein Fire being Vollmer's team of choice.

Vollmer began to attract attention in the United States after playing as a teenager for his hometown team, Quirinus Gymnasium, which went 25-0 over two seasons and then on the European All-Star team at the Global Junior Championships in San Diego in 2003. By that time, Vollmer had played on two German national championship teams, finished second in the European club football championships and was developing into the kind of guy American college football coaches salivate over - big, fast and with a lot of developmental possibilities.

Colleges noticed him in San Diego, kept informed of his progress and eventually offered him scholarships to come to America and try his hand at college football. Vollmer recalled: "In 2003, we came to San Diego to play in the Global Junior Championships. There were eight or 10 college coaches there who recruited me and about a year later I ended up in Houston.'' Vollmer's decision was a bold one, not only because he had only minimal football experience but more importantly because he was entering an American university with only rudimentary ability to speak and write English.

"I took a couple of English classes when I was in school in Germany but I was definitely not fluent,'' Vollmer said. "I took Latin for numerous years in high school. That probably helped me because Latin is the basis of the Roman languages. I knew enough to survive but this conversation would not have happened five years ago. When I first got there I would talk to myself. I took language classes and studied on my own and I got better at it over time but it was difficult. There was the culture shock and the language difficulties."

So was his growth as a college football programme. He played little his first two years in Houston, beginning as a blocking tight end before moving to left tackle full time after missing the 2006 season with a back injury. He started every game in his last two seasons and last year led a line that worked well with the Cougars powerful offence. Houston finished second in total offence. A large amount of yardage came by sending the Houston backs running through holes opened by Vollmer.

"I got a good basic education when I was playing ball in Germany,'' Vollmer said. "I learned to play when I got to Houston. I watched a lot of film of practices and games. That's how I was taught. I taught myself.'' His most impressive statistic may not be his size but rather his 69 knockdowns, blocks in which he knocked his opponent flat to the ground. Yet in the opinion of the coach who knows him best, Vollmer doesn't yet realise what he is really capable of.

"His best football is definitely ahead of him,'' said Joe Gilbert, Vollmer's offensive line coach at Houston. "His exposure to the game has been limited to this point, but with the type of coaching they have up there in New England, I thought it was a great pick. "Several scouts had come in last year and written him off. They didn't think he was going to be a national prospect. Then, after a while, by the time last season started rolling around, the same scouts were saying, 'This kid is legitimate'.

"Now it's all up to him. He's improved every single day he was here. He still has things to learn but his best football is in front of him. I truly believe that.'' So do the Patriots, who have a long history of developing such untutored offensive linemen and turning them into NFL players. Perhaps the best previous example was an American wrestler named Stephen Neal, who came to the Patriots without having played any college football yet developed into a starter on several of their Super Bowl champions.

Vollmer at least played two years of American college football and now will be playing for perhaps the best coach in the NFL - three time Super Bowl champion Bill Belichick. "Is he as polished as some players at that position?'' Belichick said after drafting Vollmer. "Probably not but he has a lot of good tools to work with. He's a tough kid.'' So smart that four years after arriving in America with only minimal knowledge of both football and English, he graduated with two degrees, one in communications and the other in economics, while also becoming the second round draft choice of one of the best teams in the NFL.

Is it all a dream for Sebastian Vollmer or a shocking reality? "I never thought about how far behind I was or how far I could go in football,'' Vollmer said. "I was setting small goals each day. I was trying to make small steps and hoping. I know I have to work on a lot of things.'' One of them, it seems, won't have to be his communication skills. rborges@thenational.ae