In mid-January 2016, a few NFL news outlets picked up on an item from overseas: Former first-round pick Bjoern Werner announced his retirement on German TV, making him the first player from the 2013 draft class to retire. The articles focused on Werner as further evidence that Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson wasn’t fit for the job. Minnesota fans and media didn’t take notice at all.
When he was invited to attend the 2013 NFL draft, Bjoren Werner envisioned a moment that would make his home country proud. He’d been a dominant pass rusher at Florida State, racking up 13.0 sacks in his final college season and NFL.com compared him to Giants rusher Osi Umenyiora. All the mock drafts had him as a top prospect, so it appeared a virtual lock that he’d become the highest drafted player in NFL history born in Germany.
But as the draft grew closer, teams began to waver on whether they could spend an important asset on him.
“The night before, in the hotel, my agent comes up to me like, ‘Yeah, um, so, a lot of teams who were thinking about taking you earlier, their doctors red-flagged you, so you might slip into the second round,” Werner said over the phone from his home in Connecticut. “I was like, ‘Oh boy, I just flew my parents all the way across the continent and now we have to sit here? I just flew my parents, that was a lot of money.'”
He knew they were right to red-flag him. His knees were in rough shape after offseason surgeries and there was a pretty good chance they wouldn’t hold up for a long NFL career.
Werner walked into Radio City Music Hall with a smile, but couldn’t stop thinking about the possibility of being the guy who falls down the board. The one that the cameras keep showing after every pick. That poor bewildered and embarrassed fellow.
In the green room, Werner found a comfortable seat assuming he’d be there for awhile. The Kansas City Chiefs picked Eric Fisher first. Then the Jacksonville Jaguars took Luke Joeckel. The Miami Dolphins had just traded up with the Oakland Raiders and they were in desperate need of pass rush.
Then the phone rang inside Werner’s room.
Everything ran through his head. How could this be? What about being red-flagged? Third overall, are you kidding? This is incredible.
It was a crank call. The Dolphins picked Dion Jordan.
“Everybody in the room thought I was getting picked third,” Werner said. “I was like, ‘Hello? Hello?’ Everyone is looking in the green room and there was just laughing on the other side. My agent went on the phone and said, ‘Who are you?’ And they just hung up.”
Apparently his room wasn’t the only one to be pranked.
“All the sudden everyone’s flipping out,” Werner said. “Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher are saying, ‘This is the NFL how can you guys not have a secure line?'”
Then it happened again when the Buffalo Bills traded up to draft EJ Manuel.
“Everybody was pissed,” Werner laughs.
By the time the first round reached the 20s, Werner was getting worried his fears of dropping to the second round would come true. But the Colts called – on his cell phone.
Werner remembers part of the jubilation of being selected in the first round was that his teammate was taken right after him.
“I remember saying, ‘X, you’re going to the Vikings,’ and he was all happy, you always root for your teammates,” Werner said.
Sometimes the moments that shape our lives are shrug-worthy at the time.
When Werner was 12 years old, a comrade tossed him a football and asked if he wanted to give it a try. He thought the ball was pretty weirdly shaped, but figured he’d give it a try. At that point, he wasn’t even aware of the NFL, much less considering it as a way to rise from one of Berlin’s poorest neighborhoods.
By 15, he had fallen in love with the sport playing flag football and creating All-Star teams on Madden. People started to take notice of his size and ability and started pressing Werner to find his way to America to play.
“We never had a lot of money,” Werner said. “I told my parents I wanted to go to America to play American football and kind of laughed at me because we didn’t have money at all. It costs a lot of money to do an exchange year.”
An international student program sponsored by the NFL and organized by former Notre Dame quarterback and Global Football operator Pat Steenberge opened the door for Werner to come to the United States.
At 16, he was in a boarding school in Salisbury, Connecticut. At 17, he was the fifth-highest rated recruit in the state, getting phone calls from nearly every major program in the country. As a senior, he had 57 tackles, three sacks, four forced fumbles and two blocked field goals in just seven games.
“I didn’t know much about college football,” he said. “The recruiting progress was exhausting. I didn’t know the difference between Florida State football and Tulane football.”
Why did he decide on Florida State?
“Germans love Florida and the beach,” he said.
That’s where Werner met Xavier Rhodes, who was a three-star recruit wide receiver when he joined the Seminoles.
“He was a technician,” Rhodes said Friday. “If you told him that he needed to have his hand three inches inside the shoulder on a rush, he’d have that hand right there.”
Rhodes said the Seminoles embraced Werner, though he was quiet when he arrived and already married to his high school sweetheart, so he wasn’t joining group outings with the defense. If you’ve ever been on a team before, you know that the best way to show someone that they’re accepted is by giving them a hard time.
“He’d be talking and we’d be like, ‘What are you trying to say Bjorn?”
Werner speaks English perfectly.
“Yeah, we were just messing with him,” Rhodes said laughing.
“He was a tough kid,” Werner said of Rhodes. “Very tough kid who would not back down to a challenge. That was the Florida State attitude from that defense while we were there.”
It didn’t take long for both players to help the Seminoles create a dominating defense. Werner was a full-time starter by the time he was a sophomore and in his draft year, Florida State ranked sixth in the country in points allowed.
Werner’s parents never saw him play at Florida State. They didn’t have the money to make the trip from Germany, so he went three years without seeing family. As an international student, he didn’t qualify for certain grants that would have given him a few dollars to fly his family to the beach.
“When they flew in for the draft, my parents couldn’t believe it,” Werner said. “They put you in Manhattan hotels. I was like a Hollywood superstar.”
Minnesota wasn’t on Rhodes’ mind when he showed up in New York City on April 25, 2013. Rhodes was certain that the New York Jets were going to draft him. They had just traded shutdown corner Darrelle Revis to the Tampa Bay Bucs and were in desperate need of a replacement. In very Jetsy fashion, they chose Dee Millner instead.
“I never visited here or talked to them at the Combine,” Rhodes said. “They told me, ‘We didn’t feel like you were going to be available when we picked.”
Being selected was bittersweet. Rhodes was confused at why he’d fallen. He had dominated the Combine, ranking in the 90th percentile in the 10-yard split, vertical jump and broad jump and running a 4.43 despite being one of the largest corners at 6-foot-1, 210-pounds.
“Of course at the time I was upset, but I was also happy that I got drafted,” Rhodes said.
The 2013 draft is a magnificent clusterbleep of busts. Joeckel wasn’t re-signed by the Jags, Jordan has 3.0 career sacks to date, the first corner off the board Millner is currently unemployed and the second corner DJ Hayden isn’t with the team that drafted him. The third and fourth corners, Desmond Trufant and Rhodes have become stars and signed huge-money second contracts.
The Vikings’ star, who NFL.com ranked last year as the best shutdown corner in the league, tried to let his frustrations over the draft go quickly.
“I believe that everything happens for a reason,” Rhodes said. “I was drafted here for a reason and everything panned out for me. At first it was hard for me to understand. I was like, ‘Man, I was drafted late, I shoulda been top 15.’ I talked to my family, and it all came back to things happening for a reason. I kept faith and kept going, didn’t question anything and everything fell into place.”
Rhodes pointed out that athletes – especially corners – can’t think too much about the past. Even the best at the job give up touchdowns on occasion. So until he was asked about Werner and the draft, he said that he’d never reflected on what would have been if he’d been drafted by the Jets or taken ahead of his Seminole teammate by Indy.
“Can’t let it be a distraction, there’s opportunities there, you just gotta seize them,” Rhodes said. “My rookie year, I wasn’t starting. If I would have kept sobbing on me being a late draft pick, I would have missed the opportunity to start later in the year.”
Werner’s career didn’t go as swimmingly as Rhodes’ has. Colts fans hoped he would step in across from Robert Mathis and fill the shoes of Dwight Freeney. It didn’t exactly play out that way as he only received one start his rookie year, then was moved to outside linebacker the next season, picking up 4.0 sacks, but by 2015, Werner’s knees were barking and he played only 153 total snaps.
Werner, who is just 27 years old, called it quits after spending training camp 2016 with the Jaguars. He knows that people call him a bust and was hurt by some of the things said and written about his career. That doesn’t penetrate his pride for what he accomplished and doesn’t take away the memory of draft night in New York or the fact that his parents no longer have to worry about money as they did when he was growing up.
“I wish I was able to play a little longer, but my knees didn’t allow me, so people have opinions when it comes to first-round picks not playing that long, but hey, nobody can take this from me,” Werner said. “Nobody knows how hard it was for me, what I had to do, what I had to sacrifice being away from my family for that long. It’s amazing man, and that’s why I’m trying to help these kids now.”
Werner now flies back to Germany on occasion to appear on football shows that might not exist without his presence in the NFL ramping up the game’s popularity. He’s a gifted talker with a sense of humor and great knowledge of the game. He’d easily be more entertaining than some of the cliche mongers that blast hot air from the booth on a weekly basis, but Werner understands that those positions are often given to Hall of Famers, not guys who played 38 games.
Broadcasting keeps him engaged with the NFL, but it isn’t Werner’s passion. Now his focus is helping others to have an easier time than he had coming from overseas to play football in America.
“We help them by explaining what their options are, every kid has a different option depending on their age, financial situation,” Werner said. “There are so many things families don’t know, like the difference between a public school and a private school. We explain these things and try to get these kids over as early as possible and put them on the path.”
Once the kids are playing high school football in America, Werner helps explain the college recruiting process. The big goal, he said, is getting Division-I scholarships for players.
“Every individual that we think has talent has a different way to make it, so we evaluate and analyze and see how we can help,” he said.
“They are starting to realize it’s possible.”
There are only a handful of players from Germany who have played in the NFL. Werner sees them as a mini fraternity, but is hoping to have 15 or 20 Germans playing over the next few years. Right now he’s working with around 30 D-I athletes.
He doesn’t know Moritz Boehringer, who the Vikings drafted in the sixth round in 2016 and released prior to this season. Boehringer was the first German drafted without ever having played college football in the U.S.
Werner said players like Boehringer who don’t come over to play college football and want to make it to the NFL have a very difficult time because of the attention to detail and technique at the highest level. He pointed out that one D-1 college football team is likely better than the rest of the world’s football players combined.
“But football is growing, and I get to be an example of where people can say, ‘Hey, he made it, why not you?'” Werner said. “Maybe one day we’ll be more like the NBA where there are a lot more international guys. Who knows. That’s the goal.”