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FOXBOROUGH — Since the days of Gerhard Schwedes, Patriots rookies have performed skits that ranged from delightful to dreadful. But until Sebastian Vollmer took the stage four years ago, none of them had done it auf Deutsch.
“He was speaking in German and no one knew what the hell he was talking about,” quarterback Tom Brady remembered. “I don’t know what he was saying. I don’t know if it was insulting at some point. Maybe it was.”
The kid from Kaarst could have been reciting the Bundesspielordnung, the football rulebook, and the veterans wouldn’t have known. Since then, the man they call “Seabass” and his star-spangled teammates have come to be on the same page in a common language and Vollmer has added a leviathan presence to the right side of the offensive line, checking in at 6 feet 8 inches and 320 pounds.
“He has the kind of size which is rare,” said coach Bill Belichick. “Strength, quickness, athleticism for his size that’s pretty special.”
Since Vollmer made NFL history as the first European-developed player ever drafted, there has been a steady stream of Teutonic talent coming into American high schools and colleges. Markus Kuhn, who played at North Carolina State, was a rookie defensive tackle for the Giants this season. Five Germans played for the Wyoming varsity. Kasim Edebali started at defensive end for Boston College. And if Bjoern Werner, Florida State’s dynamic defensive end, decides to come out early, he’ll likely be one of the first 10 players taken in April.
“The week after Vollmer was drafted, I got 10 or 12 e-mails from coaches around New England and the East,” said Peter Springwald, vice president of the American Football Association of Germany (AFVD), which has 45,000 members and 25,000 active players. “If Werner goes first round, I will get a new telephone number.”
It’s not that Walter Camp’s version of football was unknown in Germany before the Patriots plucked Vollmer out of the University of Houston in the second round in 2009. Five cities had teams in the now-defunct NFL Europe league, and the German Football League, which was founded in 1979, has 16 clubs ranging from the Schwabisch Hall Unicorns to the Marburg Mercenaries, plus a robust junior program.
“Now you see German kids who are 20 and have already played 10 years,” said Springwald, who picked Vollmer for the junior national team.
Vollmer got a comparatively late start. As virtually all of his countrymen do, he began as a fussball player (Fortuna Dusseldorf is his hometown club) before switching to swimming, where he was an exceptionally big fish in a small pool. When he began missing the team spirit, Vollmer wandered over to watch the Dusseldorf Panthers practice, and he was intrigued.
“I didn’t know much about it,” he recalled. “I remember going to the library and picking up a book to learn about terminology and what a tackle does. But I was really fascinated by it.”
So he suited up for the Panthers junior team, which went undefeated and won a couple of its 15 Junior Bowl titles during his tenure. By then he already was over 6 feet and 250 pounds, and the only question was where to use him.
Culture shock in Texas
Vollmer was a tight end when he turned heads at the NFL’s Global Junior Championships in San Diego in 2003, drawing interest from the likes of Indiana, Western Michigan, and Louisiana Tech. He chose Houston sight unseen.
“I talked to people who went to the university — well, one person,” he said. “He was related to somebody I knew. I took a virtual tour online. I read about it, looked at pictures. But it’s different when you get there.”
The thermal and cultural shock was profound. Just coming to America was a tectonic shift for someone who’d grown up in a medieval town of 42,000 less than 20 miles from the Dutch border.
“It was not an easy decision for myself,” he said, “because I was leaving everything behind at 20 years old.”
Vollmer abruptly found himself dropped into a megalopolis of more than 620 square miles and 2 million people in the middle of a Texas summer.
“I remember stepping off the plane and it was like 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity,” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Oh my gosh!’ ”
Vollmer had taken English at the Quirinus Gymnasium school in Germany, which traces its roots to 1302, but he might as well have been speaking in Latin (which he’d also studied).
“There were rough days when you don’t understand a word, but people at the school were so great to me,” he said. “The first day, they were inviting me to a barbecue. They had no idea who I was but they were really nice. That made it obviously easier.”Continued...