“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.”
The English came quickly enough as Vollmer embarked on a course of study that would provide him with degrees in both economics and communications.
“I picked it up pretty fast, within the first semester I guess,” he said. “Just talking to people, friends and my girlfriend, who would correct you when you said something wrong.”
Vollmer began his football apprenticeship as a redshirt, which he concluded was normal.
“I don’t think I was ever given a choice,” he said. “I just assumed that’s the way it was done. It was just that. I never really thought about it. Most guys did it.”
After playing eight games as a backup tight end as a redshirt freshman, Vollmer missed the following season after back surgery. When he returned in 2007, he was a left tackle making his starting debut at Oregon in front of more than 57,000 Duck devotees, which were approximately 56,800 more spectators than the parents and girlfriends who’d watched his games in Dusseldorf.
Vollmer ended up starting every Saturday in his final two seasons, providing the big push for an offense that averaged more than 40 points and 560 yards when he was a senior.
Averting his eyes
While Vollmer’s sheer mass and might were attractive, it was unclear what kind of pro prospect he’d be.
“He was just, I would say, in general, behind,” recalled Belichick.
The language issue, his back injury, his middling college films, his performance in the East-West Game, and the question of whether he was a left or right tackle all seemed to argue against Vollmer being picked early, which likely is why he wasn’t invited to the February combine and wasn’t glued to the set on draft day.
“It’s not so much that I wasn’t interested, but I told myself I was not going to freak myself out for 10 hours or however long it is,” he said. “I watched some of it. I’d turn the TV on, but I knew beforehand I wasn’t just going to sit there and watch it. People had me over for a barbecue — it was an unrelated event.”
After New England got a closer look (offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia had run Houston’s pro day), Vollmer began looking better.
“As we worked him out and got to know him, all those things cleared themselves up,” said Belichick.
The Patriots didn’t have a first-round pick, but after they used their first three second-round selections on defenders Patrick Chung, Ron Brace, and Darius Butler, they scooped up Vollmer as the 58th player overall and the 11th offensive lineman.
A franchise that had won three Super Bowls by mining overlooked gems had come up with another.
“They did their research, they did their homework, and they selected a player that certainly had a tremendous amount of upside and talent,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was the Broncos head coach that year.
Adaptable and durable
With Matt Light on the back end of his career, New England needed someone in the pipeline. Still, few observers on either side of the Atlantic figured that Vollmer would blossom as quickly as he did.
“When he was drafted, we said, ‘Hmm, we will see,’ ” said Springwald. “We are a little surprised that he made it so fast.”
So were the Patriots, who considered him a work in progress.
“I don’t think any of us really thought that he would be able to contribute much as a rookie,” said Belichick, who likens Vollmer’s rapid evolution to that of Steve Neal, the former Olympic wrestler who played guard for New England. “We kind of saw him as a developmental player that might take a while but, of course, he played quite a bit his rookie year.”
What Vollmer had going for him, besides his altitude and avoirdupois, was his uncommon intelligence and flexibility.
“He’s very quick-witted and thinks quickly and adapts quickly and can really process information probably as well as anybody can,” assessed Belichick, who had no problem starting Vollmer in last season’s Super Bowl after he’d missed the previous seven games with foot and ankle injuries.
Moving from the left side of the line to the right, which Vollmer did after his rookie season, was no problem.
“Whatever they tell me, I do,” he said.
If a tight end or two were to go down, Vollmer happily would step in.
“I don’t know if you want to see me on a route,” he said. “But you never know.”
Until then, he’ll be a fixture on the O-line, an established presence in a locker room that has only a half-dozen draftees with longer tenure.
“He’s been durable, he’s tough, he’s athletic, he’s strong — one of the strongest guys I’ve ever seen,” testified Brady. “He’s got a great attitude. It’s always about the team. He’s a great player.”
Like Zoltan Mesko, the Romanian-born punter with whom he has shared growing-up-in-Europe memories, Vollmer fits comfortably among colleagues who learned their football in Florida, Texas, and California.
“I speak kein [no] Englisch,” Mesko will joke when he sees him being interviewed. Vollmer spoke it fluently when he first turned up on Route 1 but he didn’t mind sending confusing signals on skit night.
“Maybe we’ve got a tape of that,” Brady mused. “I’ve got to refresh myself. It’s been a long time.”John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.