Bjoern (or Björn) Werner was born in Berlin in 1990. He’s not the first German-born player in the NFL - they’ve been playing organized professional American football since the 1920s. But Werner still blazed a trail from Berlin all the way to the NFL. It all started with Patrick Steenberge, who played quarterback at Notre Dame under Ara Parseghian, opening his company Global Football in 1997. In doing so he changed Werner’s life.
Global Football worked to showcase European talent, often in conjunction with NFL Europe. Steenberge knew there was talent in Europe, it just needed to be polished and given a visible platform so the NFL would notice; and for years that’s what he did. But when Steenberge realized the NFL was going to fold NFL Europe for good, he knew there would be no where left for the players to go. Undeterred, Steenberge created the International Student Program in 2006. It was this program that brought Werner to Salisbury School, a prep academy in Connecticut. Werner was in the program’s 2007 class, the same year the NFL shut down NFL Europe.
Werner was a star, and despite only having played two years of high school football, by the time he was a senior his English had improved and he had multiple FBS offers. He made the right choice in Florida State, picking the ’Noles over offers from Oregon, Miami, and more.
Werner played in every game as a true freshman for the Seminoles in 2010 and was an instant contributor, recording 20 tackles, including six for a loss, and 3.5 sacks. After Markus White departed for the NFL, Werner moved into the starting defensive end spot and he only got better. As a sophomore Werner totaled 37 tackles, including 11 for loss and 25 solo, along with seven sacks for what was the nation’s fourth-best defense by S&P+, and fourth against the run. In what came to be one of his fan-favorite “trademarks”, Werner also batted eight passes at the line of scrimmage and recorded nine total passes defensed, which was second-most on the team. And who could forget his pick/fumble-six of Tajh Boyd??
As a junior in 2012 Werner was a star on a loaded defense that led the country in yards per play allowed and was fifth in S&P+. Werner piled on 42 tackles, 30 of them solo and a whopping 18 for a loss. He recorded an incredible 13 sacks that accounted for 117 yards in lost field position for opposing offenses; he in fact led the country in yards lost in tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Oh, and another eight pass breakups, making Werner one of only two defensive lineman in the country to record at least eight.
As if that wasn’t enough, his five tackles for loss against Murray State in the 2012 opener was just one shy of a 45-year single-game school record. And when the Boston College Eagles had first and goal at the FSU one-yard line, Werner rose to the moment:
A pass breakup on first down, a stop on second for no gain, and a QB-hurry on fourth that gave the ball back to FSU. He saved his best for last, sacking Florida Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel 3.5 times in the regular season finale, to go with six tackles and a fumble recovery.
For all of his efforts in the Garnet and Gold, Werner was named an unanimous All-American — one of just fifteen in FSU history. He was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, the Athlon Sports and College Football News’ ACC Defensive Player of the Year and consensus All-ACC first team, and finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy.
Werner’s 23.5 sacks — with just 27 starts — are second-most over a player’s first three years at Florida State, behind only Peter Boulware. He’s fourth all-time at FSU in tackles for loss in the same first-three-years timespan, and in FSU’s overall top ten for tackles for loss.
Werner was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts with the 24th overall pick in the 2013 Draft, making him just the fourth European-trained player to be drafted, and the first German-born player to be drafted in the first round. He was arguably asked to play out of position as an outside linebacker with the Colts, but his career was really derailed by knee injuries. Werner announced his retirement in 2017, with 81 total tackles and 6.5 sacks.
Unlike other athletes who struggle with finding purpose after leaving sports, Werner already knew what he wanted to do since before he walked across the Draft stage. Werner has looked to continue Steenberge’s work by re-establishing the European pipeline of talent, helping to found Gridiron Imports. Much like the International Student Program he was a part of, Gridiron Imports places European players with American prep schools and junior colleges and helps them get recruited so they don’t have to try to navigate the path on their own. Approximately three dozen players are currently enrolled in the U.S.