Bernhard Raimann learned how to play football as a 14-year-old in Vienna—and his unusual journey has given him the type of talent and upside teams salivate over
Raimann may be the most fascinating player on draft boards, and not only because he’s from somewhere beyond the football hinterlands. Raimann didn’t even consider playing college football until he was a junior in high school. And he didn’t play his current position, offensive tackle, until he was a junior in college. His combination of talent and relative inexperience means he has the type of upside NFL teams salivate over.
Oddly enough, Raimann isnt a tantalizing prospect despite being a late-blooming Austrian. It’s because he is a late-blooming Austrian.
“That’s why I think he’s a steal when it comes to the NFL,” says Jim McElwain, his coach at Central Michigan.
It has been a stunning and unusual rise—even for Raimann. He went from playing wide receiver for a Vienna club team to a foreign-exchange program in the US and then to Central Michigan, where he was recruited as a tight end before gaining nearly 100 pounds and changing positions.
Yet just 10 years ago, on his 14th birthday, his father took him to tryouts for the Vienna Vikings, the type of local club team that exists because high-school football—or anything remotely like it—doesn’t exist across Europe. Raimann hardly knew the rules and was so terribly nervous that his dad had to force him to walk through the door.
“I wanted to turn around,” he says.
The Vikings’ youth academy, modeled on the academies run by European soccer clubs soon became the site of his football education. The home of the five-time Eurobowl champions provided everything from specialized coaching to a program called “Rookie School” designed to teach players the rules.
Learning football for a kid in Austria was a lot like learning English from American TV. Beyond formal education, the culture was right there for them any time they wanted, for hours at a time on social media.
“They’re seeing every single highlight,” Vienna Vikings head coach Chris Calaycay said. “They want to look cool with the helmet and shoulder pads, and once you get a kid hooked on football, they want to perform.”
Within three years of first touching a football, Raimann was drafted in to train with the Vikings’ men’s team. He’d been a 6-foot-5 sponge for everything his coaches threw at him, said the receivers and tight ends coach Max Koessler. And the first time he practiced with grown men, at 17, he went one-on-one against one of the veteran defensive backs.
“He just did his thing,” Koessler said, and caught the first pass thrown his way for more than 30 yards.
Raimann loved the game so much that he applied to be an exchange student in the US for the chance to play a semester of high-school football. He had no idea where he would end up. He just created a profile for himself for families across the country to peruse. “It’s like online dating,” he says.
Rollie Ferris and his wife have taken in 14 exchange students over the years from countries like Brazil, Germany, Italy and France. This time they were looking for a wrestler or a football player to play on teams with their son Tyden when they came across Raimann’s application. It said he played football, but they had done this enough to know they should ask a follow-up question.
“On those applications, to most of them, football means soccer,” Ferris says.
On this application, football meant American football. Ferris got visual confirmation when he picked up Raimann at the airport. His hands were the size of Sachertortes and his arms seemed to stretch longer than the Alps. That proved especially helpful when Raimann offered to help out with Ferris’s construction business and splitting firewood.
Raimann enjoyed his time in Denton, Mich. so much that he became possibly the first person in the history of Austria to dream of attending Central Michigan University.
Ferris had played football there in the 1990s, and when he took Raimann to a college football stadium it blew his mind. Raimann had never seen a game before, and by the time it was over the burly Viennese wanted nothing more than to be a CMU Chippewa.
“I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Raimann says.
Until then, playing college football wasn’t even on his mind. Without scholarships and big-time college football, kids on the Vienna Vikings play only to play. “You’re just having fun with the guys,” he says. Yet his one year of game tape in the US was enough to convince a few schools to make him an offer to play tight end.
In Raimann’s first two seasons at CMU, 2018 and 2019, it became clear he was more of a blocking tight end than a pass catcher. That led to the second of two meetings with Raimann that McElwain remembers distinctly. The first was when he asked Raimann if he had ever seen the “Sound of Music.” (He hadn’t. He still hasn’t.) The next time, he asked Raimann to change positions.
“Hey, we’d like you to play tackle,” McElwain told him.
Raimann tried it and loved it. But just a few practices into his transition early in 2020, everything stopped when Covid hit. So Raimann focused on one thing he could do until football came back: eating.
When he arrived in the US, he weighed 213 pounds. He now weighs 303, and that wasn’t because he overloaded on strudel. Adding 90 pounds turned out to be the most valuable thing to his professional future. Offensive linemen are gargantuan, and Raimann wasn’t nearly big enough. He met with school nutritionists and methodically added a huge amount of weight in a short period of time.
The result was a player so large and athletic that many mock drafts now have Raimann as a first rounder even though he has played tackle for only two years. That relative inexperience is also what makes him such an attractive prospect. He already excels at a position that his peers have been playing for most of their lives. Now teams can dream about just how good he might still become.
“In this guy’s case,” McElwain says, “his ceiling is really high.”
Nearly 6,000 miles away from the draft in Las Vegas, there will be a group of people who will be especially curious about the picks happening during the middle of their night. And they can hardly believe that the lithe Vienna Viking they knew is about to become a 300-pound NFL lineman.
“He left here as a tall, skinny wide receiver for us,” Calaycay said.
Credit: www.wsj.com /