Sebastian Vollmer stood out among the scrum of madness that is the annual Super Bowl media day.
Not only did the New England Patriots offensive lineman stand head and shoulders above most if not all in attendance, but the peppering of questions and subsequent answers all came in German rather than English. A healthy media presence of around 30 journalists is attending the NFL showpiece event from Germany and all flocked to the imposing Düsseldorf native when let loose on Tuesday morning.
These days the media focus on Vollmer’s football career is on his return to the Super Bowl and his established role protecting Tom Brady from quarterback-hungry defenses. Few asked Vollmer to explain his journey from obscurity to the sport’s grandest stage. For that tale, Sky Sports analyst Jeff Reinebold is best qualified to recall how Vollmer traded the jersey of the Düsseldorf Panther for those of the University of Houston and ultimately the AFC champions.
“Sebastian’s story is really close to my heart because I probably had more interaction with him than any of the other players we worked with,” explained Reinebold, who will be in the Sky Sports booth in Phoenix on Sunday night. The veteran coach of the CFL and college football played a key role in player development during the heyday of NFL Europe.
“He was really just a kid when I went out to see him after his junior coach called me to say he had something special in Sebastian.
“He had what most big European and even American kids don’t have and that’s a nasty streak in him. He naturally finished blocks and plays and ran through people. He had the build you look for and matched with that mentality, it was clear he could make the grade, at least at the college level. He was serious about succeeding and wanted to be a player.”
Vollmer’s most serious sporting pursuit up to that time had been as a swimmer and he lacked the bulk and size associated with becoming potentially one of the game’s top right tackles.
Reinebold continues: “He was this gigantic skinny kid, didn’t know much about football, but he was different because he could bend and had toughness. He was probably six feet four tall, but only 215 pounds. I called him ‘big skinny’ because that’s exactly what he was.”
When the time came to discuss the potential for Vollmer to enroll at a university stateside to pursue his football career, his parents were far less excited than Americans who receive that coveted house call from a college recruiter.
“I asked Sebastian if I could speak to his parents, but he explained that they didn’t speak English, and neither did he at that point,” explained Reinebold. “Stephan Brauer, the coach at Düsseldorf who had played a great part in his development, sat in and translated.
“When I told them their son certainly had the opportunity to play college ball and maybe beyond that, Mrs. Vollmer looked at me like I was speaking Chinese. She had no conception that somebody was willing to send her son to school for free to play what she thought was just a recreational game.”
The Vollmers now convinced the opportunity was worth pursuing, persuading college coaches across the Atlantic to entertain spending one of their scholarships on an unknown raw German was another matter.
“I must have spoken to fifty college coaches about this kid who I thought had a chance to really be a player and couldn’t get anyone to take him,” said Reinebold. “Why would they travel all way to Germany to see an offensive lineman when they have those players at home?
“I begged the University of Maine, where I’d played, telling them they’d never get a kid like this. They thought about it, but nobody would pull the trigger.
“The issue was, and still is, that people compare players on film with their U.S. players and the quality of opposition. I asked coaches just to watch him and not the opposition because you could see he had the ability.”
When a group of American coaches, which included current Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, were in Germany to assist at a clinic for developing European players, Reinebold made his move. Vollmer was playing in an all-star game a few miles away and Reinebold took some of the coaches to watch.
“Thomas McGaughey (now special teams coach with the San Francisco 49ers) was at Houston and we’d worked together. I took him along and the moment he and the other coaches saw Sebastian play, they went straight to their phones and made calls back to the states telling their people they had to sign this kid!”
Vollmer was selected for Team Europe to play against similar all-star teams from Canada, Japan, Mexico and the United States at the NFL Global Junior Championship in San Diego. Played annually during the week of Super Bowl in the host city, the tournament organized by Global Football regularly attracted intrigued college coaches.
Vollmer wanted to play at Louisiana Tech, where Reinebold landed following his long stint in NFL Europe, but Houston got their man after the event.
Steve McCusker, who was a member of the Scottish Claymores coaching staff and currently coaches with the East Kilbride Pirates, also saw that nasty streak in Vollmer when he was his Team Europe position coach.
“He was the best athlete we had by far,” remembers McCusker. “He was big and ox-strong and had that glean in his eye and that aggressive streak that you really like. He was big and athletic, moved his feet and really annoyed the heck out of the defense.
“We had a couple of weekend camps and 10 days of practice at the tournament so I coached him for about 20 days and he was a joy to coach. He probably only understood half of what was said because of the language barrier, but he knew what was expected of him.
“You could tell that if he got a couple of breaks he would do well. We scouted him in 2000 at the European Junior Championship in Berlin and a regional tournament before that and invited him to camp with Team Europe. As soon as you saw him mash people all over the place you knew he was a natural tackle for sure.”
Once settled in at the University of Houston, Vollmer did not make an immediate impression, as Reinebold explains as he resumes the story.
“I went back his freshman year and they said he was a great kid but he was so far behind. They tried him at tight end and defensive line, but he just needed time. He played against us when I was coaching at SMU and that’s when I knew he was going to make it.”
And make it Vollmer did.
Reinebold and Vollmer were reunited this week at the Patriots media availability during the build up to Super Bowl XLIX. Come Sunday, one will play before millions across the world at the pinnacle of his career, while the other watches and analyzes proudly from the broadcast booth.