NFL draft: Austrian-born OT gave up soccer to chase his 'Friday Night Lights' dreams

MOBILE, Ala. — Central Michigan OT Bernhard Raimann started out like many of his Austrian friends as kids, playing the other football, what we call soccer in the United States.

But soccer wasn't cutting it for the oversized, underwhelmed Raimann at age 13.

"I was kind of getting sick of soccer," Raimann said Wednesday at the 2022 Senior Bowl. "It wasn’t physical enough for me. I was looking for something new."

After his father had moved into a new house near Vienna, Raimann walked outside one day and saw his new friends throwing around "an egg-shaped ball that to that point I hadn’t even seen before."

Before long, Raimann joined in — and pretty quickly was fascinated with a sport many Austrians don't play.

"We threw the ball around, and I said, ‘Hey, might as well try it now,’" Raimann said.

And he was all in, almost immediately. Raimann did some research and found the local club football team — the Vienna Vikings. On his 14th birthday, he tried out for the team ... as a wide receiver.

This was the sport Raimann decided to commit to, eventually entering a high school exchange program and ending up in Michigan to play the sport. He was so infatuated with it that he binged on football movies, too, watching whatever he could find.

"That was the dream back then," he said. "Hey, I want to play under the 'Friday Night Lights.' I thought it was going to be awesome, and it was."

By the end of high school, he was receiving attention from colleges as a recruit, mostly in the state of Michigan. Raimann committed to Central Michigan over "a school in the western part of Michigan we don’t want to talk about," he said with a smile.

That would be Western Michigan, the Chippewas' biggest rivals. You can say that Raimann now is fully entrenched in football — and the friendly trash talk that comes with it.

The position switch that thrust Bernhard Raimann onto NFL radar

As a freshman, he was a 240-pound blocking tight end, which Raimann believed after talking to the CMU coaching staff was his best path to getting on the field. His first two seasons, Raimann played in all 26 games, catching 20 passes for 164 yards and contributing on special teams.

But prior to the 2020 season, the coaches explained that they had a void at offensive tackle because of injuries and graduations. They felt Raimann had the frame and the tackle to handle a move to OT. He'd bulked up to about 265-270 pounds but would need more.

Raimann eventually got into the 290 range and was thrown right in at left tackle on the first day of spring practice in 2020, given a crash course on his new position. Then COVID hit. The team's practices were shut down, and Raimann was forced to learn on his own as best he could.

Central Michigan OT Bernhard Raimann has come a long way since picking up football at age 13. Now he's a legit NFL draft prospect. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Central Michigan OT Bernhard Raimann has come a long way since picking up football at age 13. Now he's a legit NFL draft prospect. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

"I was just trying to help the team," he said. "I obviously didn’t know much about pass setting and the different techniques, so I was just trying to give it my all."

Coaching during COVID has been a challenge for every football team at every level. But for Raimann's switch, it required even more ingenuity that spring and summer prior to the season.

"My position coach, Coach (Tavita) Thompson, sent me a lot of videos," Raimann said. "He was creative. He sent me paragraphs of notes, all the things I did wrong. He even sent me videos of himself showing exactly how it should be done or how I should be doing it."

He also FaceTimed with teammates during quarantine and watched NFL offensive tackles, learning how they perfected their craft.

The results were stunning, Despite the MAC only playing a six-game schedule, Raimann looked like a natural. He committed only one penalty and didn't allow a sack. Even still, he was considered an undraftable prospect entering the 2021 season.

Now, however, Raimann is competing at the Senior Bowl as one of the more touted prospects here this week. Impressive showings last season against Missouri and LSU helped get him more on scouts' radars, and Raimann was named 2021 All-MAC First Team.

"Those were huge games, really good competition," he said. "For me personally, I didn’t think too much about what (the Mizzou and LSU games) might do for me for the NFL. I was just honored to be there. Being from Austria, you don’t get to play in stadiums like that. I just had fun with it."

Now, he's a possible top-50 pick — with Round 1 not at all out of the question. Raimann measured in at 6-foot-6 1/8 and 304 pounds, with 10 3/8 -inch hands, 33-inch arms and a wingspan of 80 inches — ideal NFL tackle dimensions across the board.

Raimann's first practice on Tuesday included some humbling losses in one-on-one pass-rush drills, but also some eye-opening wins. Overall, it was a strong start to the week for a player who not long ago wasn't even contemplating an NFL career.

"I was watching the NFL growing up, but because there were not that many Austrians who played in the NFL, I didn’t even think about it being possible until after my first year in college," he said.

The most famous Austrian to play in the NFL is probably former kicker Ray Wersching, who also happens to be the last Austrian to play in a regular season NFL game — back in 1987, a decade before Raimann was born.

Two other Austrians, Sandro Platzgummer and Bernhard Seikovits (who also played for the Vienna Vikings), both were in NFL camps last summer via the NFL's International Player Pathway Program but did not make any teams' rosters.

But Raimann believes he made the right choice to stick with football, given his current opportunities as a high draft pick. It all just started with a dream and hard work to get to this point.

"Back (when I started playing) I just wanted to see the playing field," he said. "In college I was working hard to help the team and get playing time, and I just wanted my parents to see me play. But that’s when I saw I might have a chance to keep playing and (I) set my goals on the NFL and I just did whatever I could to make it happen."