Monday, May 21, 2012

Giants' Markus Kuhn continues to assimilate into a foreign game

May 20, 2012

By Jorge Castillo/The Star-Ledger

As he and his North Carolina State teammates ran out of the tunnel to play Central Florida to open the 2007 season, Markus Kuhn looked around Carter-Finley Stadium and was overwhelmed. For the 21-year-old freshman, it was more than his collegiate debut; it was the first college football game he ever attended.

“I was completely shocked,” Kuhn said of playing in front of 60,000 people. “I was pretty much amazed by everything.”

Five years later, the German-born Kuhn was the Giants’ seventh-round selection in last month’s NFL Draft after a senior season in which he tallied five sacks at defensive tackle. The 6-4, 302-pounder became just the second German-trained player — after Patriots offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer in 2009 — to become an NFL Draft pick.

Kuhn is 26, ancient by NFL rookie standards, but he’s raw and known as a “gym rat,” as general manager Jerry Reese noted.

He had experience playing for a club team in Germany before coming to the United States, but he arrived in Raleigh, N.C., without complete understanding of the basics that become second nature for most American players by the time they play in college.

“When he first got here, he wasn’t great,” said college teammate and best friend Audie Cole, a Minnesota Vikings seventh-round pick. “He didn’t know much about the game.”

Kuhn’s unlikely road to the NFL began when he first visited the United States for a family vacation to Florida when he was 14. During the brief stay, he watched football on television, marveling at the intensity and popularity of the sport.

Kuhn had tried other sports in Germany, but he desired the physicality he eventually found in football. When he turned 15, he joined the Weinheim Longhorns’ junior team and played quarterback and linebacker. He joined the club’s senior team four years later, settling in at linebacker and leading the second-division team to a championship and a spot in the country’s first division in his final season.

“When I first met him, he reminded me of what Arnold Schwarzenegger would look like before hitting the weights,” said Shawn McBrayer, an American who was the Longhorns’ quarterback and offensive coordinator at the time. “He just got better and better with time. He became a force.”

Before long, NFL Europe invited Kuhn to camps across the country. When he was invited to the league’s two-week player development camp in Tampa, Fla., he was convinced that he had a future in the sport. But if he attended the camp, he would forgo his college eligibility. Instead, Kuhn took the college route.

Kuhn prepared himself academically by taking the appropriate standardized tests. He and his father mapped out their recruiting stops. The two landed in Washington, with highlight DVDs in hand, and Kuhn began selling himself to colleges on the East Coast unannounced — he had sent e-mail messages to various schools before visiting, but none responded.

“They probably saw it was some German e-mail and thought it was spam or someone trying to sell them something so they didn’t really make it anywhere,” he quipped.

The trip began at Liberty; Richmond was next. Kuhn visited a few more Football Championship Subdivision programs and, realizing how impressed coaches were, he set his sights on Football Bowl Subdivision schools.

Eventually, they stopped by North Carolina State.

“My dad’s name is Wolfgang and I remember when he said, ‘Oh, Markus, it would be neat if you played for the Wolfpack,’ ” Kuhn recalled. “And we walked in and they were really friendly right away.”

During the next five years — he redshirted in 2009 due a shoulder injury — Kuhn steadily improved. He began his career at defensive end, but after his sophomore season he made the transition inside to tackle and became a starter his senior year.

Off the field, his heavy German accent faded and he became entrenched in American culture, taking up hobbies like hunting, which Cole introduced him to and is rare in Germany because of strict firearms laws.

While his assimilation to America continues, another transition begins to a new level of American football. He’ll do it under the microscope back home. A German reporter was on hand during last Saturday’s rookie minicamp sessions even though Kuhn was held out with a leg injury. And though American football pales in comparison to soccer and other sports in Germany, Kuhn said if there’s one team Germans recognize it’s the Giants.

His professional career is off to a delayed start due to the leg injury, a laceration that required stitches, but Kuhn is confident he’ll able to help a loaded Giants defensive line soon enough.

And just like in college, he hopes the first NFL game he attends will be with him on the field.

“If I’m at one, I’d rather play in one than just watch,” Kuhn said. “That’s for sure.”

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