Bombek part of football's growing influence in Germany
Jan-Phillip Bombek is part of something bigger.
Sure, Colorado State’s German-born defensive end is making a name for himself on the football field as the 2018 season progresses. Beyond that, he’s part of a new wave, one of a growing number of Germans proving they have a place in the most competitive level of college football.
For Bombek – who was ignored by Division I football programs across the nation – his ability to prove doubters wrong drives an already intense competitive edge. And the more success he has, the more he validates something he’s known since picking up the sport at age 16.
“I can play here, I belong,” Bombek said. “Had a lot of people telling me, ‘Oh no you can’t.’ I was basically looking at those people like, ‘I’m gonna show you.’”
– – –
Sports run in the Bombek family. His father, Peter, played football for a club team in Germany, marking Bombek’s first introduction to the largely unfamiliar American sport. As a child, Bombek played on the sideline while his dad played on the field, but he never spent much time really learning the game.
Like many young children growing up in Europe, Bombek’s early sporting interests resided in soccer. As he felt his soccer career coming to a close in the middle of high school, Bombek knew he couldn’t let sports out of his life completely. His eyes became settled on football, this time the American version.
Without high school sports in Germany, Bombek’s only option was to play club football, similar to the level he watched his dad play growing up.
A self-described tall, skinny kid leaving the sport of soccer, Bombek’s first position on the football field came in the defensive secondary. He made the transition to linebacker as he started lifting and putting on muscle, and it took little time for him to realize his talents in the new sport.
“I picked stuff up a lot quicker, it just felt more natural for me than the other guys,” Bombek said. “I started getting in the higher leagues, playing for the national team and I never really felt like the game was going too fast for me. I always felt comfortable, I always felt like I was one of the better players.”
Bombek’s early success in football allowed him to move through the ranks of German club football and eventually play for the Austrian National Team, a country of which he was a dual-citizen. Playing for Austria, Bombek won the European Championship, knocking off his native Germany in the finals.
The European Championship was not enough for Bombek, though. If anything, the taste of success merely satiated his larger goal – playing Division I college football.
He played with and against fellow Europeans who received D-I offers and said he realized they were not that much better than him. Despite having just over two years’ experience playing the sport, he knew he could compete with the best.
That belief led the Hamburg native to send his highlight tape to nearly every D-I football program in America, but to no avail. Bombek recalls he didn’t receive a single response from any of the schools, and only one Division II school offered him a walk-on opportunity.
He needed a scholarship to afford college, though, so the next step was junior college. Again, Bombek took on the strenuous task of reaching out to a myriad of schools before finally settling on Feather River College, a community college in northern California.
Coming from a culture that did not value football nearly as much as the United States, Bombek got his first real taste of American football.
“It was so much faster than Germany, because in Germany you practice twice a week, maybe a quarter of the team shows up for practice,” Bombek said. “It was nothing in comparison to practicing five times a week, practicing in the heat – we never had that.”
And so began his transition from a positionless junior college defender to a D-I defensive end.
Bombek credits his ability to adjust to the physical demands of football to his time playing competitive soccer in Germany. Still, he had to learn the technique of the sport and his new position, defensive end.
He explained that his JUCO coach’s first instructions were simply run straight and find the ball carrier. Nothing too extensive, but enough to get him going.
As he matured at the position, Bombek gained the attention of someone who knew exactly what it takes for a kid from Germany to excel in the defensive trenches.
Of the German football players to make it in the NFL, none may be more recognizable than Bjoern Werner. A former All-American defensive end at Florida State, ACC Defensive Player of the Year and first-round pick in the NFL Draft, Werner came across film of Bombek and immediately recognized his talent.
“He was a linebacker and all of the sudden he played D-end and I saw some film and I was like, ‘Woah, this man is a natural defensive end,’” Werner said. “I knew he was gonna be a Division I defensive end.”
Werner retired from the NFL due to knee injuries in 2016 after a shortened three-year career. It was then that he decided to co-found Gridiron Imports, an international football placement company that helps European football players make it to the United States.
Like any footballer from Germany, Bombek knew Werner’s journey to the NFL.
Already in junior college, he reached out to him for advice. No training or services, just a conversation. Werner gave him some pointers based on film, but more importantly shared his wisdom as one of the success stories.
Amid their conversation, Werner recalls that Bombek was not satisfied with the D-II offers he received after one year of JUCO. He left Germany with the aspirations of playing against college football’s best, and he wasn’t going to settle for anything less.
Enter Colorado State. Recruited by coach Mike Bobo and the rest of the staff, Bombek’s energy instantly caught their eye.
“He had a high motor that we liked on film when rushing the passer,” Bobo said. “He’s very smart, he does not bust a lot of things. A guy that’s new to football, you would think might not be able to handle things with our fire zones and where he’s got to drop. But he’s usually a guy that does his job.”
During the early signing period on Dec. 20, 2017, Bombek became CSU’s first signee of the 2018 recruiting class and one of the latest German football players to take the chance that paid off so fruitfully for Werner.
– – –
Europe got its first taste of American football in 1991 with the establishment of NFL Europe. Acting as a developmental league for NFL teams, the league created a small buzz for the sport in European countries that had yet to experience it.
But after 16 years, the NFL pulled the plug on the league, and with it diminished the growth of football across Europe.
Bombek believes the sport has yet to regain the popularity it had during those days. But thanks to the stories of players like Werner and the increasing international coverage of the NFL, that is rapidly changing.
Werner’s aspirations to begin his placement agency derived from an inkling to help others going through what he knew so well. When coming to the U.S. to play football, European players face cultural, physical and financial difficulties, something Werner believes goes largely underappreciated.
“I always felt like it was meant to be for me to help the next generation,” Werner said. “If one kid makes it, I feel like it’s kind of a family, a brotherhood. Everybody is happy for each other because they know how hard it is to get a Division I scholarship as a non-American.”
Currently broadcasting NFL games in Germany, Werner can’t help but notice the importance of European football players getting a chance at the next level. When a high schooler decides to pursue football in the U.S., that increases his chances of adding to the narrow list of European NFL players.
And when that happens, everyone back home knows it.
“It’s not about making money. We try really helping these kids because every kid we can help, the game grows back home,” Werner said. “Every kid who gets a chance even being a practice squad guy gets a lot of attention back home. We all benefit from it and the game is growing.”
Werner’s is one of a small number of scouting and placement companies across Europe. Brandon Collier – a former defensive lineman who played for the University of Massachusetts and spent time in the NFL and Canadian Football League – founded Premier Players International (PPI) after his retirement.
After playing in Germany following his time in the CFL, Collier realized that some of those playing club football – who were at least five years younger than him – were good enough to make it.
“When I first got here, it might have been one kid every two years that get Division I scholarships from Europe,” Collier said. “Over the past two years, we’ve had 28 kids and that should probably grow to about 40 kids over the next couple of months.”
Collier echoed Werner, understanding that the more European players make it to D-I football, the more the game grows in their home country. Still, Football will never touch the popularity of soccer given the latter’s importance in European culture.
In a country like Germany that does not have high school sports, nearly all the funding for sports goes into club soccer. Werner explained that football coaches don’t get paid in Germany; rather they coach for the love of the game.
Despite the lack of funding, the NFL’s increasing popularity and accessibility in Germany is certainly growing a larger audience.
“Soccer will always be number one in Germany, always,” Werner said. “But people need a new refreshment and this American football is so unique to these Germans because it’s so different than anything they ever saw. So we have a lot of new people watching football every weekend for the first time.”
– – –
As placement companies continue to excel, more Europeans will follow in Werner’s footsteps with hopes of making it to the next level and growing the sport back home.
But for someone like Bombek who did not use these services, the accomplishment becomes all the more impressive. He didn’t pay the fee to tour some of college football’s biggest schools and ingratiate himself with top-tier coaches. He chose not to participate in placement programs that many others around him did.
Instead, he relied on himself. With people constantly telling him no, Bombek never lost confidence. Now at the mid-point of his first NCAA season and coming off a three-sack performance, it’s easy to see why.
“I had very few people outside of my family try to help me so I had to do it on my own,” Bombek. “I can look back and say I’m proud of what I did because I did it and I don’t have anybody telling me this and that.”