The NFL is becoming increasingly popular in Germany. The first league game in Munich was just the starting shot, says ex-pro Markus Kuhn. In an exclusive interview, the former footballer reveals how the TV switch to RTL will give the sport a further boost in this country.
American football, a tough sport, complex, fascinating. The National Football League has enjoyed increasing enthusiasm in Germany for years – culminating in the first NFL game in league history in Munich.
We talked about the fascination of football with someone who knows the NFL particularly well: Markus Kuhn, a former professional in the USA and the first German footballer to score a touchdown in the NFL.
Today he is the league’s brand ambassador and host of the NFL’s German podcast. We meet him for the recording of his latest episode in the Hamburg store of Cyberport, the sponsor of the podcast and official Lead Entertainment Partner of the NFL in Germany.
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FOCUS online: Markus, you have a live recording of your podcast here, fans can meet you here. How much do you feel the enthusiasm for football in Germany in such situations?
Markus Kuhn: When you show up here in Hamburg at noon on the promenade and so many people want autographs and want to say hello, that’s incredibly nice to see for me, I have to honestly say.
When you came into the league in 2012, the NFL boom started with the transfer of Ran. A lot has happened in ten years. Today there are even NFL games in Germany. What helped along the way?
It was very important that when football came back on free TV, there were a lot of good Germans in the NFL at the same time. Sebastian Vollmer, of course, Björn Werner, Kasim Edebali, I – we were all there at the time. In any case, that helped to increase the hype in Germany and since then so much has happened with the television broadcasts.
Now we even have an NFL office in Germany. This year, so next season, there are even two games here. It’s almost crazy to see what has become of this sport, which I started in Germany when I was 15 years old.
You were at the Munich game in the stadium. It was an impressive experience for everyone who was there. Many felt that this was just the beginning of something bigger. Did you feel the same?
The game was more of a starting shot than the finish line. One game last year, two games this year. Above all, it shows how important Germany has become for the NFL as a market. And the only reason that’s the case is because of the many adoring fans. Some of them are also here in the store today. And without them, none of this would be possible. I’m just really happy that we have so many football crazy people who follow and support the sport.
You have just come from an event in Frankfurt. Speculation continues as to where the two games will take place. can you reveal more?
I was at the “Ball des Sports” at the weekend, a great event. This also supports niche sports. I don’t even know if football can still be seen as a niche sport. We know that over the four years there will be two games in Frankfurt and now one more game in Munich. It has not yet been signed and sealed where the additional game will be exactly next season. But you can roughly calculate that there will definitely be at least two more trips to Frankfurt in the next few years.
You started football at the beginning of the millennium. You later went to the USA on your own with your father, auditioned for colleges and received a scholarship. Would you say it’s easier for today’s talent to make the leap to the US and the NFL?
I recruited myself from the colleges in 2006, which isn’t usually the way to go. So college recruiting alone is a huge thing. Luckily I was naive enough to fly over there with a highlight DVD, cleaned doorknobs and actually came home with the scholarship, which ultimately helped me get drafted in the NFL.
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What’s there now that I didn’t have back then is the NFL International Player Pathway program. There’s an opportunity here, if you’ve played in Germany or all over Europe or all over the world, that you can get an extra practice squad spot and make it into the NFL through that.
However, I still think it’s very important – like Jacob Johnson, for example, who was also in the program but also played at the University of Tennessee before – that you go through that whole college experience. You just grow physically there, you grow up with sport, you learn in a completely different way how Americans tick in sport. That’s not always easy for most people. But coming to America all the earlier and becoming part of the sport is definitely very important.
You then made it into the NFL. In 2012 you were drafted by the then Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants. How do you feel when you enter the locker room where stars and legends of the sport like Eli Manning sit?
yes you say so The Giants had just won the Super Bowl, Eli Manning with his second championship. The Mannings are such a royal football family. You definitely know them from father Archie to older brother Peyton. And then you sit there with you in the locker room.
But what was even more impressive to me is that the defensive line, my position, was a huge part of them beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl. And then you’re sitting there in the meeting rooms with Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora, who are real legends in the sport.
You work with them more or less every day. It was surreal for me to experience after college and as a seventh-round pick from Germany.
You bring it up: You were picked very late, in the seventh round of the 2012 draft pick at number 239. Right now, there’s one player making an NFL fairy tale in the playoffs who was picked even later. Brock Purdy is the last pick of this year’s draft of the so-called “Mr. Irrelevant”. Nevertheless, he made it into the team for the San Francisco 49ers and is now – also due to injuries – the starting quarterback.
The most important thing in the NFL is to get your foot in the door. When you are on the training ground, you have enough opportunities to prove yourself. And you just have to make the best of it. Purdy is doing a damn good job at Purdy. Especially if you look at who made it out of the late-drafted quarterbacks in the NFL over the last few years. Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick, of course. But especially with the quarterbacks who are not drafted in the first round, it is very difficult to determine who will be successful in the NFL. Purdy does this very well. He sees his chance, gives everything and prepares very well. And then it doesn’t matter if you’re picked as Mr. Irrlevant or first pick anyway, because everything gets reevaluated once you’re on the team.
Purdy and the Niners have to go to Philadelphia for the championship game. The Eagles were your divisional rivals back then. How was it playing there?
The Eagles fans are a wild bunch. The city is crazy about football, they live for the sport. Getting there as an opponent is not so nice. But that also creates the atmosphere. Every fan culture in every stadium has its own nuances. It’s going to be very difficult for the 49ers. But I – as you say as Philly’s “divisional rival” – rather keep my fingers crossed for them.
The Eagles have had an impressive development. In 2018 they won the Super Bowl, then many of the pillars broke away, including the supposed franchise quarterback. After the upheaval, they are back incredibly quickly and are the big Super Bowl favorite. What makes this franchise special?
You definitely put your team together very well. They built a very strong offensive line. They were always strong there. Even when I played against them, it was always difficult against them. They have very athletic offensive line players that fit well into their system.
Now they have an amazing quarterback in Jalen Hurts that I really liked at Alabama in college. I know videos of him when he was still in the weight room, even though he had been on the pitch for three hours beforehand. He has always dominated. And he is very well received by the team, he is a great leader. I also know one or the other from the defense. I played with Linval Joseph in the Giants. That just fits everywhere, both on offense and on defense. That’s why they’re so successful.
Speaking of successful! The Kansas City Chiefs are in the championship game for the fifth time in a row and in Patrick Mahomes they probably have the best quarterback in the league. But he is now injured after an ankle injury. You were a defensive tackle yourself and spent your entire career hunting quarterbacks. So what does a lineman do with information like the Mahomes injury?
I don’t think one will walk on their ankle on purpose. It’s hard enough just getting to him in the first place. I haven’t managed to do it that often, to be honest. If Mahomes is fit enough and on the pitch, which he certainly won’t be, he probably won’t be quite as mobile as usual.
This mobility is a level in his game that makes him even more dominant compared to other quarterbacks. One or the other defender is sure to be happy that he might be a little less agile. You have to be less prepared for runs or passes outside of the pocket. So as a defense you try to squeeze your pocket and as a line player you also try to raise your hands to be able to block one or the other ball.
Mahomes is a master at making pre-snap changes and confusing defense. What can you do on the other side of the ball? For example, are there mind games a defender can play?
In any case, you should wait as long as possible to finally line up. So to finally show, what am I playing now, what kind of coverage? Because an offense also knows its way around very well. They study video sequences and know exactly what to expect. There is also only a limited number of moves and at some point everything is relatively similar. The task is to show a different type of defense than what you end up playing in order to confuse the quarterback and prevent him from calculating before the play which of his teammates might be open where on the field.
As a defensive tackle, you’re always between the lines, always in the thick of things, always in this confusing mountain of players. Why don’t you explain to those who have never played football what’s going on down in those mountains of people?
You underestimate how brutal and how hard it really is on this line of scrimmage. It’s also called “trenches”. We all have 130, 140 to 150, some are even heavier and have 160 kilos and yet we are all relatively mobile. And then five against five big guys fight each other. You can imagine the forces at work there.
These are unbelievable experiences to be part of, of course. But of course there are one or two handles and subtleties that can sometimes hurt a bit. Those are nice things that you do on both sides.
Were there players who were particularly mean in moments like this?
I met the Eagles twice a year. I met the cowboys twice a year. Both are division rivals with the Giants, both have very good offense lines. It always hurt especially after the game.
The NFL games, including the current playoffs, can now be followed in many ways in Germany, TV, streaming, social media, audio. Your podcast, which you did together with Sebastian Vollmer until last year, recently ran very irregularly. Will we hear from you more often in the future?
We changed the system a bit. This is now the official podcast of NFL Germany and now Cyberport is also a sponsor. There are already several podcasts in Germany that go a bit deeper and analyze games. But I also find it interesting to talk to the people who help make this sport so popular here. Sometimes they are from the entertainment industry like my new guest Niko Backspin from the music industry, others maybe commentators, others are ex-athletes or a basketball player who is enthusiastic about football. I like to shed light on the background of who actually consumes football and is involved in the growth of the sport. This year we have a few more episodes to go until after the Super Bowl, there will be more episodes next year.
With the transfer of the broadcasting rights from ProSieben to RTL, some things will change in football broadcasting in the future. There will be new formats, new shows and new faces. Will we see you more often again?
It’s not quite official yet who will appear on RTL. But I think you can tell that the sport keeps growing. RTL is the largest television company in Europe, they have an extremely large number of channels. I think there will be more shows, more content from the US, that’s also something the fans here in Germany want. Sure, one or the other will also have a crying eye. But I think many can look forward to what RTL is planning. And maybe you’ll see me more often on TV again.
You already say “Content from the USA”. You live in New York…
(Laughs) I can tell the journalist in you is listening carefully. But let’s wait and see what else might be released in the future.
Then I have to be patient: The Super Bowl is in just under two weeks. You are on site in Phoenix, what are you planning there?
Luckily I’ll be there and will also meet the winners of the Cyberport competition. It’s always an incredible experience. It’s like an NFL business meeting. You actually meet the “Who’s Who” of the league, all teams are represented there.
There’s this Radio Row that I’m going to do a podcast of. I’ll probably have one or the other interesting guest with me again. Maybe an American again. I just guest-starred Patriots owner Jonathan Kraft on the last episode. Such people can give very different insights. Maybe it will help one or the other with learning English. But of course we will also have German guests with us.
Which teams do we see in Phoenix, what’s your tip?
I can’t say the Eagles as a division rival, so my guess is the 49ers. And even though Mahomes is injured, I still see Kansas City in the Super Bowl.
Note: This article first appeared on FOCUS online. FOCUS online and CHIP belong to BurdaForward GmbH, Cyberport is owned by Hubert Burda Media.