INDIANAPOLIS — A handful of young Austrians sat high in the stands at London’s Wembley Stadium, taking in the NFL for the first time in person.
From their perch, the field seemed far away.
Minnesota was down there, trading blows with Pittsburgh in a game highlighted by two spectacular Adrian Peterson touchdown runs, to the delight of the kids already cheering for the Vikings.
After all, they shared a nickname, colors and a logo with Minnesota.
Bernhard Raimann was part of that Vienna Vikings contingent, the club football team that taught him the game. When Raimann, his teammates and a couple of coaches traveled to London for that Vikings-Steelers game in 2013, the future Colts left tackle had been playing football for about a year.
The London trip was unforgettable. First, there was the trip to Five Guys, the first quintessentially American restaurant for a lot of the kids.
Then came the game.
The football, the stadium, the 83,000-plus in attendance, draped in a sea of different NFL jerseys. When teenage kids in America go to NFL games, they often see possibility, a chance to someday play in one of the jerseys on the field.
For Raimann and the rest of the Vienna Vikings, the distance from the upper deck to the playing surface seemed insurmountable.
“It was an unbelievable atmosphere,” Raimann said. “But it seemed like a dream. Completely out of reach. Not reality.”
Another Austrian group is making a trip to see an NFL game this weekend.
Eighteen in all.
A handful will hop on a plane for an hour and a half, a few will take the train for seven-plus hours. A couple more are already in Germany, making their trip shorter.
Everyone is coming to see Raimann.
“I think it’s going to be an awesome experience just for me to see them after the game,” Raimann said of the Colts playing the Patriots in Frankfurt on Sunday. “But I think for them, it’s going to be really cool to see it, too, because a lot of them — my mom, grandma and the family — haven’t seen me play since I played for the Vienna Vikings in Austria. It’s been a while.”
Nearly seven years.
Raimann’s immediate family still lives in Austria. The distance, the responsibilities back home, make it hard to fly over to the United States to see a football game.
Only Raimann’s father, Michael Eibensteiner, has seen him play for the Colts. Eibensteiner made the trip last fall to see Indianapolis take on the Commanders, ironically the last game before Raimann took over the starting left tackle job for the rest of the season.
“He was all emotional, especially after the game,” Raimann said. “Got to see him in the family room, and then he got to see the tunnel, see the turf up close, and he couldn’t believe it — the atmosphere at the game, the whole size of the stadium. The football experience was amazing for him.”
Alex Hertel, Raimann’s best friend since their days playing football together for the Vikings, almost got to see Raimann play last month. Hertel made the trip to Indianapolis in early October, intent on seeing the Colts starting left tackle take on the Titans.
Except that Raimann was in the NFL’s concussion protocol.
“I treated him, because I’m a physical therapist and an osteopath, but I couldn’t see him play,” Hertel said. “I knew I was going to see him play in Frankfurt already. … When he showed me where he’s playing, the game (at Lucas Oil Stadium), it was like Disney World for adults.”
Eibenstiener, Hertel and the rest of Raimann’s family and friends usually watch him on TV.
But the time difference — Vienna is six hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone — can make it difficult. An Indianapolis schedule littered with 1 p.m. kickoffs has made it easier this season, but the Colts spent plenty of weeks playing in prime time in Raimann’s rookie season, meaning those games started in the wee hours of the Austrian night.
“Most of them bought NFL Game Pass, so they either watch it live, or if they can’t get to it, they watch it later,” Raimann said. “A Thursday night game, you’re not going to be able to watch it, and you’re still busy, too. If they’re going on a trip or something, they’ll watch it a couple days later, then text me about it, which is kind of funny.”
Nobody will have to watch it on delay this weekend.
From the sounds of it, the entire Raimann contingent will be together, seated in the same row.
“The whole family is really doing an unbelievable job of supporting me from over there.”
Raimann’s friends and family have played an enormous role in getting him to this point.
When he first fell in love with the game, Raimann convinced his parents to let him try out for the Vikings, only to balk at the sight of dozens of kids on the field.
He tried to turn around.
Eibensteiner wasn’t having any of that.
“He kind of pushed me into the doorway, basically,” Raimann said with a smile. “He told me: ‘You’ve wanted to try it for a while now, so now you have to at least try it and see how it goes. … If you see it that way, it’s 100%, he’s the reason I’m here right now.”
Eibensteiner didn’t only convince his son to try out for the Vikings.
He fell in love with the game himself. For years, football fans in Austria could only get one NFL game per week, and it was often the game in the late-afternoon time slot, meaning it kicked off at 10 p.m. in Vienna.
For years, Eibensteiner and Raimann stayed up late at night to watch games, knowing they’d be miserably tired the next day.
“If you started watching football at that time, it was Tom Brady and the Patriots,” Raimann said. “He became a huge Patriots fan, which makes this game in Frankfurt even better. Obviously, now he’s the biggest Colts fan there is.”
Hertel watched those same games with his mother.
Then he’d get up and go to practice with Raimann, obsessing over a sport that still hadn’t caught on with most of the Austrian public.
But as much as they were playing, a chance to play in the NFL still seemed thousands of miles away.
“In the whole of Europe, the whole of Austria, there was never really somebody who made it to the NFL,” Hertel said. “It was special to do an exchange year, something like that, but nobody dreamed about the NFL.”
A trio of Austrians — Toni Fritsch, Toni Linhart and Ray Wersching — broke the country’s barrier in the NFL in the 1970’s.
All three were kickers.
Converted kickers. Former soccer players the NFL discovered and turned into placekickers, trying to ride the wave begun by Pete Gogolak. When Wersching retired from the 49ers in 1987, it left the NFL without a native Austrian for more than two decades.
“I started off idolizing the guys that just played college football,” Raimann said.
An older Viking, offensive lineman Aleksandar Milanovic, played for Sacramento State and Adams State. A few others, led by Dominik Bundschuh, played in college in Canada, a step that seems small in America but monumental to football players growing up in Austria.
Raimann had to look to Germany to find NFL role models.
Former Colts defensive end Bjorn Werner, New England offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and former Saints pass rusher Kasim Edebali all proved it was possible to make it to the NFL from Raimann’s region, although it still seemed unlikely.
When he got a chance to do an exchange year at Delton-Kellogg High in Michigan, roughly halfway between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, Raimann thought he’d made it to the mountaintop.
“I thought: High school football, that’s the coolest thing ever,” Raimann said. “That’s going to be my peak. Just being able to play American football in the United States is going to be the coolest thing.”
Hertel got the same opportunity.
By chance, Hertel landed at Vassar, Mich., roughly two and a half hours away from Raimann. When Raimann went with his host family to a Central Michigan game, he ran into Hertel, a happy coincidence for two kids whose friendship was only growing stronger.
Hertel loved the game, too.
He ended up playing until he was 22 and a string of torn meniscus injuries forced him to stop.
But the next time they saw each other, after they’d returned to Vienna to finish school, Hertel could tell something was different about his friend.
Raimann had already landed a scholarship to play football at Central Michigan.
“I still remember, that year, we were in class,” Hertel said. “And I was like, ‘If an Austrian makes it to the NFL, it’s going to be you.’”
By that point, the NFL had begun growing in Austria and Europe as a whole.
First, it was the one game on Sunday night, then two, now three or four NFL games are available every week. College football started showing up on Saturdays, and then European TV started offering GamePass, allowing fans to watch any NFL game they want.
The NFL established its International Player Pathway program in 2017, allowing teams to expand their rosters by one in order to make room for young athletes who’d never played for an American college. A handful have made the leap from the practice squad to the active roster, none more successful than Philadelphia’s Jordan Mailata, a former rugby star from Australia who has developed into one of the league’s better left tackles.
A pair of Austrians, running back Sandro Platzgummer and former Raimann teammate Bernhard Seikovitz, were accepted as part of the program in 2020 and 2021.
But the country’s real football champion was busy developing at Central Michigan.
“He’s the most ambitious, the smartest,” Hertel said. “He’s just so special. There’s no other person who could have such a structured life.”
Raimann’s legendary discipline — the first time new Colts offensive line coach Tony Sparano Jr. saw his left tackle, Raimann was drenched in sweat, coming out of the indoor facility in late February after working out alone — was critical to realizing his dream.
Central Michigan asked Raimann to make the switch from tight end to left tackle in 2020, right before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Famously, Raimann taught himself the position during lockdown, but the pandemic took an even bigger toll than most reporters realized. COVID-19 kept Raimann from going home for three years — the first two because of the pandemic, the third because of the marathon process rookies must go through to reach the NFL draft.
Forget about his family seeing him play.
Raimann’s family didn’t get to see him at all.
“Crazy hard,” Hertel said. “He loves his family and his friends in Austria, and you kind of have the feeling that you’re missing out on something.”
Raimann leaned on his girlfriend, Calli, and on regular FaceTime sessions and phone calls with his family and friends to get through the three years he spent away from home.
By the time he finally returned, heading back home at the end of his rookie season in Indianapolis to marry Calli, Raimann had become something special to the growing football culture in Austria.
He’s become a trailblazer.
The man who scaled the mountain every young Austrian has been trying to climb.
When the Colts turned in a card bearing Raimann’s name in the third round of the NFL draft, they made history.
Raimann became the first Austrian ever selected in the NFL Draft.
“That’s like the best thing that could happen to Austria,” Hertel said.
And Raimann isn’t just the first Austrian drafted anymore.
He’s succeeding. Raimann took a few lumps as a rookie starter, but he improved by leaps and bounds in the offseason, and halfway through his second season in the NFL, the big Austrian looks like the left tackle of the future in Indianapolis.
A country where football has been growing exponentially finally has a role model to follow.
“I think, for young people, it’s really important that they see that if you start like he did, with an exchange year, maybe make it to college with a scholarship and then get drafted, that’s the big thing,” Hertel said. “Because otherwise, it’s really hard. We had two players from Austria who made it to the International Player Pathway program but … it’s just the practice roster. It’s almost impossible to make it to the active roster. Bernhard’s way is, in my eyes, the only way to make it like he did.”
Raimann tries not to see himself as a star.
From his viewpoint, he’s still a young player trying to establish himself in the NFL. He’s already planning to hold a camp at the Vikings facility for young Austrian football players next offseason, but the idea came from a place of thanks, of gratitude for the way his club team set him on this path.
When he thinks about playing in Frankfurt this week, he’s thinking about his family — about the dinner reservation his mom, Claudia Raimann, made for everybody in the hour and a half he has free on Saturday, about the feeling he’ll get knowing that his loved ones are in the stands, about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some of them to see him play in person, make good on the dream they helped him reach.
“Being able to play over there, being able to represent Austria, it’s just an amazing feeling,” Raimann said.
But somewhere in that stadium, maybe somewhere far above the 18 seats reserved for the Raimann contingent, there might be a group of football-crazy kids watching their first NFL game, wondering if maybe someday it could be them on the field.
This time, there will be someone out there who proves it’s possible.
Subscribers can sign up for text chats with Gregg Doyel, our Indianapolis sports columnist.More for Subscribers