From Austria to the NFL draft: Central Michigan OT Bernhard Raimann is living a dream

Detroit Free Press

MOBILE, Ala. — The first time Bernhard Raimann picked up a football, he threw it like a shot put.

“The worst throwing form you’ve ever seen in your entire life,” Raimann said.

Raimann was 13 at the time. He had just moved to a suburb of Vienna, Austria, his hometown, and had never before seen an “egg-shaped ball” in his life.

A club soccer player, Raimann was getting bored with the sport and wanted something new and more physical. He wandered to a park down the street one day after soccer practice and stumbled upon a group of friends playing football.

Almost immediately, Raimann was hooked.

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He started to follow American football on TV. He went to the Minnesota Vikings-Pittsburgh Steelers game in London in 2013. He fell in love with football movies. “Remember the Titans” was his favorite, and “The Blind Side” his first.

And on his 14th birthday, he tried out for a 16-and-under football team, the Vienna Vikings, that started a long, amazing journey that took him from Central Europe, to high school football on Michigan’s west side, to college at Central Michigan, with a six-month stint in basic training for the Austrian military in between.

This week, Raimann is one of the hottest prospects at the Senior Bowl, where he is looking to solidify his status as a potential top-50 pick and one of the best left tackle prospects in April’s NFL draft.

“It’s been crazy so far,” Raimann said Wednesday, his Austrian accent sprinkling every word. “Just starting to play football, you watch the NFL and it all seems like so far away, unreachable basically. So for me back then, like high school football, that was going to be huge. At that time I was like, ‘This is going to be the goal.’ Like, ‘This is awesome. I just want to play it. I love the sport.’

“But then coming over here and actually watching college football games, I was like ‘Whoa, this is even better than high school football. Are you kidding me? OK, that’s what I want to do.’ And then obviously playing college football it’s like, ‘OK, I’ve got this far but I still want more.’ So I obviously didn’t grow up with the dream of playing football in the NFL, but really I just enjoyed the game, I loved it, I put the work in and then my goals just kept expanding and I just wanted more and more.”

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Raimann, who played wide receiver for the Vikings, enjoyed football so much that he signed up for a foreign exchange program solely because he wanted to play high school football in America and experience “Friday Night Lights” like he saw on TV.

He was matched with the Ferris family in Delton, the fifth of 11 foreign exchange students they’ve hosted. And when he walked off the plane, Rollie Ferris, who played football at CMU in the 1990s, texted the coach at his son’s football coach at Delton Kellogg High and told him he’d just won the lottery.

“You can just look at him,” Ferris said. “He looks like he’s — well, I grew up on ‘Rocky’ and all the rest of it, so he looked like the Russian to me the first time we see him, like the baby Russian coming off the plane, Drago. I know he doesn’t always like that when he gets compared to him like that, but I was like, ‘Jeez-o-peet’s. If this kid had anything that matches that.’ Again, he’s 6-6, he’s got big ol’ hands and stuff so we knew he had potential.”

Raimann switched from receiver to tight end at Delton Kellogg, and along with Tyden Ferris, now a junior offensive linemen at CMU, led the Panthers to the state football playoffs in their one season together.

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Raimann spent a few extra months in Michigan after his exchange program ended, traveling two hours to play in a seven-on-seven league and take part in exposure camps on the state’s east side, and returned to finish high school in Austria after he secured a scholarship to CMU.

In Austria, men must serve six months of military service or nine months of community service once they turn 18. Raimann chose the former option, graduated basic training in December of 2017, and was on CMU’s campus a month later playing tight end.

“He played tight end, but at Central, they played the tight end … as a wide receiver,” Rollie Ferris said. “You never knew where he was going to be on the field two years ago, and now to be a left tackle at 305 (pounds), which didn’t surprise me. He likes buffets. He’s not afraid to eat. And he’s not afraid to work out, so for him to move to the left tackle wasn’t a surprise for me, especially when you see him play tight end and he plays it like an extension of a tackle anyway, like a big blocker.”

Raimann, who weighed 218 pounds when he arrived in America as a foreign exchange student and returned to CMU at around 235 pounds, caught 10 passes in each of his first two seasons and made 11 starts at tight end before switching to offensive line in 2020.

He said he was willing to play whatever position would get him on field the most, so his parents back home in Austria — neither of whom has been to America — could watch him play.

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“I always told them just come next year and then COVID hits and all the travel stops,” Raimann said. “But they’ve been able to download the ESPN app and watch it on there, so they’ve been really supportive even though they have to stay up real late. It’s a six-hour time difference so Tuesday night MACtion game is really, really early for them.”

Ranked the No. 7 offensive tackle prospect in the draft by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., Raimann earns high marks for his athleticism and intelligence but is old for a prospect a few months shy of his 25th birthday and still raw with just two years of offensive line experience.

He helped pave the way for CMU running back Lew Nichols to rush for an NCAA-leading 1,516 yards this season, and he said he could add another 20 or 30 pounds if a team wants him to play interior offensive line in the NFL.

“It’s been incredible,” Raimann said. “I’m fortunate to be here. I’m enjoying it. I’m so loving the game.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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