(Barry Chin/Globe Staff
FOXBOROUGH - The path Patriots rookie offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer took to reach the National Football League was not one of the more conventional routes. It could be traced to his hometown of Kaarst, Germany, where the playgrounds weren’t exactly teeming with college-caliber - let alone NFL-caliber - prospects.
Swimming and soccer were the first sports Vollmer played growing up. He played soccer when he was 4 or 5 and took up swimming at about 10 or 12, with the freestyle and backstroke his big events.
“After a while, I decided I wanted something more exciting, more physical,’’ said Vollmer, a 6-foot-8-inch, 315-pounder who could be in line to make his first career start tomorrow afternoon against the Tennessee Titans if injured left tackle Matt Light is unable to play.
“Plus, I had put on some pounds,’’ he said. “It’s a lot of water you have to drag [in the swimming pool].’’
Vollmer, who was always tall growing up, put on the requisite poundage to play American-style football with his German club team in Dusseldorf. Though dwarfed in popularity by soccer, American football appealed to Vollmer because of its rigid team structure, the discipline required to succeed, and, of course, its physical nature.
So, at 14, the game grew on Vollmer, who grew big enough to help his club team, Quirinus Gymnasium, to a 25-0 record over his career. Vollmer drew the attention of college recruiters from Indiana, Western Michigan, Louisiana Tech, and the University of Houston, all of whom swarmed to offer a scholarship after he appeared in the 2004 Global Junior Championships in San Diego.
Vollmer, however, didn’t speak a word of English.
Despite the communication barrier, Vollmer signed with Houston and then-coach Art Briles, who is now at Baylor. “I did my research online and learned about the university and the program,’’ said Vollmer, who speaks English fluently now. “I felt like it was a good fit for me. A family atmosphere.’’
In Kaarst, he was Sebastian Georg Vollmer, his middle name pronounced “GEE-org.’’ But in Houston, he went by the handle “Sea Bass.’’ Between Vollmer’s German accent and Briles’s Texas twang something must have been lost in translation.
“Yeah, the off-the-field communication was a little difficult,’’ said Vollmer, who encountered visa problems that put him a month behind schedule when he arrived in Houston for his freshman season in 2005, appearing in eight games as a reserve at tackle and tight end. “But you still have to learn the playbook, so it doesn’t matter what language it is.’’
Football is football. In Texan or German.
“Sebastian was a kid who came from Germany and was very, very raw,’’ said Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, who took over for Briles last season. “But extremely gifted with size and athletic ability.’’
Although he suffered a back injury that forced him to sit out the 2006 season, Vollmer became a mainstay of Houston’s offensive line the next two seasons. He earned All-Conference USA first-team honors as a senior last season after helping the Cougars average 5.2 yards per carry and amass more than 2,000 yards. In addition, Houston’s offense ranked best in the country, averaging 575.1 yards per game.
“We had a quarterback who led the country in total offense [last year],’’ said Sumlin, referring to Case Keenum, who averaged 403.2 yards per game. “And you can’t do that without someone to protect you.’’
Vollmer protected Keenum’s blind side without incident. And yet it wasn’t enough to earn an invite to the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
“Well, I was certainly hoping that I would have the chance, because I felt I could definitely compete with those guys who were there,’’ Vollmer said.
But when he was not invited, Vollmer got his big break when he was asked to play in the East-West Shrine game, which had been moved to Houston.
“And guess who coached him in that game?’’ Sumlin said. “It was Dante Scarnecchia [the Patriots’ offensive line coach]. He was the line coach and he worked out Sebastian for a week and he coached him.’’
It turned out to be fortuitous for Vollmer as the Patriots took him in the second round of the draft with the 58th overall pick, and signed him to a four-year contract worth $3.105 million ($1.76 million guaranteed).
“Yeah, it definitely helped,’’ Vollmer said of Scarnecchia’s evaluation. “Again, I just tried to take any opportunity that was there. For whatever reason, it helped me get here. I’m just happy and thankful that I’m here.’’
“It was a shock to a lot of folks that he got picked as high as he did, except to those people in our program,’’ Sumlin said. “I talked to a lot of scouts who came to see him and I told them that there was still a tremendous upside to him. Here’s a guy who hadn’t played much football - as far as knowing his techniques - but who got better every game.
“Last year, he embraced us as new coaches and, as I told people, I thought his best football was ahead of him.’’
The Patriots certainly hope that is the case against the Titans. If Light is unable to play, then it will be up to Vollmer, or quite possibly right tackle Nick Kaczur, to protect the blind side of franchise quarterback Tom Brady. Oddly enough, Joe Gilbert, now at the University of Illinois, was the same position coach who taught Vollmer at Houston and Kaczur at Toledo.
“He’s done a real good job,’’ Kaczur said of Vollmer. “He’s athletic. He’s a big guy that’s gifted. I think he’ll be fine.’’
“If Vollmer has to play, he’s shown that he can play both sides, as has Nick,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “If that’s the way it goes, then we’ll try to figure out what the best combination is there. But for a rookie, he has shown a lot of positive things and has gone up against our guys in practice and in the preseason games.
“As far as being tough, being smart, and playing with pretty good technique, he’s still got a lot to learn and a long way to go,’’ Belichick added. “But - for his background and all - he is a pretty accomplished player at his position for a rookie. Again, [he] still has a long way to go, but considering everything, he is probably a lot further along than maybe what we thought he would be when he first got here.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.