"Can I touch you?" a female student at a German high school asked, waiting for her teacher to translate her question from German to English.
"She just asked if she can touch you," the teacher said with a laugh, speaking to Joshua Aakre.
Aakre, a Dawson-Boyd graduate and presently the quarterback of the Osnabruck Tigers of the German Football League's second division, was at the school to help 8th- and 10th-graders learn English. The group was in the school's courtyard for a break and Aakre and Tiger teammate Chris Langstaff, also an American, were trying to teach the German students about football, a game most of the kids knew next to nothing about.
Photo courtesy of Rolf Luettecke
Illustration by Aaron Schlemmer
Although he had had a very successful career as quarterback at Division III Bethel University, Aakre was far from a star back home in the United States. He's not one in Germany either, although he has the Tigers near the top of the standings in their league through 10 games.
Aakre was confused by the girl's request.
"I was like, 'What?'", he said of his encounter with the student. "She walks up to me and pokes me in the chest and walks back to her friends and said, 'He is real!'"
There are many differences between the United States and Germany. The language and the popularity of American football are two of them. There are also many similarities, such as teenage girls acting strangely in school.
Aakre has been gleaning these similarities and difference since arriving in Germany in late March. Actually, even before that. Another difference he learned of: the way football teams acquire their quarterbacks.
In the United States, NFL teams can draft a quarterback, trade for one or sign one as a free agent. Aakre was acquired by his German team via Facebook - at least that's how his acquisition was initiated.
On March 5, during the spring semester of his senior year at Bethel, Aakre received a Facebook message that read, "Hey Joshua, We wiuld need a QB,ASAP. Maybe you are interested?"
The message was from Jovi Stojceski, head coach of the Osnabruck Tigers. It caught Aakre off guard because he hadn't tried to market himself to play football overseas. That is, he hadn't created a profile on a website that helps European teams find American and Canadian players.
What made it even stranger for Aakre was that it wasn't the first time this had happened. Last November, Aakre was contacted by a different German team on Facebook and was asked if he would like to play for them for the upcoming season. He declined since he was in the midst of his senior season with Bethel and still had his academics to focus on. After the season, he accepted the fact that his football career was likely over.
But after the second Facebook message, Aakre felt someone was telling him something.
"I was laying in bed trying to fall asleep that night and thinking, 'Is this the Lord trying to open a door that I had previously closed?," he said.
After speaking with his parents, Aakre decided to seize the opportunity. He planned things out with his teachers so that he could finish his courses while in Germany, received and signed a contract from the Tigers and was on a plane to Europe within three weeks.
With how smoothly things went from the time he first received the Facebook message to boarding the plane, Aakre said he had no reservations about the journey that was ahead of him.
"There was a peace to it knowing the Lord's hand was kind of on this and football's not done for me," Aakre said. "It's been an absolute dream come true.
"... I've always thought every American kid's dream is to play football in the NFL. Obviously this isn't the NFL, but being able to say that you're getting paid to play a game or a sport or whatever, it's ridiculous."
Aakre flew from the United States to Germany with Dick Bergstrom, a member of the Iowa State High School Coaches' Hall of Fame who had accepted the role of offensive coordinator with the Osnabruck Tigers. Aakre, Bergstrom and Langstaff are the only members of the Tigers who get paid. The other players on the team actually have to pay to participate, Aakre said.
After arriving in Germany, Aakre settled in with a host couple he affectionately refers to as Mama and Papa Klietsch, who have a 30-year-old son who plays center for the Tigers. The parents have three children who have each spent time in the United States, and all members of the household speak fluent English. Many of the players on the football team do as well.
Aakre had a month to aclimate with his new surroundings in Osnabruck, a town of over 160,000 residents in Lower Saxony, which is a state in northwest Germany. He trained with his team and also helped coach players on Osnabruck's junior squad.
The Osnabruck senior team played in GFL 3 last year, the lowest of the three levels of German football, but had a successful season and was promoted to play in GFL 2 this year. Like in European soccer, the top teams in lower divisions in German football can earn the right to be promoted, while the bottom teams in the upper divisions are at risk of being relegated.
The Tigers' first preseason game came against a GFL 1 team. Aakre hurt his ankle during the game and missed the second half. As one of two American players who actually get paid to play for the team, the injury gave Aakre a helpless feeling.
"You just feel so bad because you have that role that you're the guy who's supposed to impact the game and you can't really do anything because you're stuck on the sidelines," Aakre said.
While Aakre and Langstaff, who played at D-III Chapman University in California, have been playing football most of their lives, many of their teammates have played for significantly less time. High schools in Germany don't have American football teams and most Germans involved in football pick it up as a hobby.
Aakre said there are some players on the team who have the athleticism to play college football, but they don't have the sport ingrained into their fiber like American players do.
"People ask, 'How would they compete against some of the colleges back home?' I would like to say a lot of colleges would run train on these guys because we grew up in that culture," Aakre said. "We've done this since we were 4 years old and some of these guys have been doing it for two or three years now."
So losing Aakre or Langstaff to injury is a big deal, as each team in the league can only have two foreign players on its roster. Fortunately, Aakre's injury healed within a couple of weeks and he has led the team in its first 10 regular season games. The Tigers won their first two contests, lost their next three, and are currently on a five-game winning streaking with four games left in the season.
One of the league leaders in total offense, Aakre is playing a similar style as he did in college. But running is his strong suit, and the dual-threat quarterback said he had one game where he rushed for nearly 160 yards on 28 carries.
"Everything is now basically a zone read, a lot of me keeping the ball when maybe I should give it to the running back, but it seems to work, right?" he said.
Aakre's aggressive running style got him in trouble a couple of games ago in a 17-6 win over the Assindia Cardinals. He estimated his team picked up close to 200 yards in penalties during the game, including eight personal fouls. He was called for one of those personal fouls, the first of his football career, when he was whistled for spearing while lowering his head before making contact with a defender on a rushing attempt.
That's right, a spearing penalty called on a quarterback.
"Even the reffing, you just have to smile because they're kind of learning (American football) too," Aakre said. "You get some things that are really wild."
Like the officials and players, the members of the German communities that have American football teams are still learning the sport as well.
Despite having some of the poorer football facilities in GFL 2, Aakre said the Tigers rank in the top half in attendance, with 1,000-1,500 people people in the stands each game. Aakre said soccer will always be supreme in Germany, but he can tell that the popularity of football is on the rise.
"Football in Germany has been here 30-plus years, but I'd really like to say that it's picked up here in the last 10," he said. "Where that's going to go, I'm not really sure.
"We had the mayor come out to a game and he said he enjoyed it. He said he didn't understand it, but he enjoyed it."
One thing that will only help the sport grow is the community seeing young athletes earn college scholarships. This year, Mete Konya became the first Tigers player to receive a scholarship to play football. He will play at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Aakre has done what he can to serve as a football ambassador by talking at schools, holding mini-camps and helping coach youth teams. With four more games, he'll have about another month to serve as a pigskin proponent.
While he's trying to spread the word, he still has his own play to focus on. He said if his team wins the rest of its games and gets a little help, it may have a chance to move up to GFL 1 with a win over one of the bottom finishers in GFL 1 in a relegation playoff game.
Even if the Tigers earn the right to move up, Aakre said they may opt to remain in GFL 2 because moving up to GFL 1 requires money that the team just doesn't have at this point. Player dedication is also an issue, as teams in the higher divisions tend to have better attendance at practices and their players are more focused on the sport.
As for Aakre's future, he's not sure what lies ahead. He graduated in May with a degree in exercise science. When he returns home in October, he'll weigh his options as to whether he wants to start using his degree or continue living out a dream of playing pro football.
"If nothing's holding me back, I wouldn't mind coming back," Aakre said. "There was a quarterback from Troisdorf, he's 39, so he's been doing this 15-plus years.
"There are some guys who definitely make a living off this. You don't make a crazy amount of dollars, but if covers the bills and if you enjoy it that much, then, you know, nobody has to be rich. That's all personal preference. You could have nothing and still be the richest person in your own mind."