Aug. 25, 2009

By Amy Farnum

University of Minnesota Duluth’s Tobias Lemke is living his own version of the American Dream.

Like most European children, the native of Essen, Germany, grew up playing soccer, but as an eighth-grader who filled out his 6-1 frame at about 260 pounds, Lemke quit the sport and began to pursue the American version of football.

“I was always a bigger kid and around eighth grade I got a little bit bigger and stopped played soccer,” said Lemke.  “My mom said that I had to do something, just to stay in shape or lose some weight.  She came across an advertisement in the newspaper for the local American football club, looking for linemen, and bigger kids who may not fit into other sports.”

The club team’s coach was thrilled that someone of Lemke’s size was going to try out for the team.

“The first thing the coach said was, ‘Oh, looks like we have an offensive lineman,’” said Lemke.  “I really got into it in ninth grade and worked my way up and really enjoyed it.”
Lemke did well enough with the club team that his coach suggested he take his game to another level. 

“I was really fortunate that the club coach for my team was very involved in American-German relations for football,” said Lemke.  “He helped a couple people before me come to the United States and play college football.  He talked to me and said I had a lot of talent, and asked if I was interested in going to study abroad.”

Conveniently, Lemke’s grandfather has been living the United States since the 1960s, making it very easy for the up-and-coming lineman to try the sport out in America for a year.

“I went there to live with them for a year and went to White Bear Lake High School (in White Bear Lake, Minn.), and talked to the coach and decided to play football there,” said Lemke.  “That was the last push for me to really fall in love with the sport and would love to come play college ball – you can only do that in America.”

Lemke played on White Bear Lake’s junior varsity squad as a sophomore, and then returned to Germany to finish high school, where there is a noticeable difference between the resources of time and money dedicated to football.

“In Germany, American football is getting bigger, but it’s still at the point where there is not a lot of funding for it and not a lot of people know about it, because everybody does play basketball or soccer,” said Lemke. 

In Germany, Lemke practiced with his club team of 30 to 40 players only three days a week, and kids usually didn’t start the sport until they were older, unlike America where they start as early as six years old.

“The speed is really different, too,” said Lemke.  “High school football in the United States compared to Germany, you can tell the kids have been playing the sport for a long time.”

After returning to Germany following his study abroad year, Lemke still dreamt of playing in the U.S. again, and began contacting a list of schools.

“I put a highlight tape together, just like every American kid,” said Lemke.  “My coach had a lot of contacts of different college coaches and we sent out my tape and waited for an answer.  It didn’t take too long for some people to call showing interest and asking questions.  The best answer I got was from UMD, who said they would really like me to come up and take a look at me.”

Duluth was just two hours north of White Bear Lake, and Lemke was already familiar with the Bulldogs’ program.  He went for a visit in May 2006, and the following season became a member of the team.

Lemke, who began his career as an offensive tackle in Germany, and then switched to guard at UMD, earning a starting spot as a freshman, will carry a string of 32 straight starts into the 2009 season.

“When I got here in 2006, all I really cared about was coming to college and playing football,” said Lemke.  “I didn’t expect to start right away either.  I talked to our offensive coordinator, and he said I might not start, but they wanted me to get in the mix and get some reps.  I was so overwhelmed and so excited to have made it here – and then I got to play and we won games.”

Since that first season, Lemke was moved to center, and helped the Bulldogs capture the NCAA Championship with a 15-0 record in 2008.  Entering his senior season, Lemke, who stands at 6-4, 275 pounds, is listed on the Preseason All-America Second Team. 

Lemke, who is a Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference All-Academic Team member that maintains a 3.95 GPA, would like to remain in the U.S. for graduate school following his senior year, and is interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement. 

For the next few months, however, the tri-captain’s attention will be focused on the gridiron, and helping the Bulldogs to defend their national title.

“We lost a lot of good people, there’s no question, but we have a lot of talent and new guys that have a lot of talent,” said Lemke.  “It’s definitely different going into the season being ranked.  We have the experience now – we’ve gone all the way – so there’s no room for excuses.”