OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens are engaging in an NFL version of the foreign exchange student program.
Hulking, bearded and nearly always smiling offensive tackle Samuel Gutekunst is the Ravens’ German import. Originally from a small village near Frankfurt, Germany, the former NFL Europe player is a member of the team’s practice squad under an NFL international development program.
After winning a World Bowl title with the Frankfurt Galaxy last season, he’s going through a whirlwind learning curve in the NFL.
“So far, it’s a great experience for me to see how different the game is here,” Guteknust said. “These are the best players in the world. The players go hard all the time. They play much faster, and it’s much more technical.”
Under this program, Gutekunst isn’t a candidate to be promoted to the active roster. He’s primarily here to improve his game for future NFL Europe games and provide a competitive practice foil for his new American teammates.
Of course, encounters with linebacker Ray Lewis and pass rusher Terrell Suggs aren’t anything like what Gutekunst is accustomed to in NFL Europe circles.
“They make me better,” Gutekunst said. “I hope I can get them better prepared for games. It was hard at first, but it’s a great experience. I’m here to learn.”
Culturally, it has been a major adjustment for Gutekunst even though he speaks English fairly fluently.
His search for German food hasn’t always been successful, although he does enjoy some American traditions.
“I like Outback steakhouse, and some of the other guys introduced me to some other steakhouses,” Gutekunst said. “I like the food here. I like meat. Hey, I’m a big guy.”
Finding German beer hasn’t been a problem, too, including one of his favorites: Hefeweizen.
“I’m not here to drink,” said Gutekunst, who aspires to coach after his playing days are over and whose hobbies include snooker, fine cigars, cars and weightlifting.
Although starting offensive guard Keydrick Vincent claimed he didn’t know the Ravens had a German player on the roster, Gutekunst has made an impression on his teammates beyond teaching them a few unprintable German words.
“Sam’s a great guy, so genuine and down to earth. He has a great heart,” offensive guard Jason Brown said. “He’s ridiculously smart and is very focused and works on his technique all the time.
"He takes the time to fine-tune everything and he’s really getting much better. We’ve learned a lot from him about Germany, and he’s fitting in with us."
At 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds, Gutekunst has the requisite size, but has a limited football background. He didn’t begin playing until he was 18.
“I was a fat kid,” Gutekunst said.
At age 16, Gutekunst began working out and lost 40 pounds. Through weightlifting, he gained it all back and much more and began playing for the German Football League’s Heiligenstein Crusaders.
“The coaches said I had to get bigger,” Gutekunst said.
After a stint with the GFL’s Saarland Hurricanes, Gutekunst was assigned to the Galaxy after participating in a national player minicamp in Tampa, Fla, in Febuary 2005.
The Ravens gave Gutekunst a standing ovation earlier this season in an impromptu post-practice ceremony where he was presented his NFL Europe championship ring.
“All the guys were like, ‘Congratulations,’” said Gutekunst, who will have about a month off after the season before launching a defense of the Galaxy's NFL Europe title. “All these guys have been great. Especially in the locker room, where it’s like a big family.
"They make jokes about my German accent and how I mess up, but it’s all in fun. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.”
NOTE: The Ravens (4-2) returned to practice Sunday following a bye and will practice again today prior to resuming their normal schedule in preparation for Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints (5-1) at the Louisiana Superdome.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.