German import powers North Cross ‘smash-mouth’ offensive line

Unlike other Virginia Tech recruits, Hannes Hammer is only a sophomore playing 11-man football. A year ago he came from Germany, which was just playing its first ever NFL game, to play for North Cross School.

At 1 p.m. Saturday, Hammer and the Raiders host Atlantic Shores Christian in the Virginia Independent Schools Division II state title game.

His rise from a flag football club member in Germany to an NCAA Division I candidate took a combination of athleticism, hard work, lots of fried chicken and even a close study of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But more on that later.

Hammer worked for Virginia Tech during the final months of his 11th year and verbally committed to the Hokies in May 2021. Virginia Tech was the first Power Five team to offer him a scholarship. He had other offers from Appalachian State, Eastern Michigan, Dartmouth, Massachusetts, Richmond, and William and Mary.

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“I probably could have gotten more offers and I’ve had some other coaches come here to train me. But only the trainers [at Virginia Tech] … are really great,” said Hammer. “I love them and I love architecture. I’m going to study urban development at Virginia Tech and I love the area.”

Hammer’s journey of playing the game began with a Discord channel he and his friends joined about three years ago. Discord is an online social platform used for discussion and sharing other forms of media.

“Two of my friends and I were on Discord together and we watched NFL games together,” Hammer said. “Then [we got] a soccer ball… and threw it during recess.”

Sport in Germany is not linked to the school system. Hammer and his friends decided to join a flag football club near his childhood home.

“I’ve always liked the team spirit. I also loved that about football when I played it, but it’s even bigger in football,” Hammer said. “You have to be really committed to the sport to be good at it because if you don’t lift weights and train at football, you don’t get good. I really like the part that you really have to be invested in the sport.”

Hammer played a litany of positions, including quarterback, tight end, and defensive end. After Hammer continued to develop his love of football while playing for the club, he turned to Gridiron Imports co-founder Chris Adamson.

Gridiron Imports is a nonprofit organization that connects people from around the world who follow football and education in high schools and colleges across the United States.

“I told him I wanted to play high school football. He said to send him my highlight tape,” Hammer said. “He looked at the tape and said I could play high school football. Then I was included in a portal where universities can contact you.”

Hammer spoke to four high schools that use Gridiron Imports’ portal system. He chose North Cross because of its fit with the trainers. But before he could commit to playing football for North Cross, he had to convince his mother.

“It was more like I said I really wanted to go and my mom asked me if I was sure I wanted to go,” Hammer said. “At one point she was sad, but she really tried to make sure I was making the right decision.”

After his family made a decision, Hammer decided to work on his English. He had studied English since first grade and said he understood the language well. But he had to learn to speak it better.

“I listened to a lot of podcasts, it improved my listening. I’ve heard Joe Rogan and Dave Chappelle, but ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ is the first show I’ve seen in English,” Hammer said.

During his recruitment process, he developed a relationship with his head coach, Stephen Alexander, via Zoom.

“Hannes struck me as a very goal-oriented child when I met him. It takes a lot of brains for a 16- [to] A 17-year-old boy who travels halfway around the world and goes to school in a different language,” said Alexander. “All these kids who do that have courage, but Hannes in particular seemed like a determined boy and it turned out to be right.”

Alexander wanted his 6-foot-6 recruit to be his new left tackle. The problem was that he had never played offensive line before joining the team.

“Not only did he verbally accept it, but he was 220 and now he’s 272,” Alexander said. “He started training and eating like an offensive lineman.”

Hammer found a new love on his way to gear up for his new position.

“I was introduced to fried chicken. That’s my favorite, but just eat a lot in general,” Hammer said. “They told me if you want to play college, you have the best chance on the line.”

“We have breakfast in the dorms and I try to eat as much as possible during this time. School lunches I get second and third,” Hammer said. “[At] dinner, I eat a lot. I remember sitting there for an hour.”

Alexander has been the head coach of North Cross for 13 years and has recruited many international students. Last season the team had 13 and this year six.

“Last year we had a halftime game and we had to have an emergency special teams meeting because we realized some of these guys who are new to the United States didn’t really understand all the rules of the special teams ‘ said Alexander. “Such moments are natural for us to be born here.”

Hammer also plays defensive tackle and defensive end on special packs.

“We went and played Giles County and he has an infamous game where he’s on the back end of defense and falls down during a screen pass. He gets up and picks up the phone [running toward the] End zone 50 yards later,” Alexander said. “That was the piece that turned everyone’s heads, and then they realized he was basically a beginner. And that’s when the recruitment started.”

North Cross has historically been a distributed team, but since Hammer joined it has been a smash-mouth football team.

“In the last two years we’ve been a lot more physical and he’s a big part of that,” said Alexander. “We’re going to be physically up front on both sides of the ball and that’s what we hang our hat on.”

North Cross have beaten their opponents 160-15 in the last three games.

“Our running game is really solid because we have a hard O-line. So we just take care of the ball and score when we’re supposed to,” said Alexander. “The last game was a perfect example of how efficient we were in attack. We only had three mistakes throughout the game and let the ball run well.”

During Hammer’s senior year of high school, he worked to understand the technique required to become an elite offensive tackle.

“I would say that watching movies and understanding the game in general helped a lot,” Hammer said. “I learned how to play the offensive line here.”

His coach believes his work ethic and athletic ability will help him when he joins the Virginia Tech program next summer.

“Where I’ve seen him grow is his ability to bend over and put pressure on people, because when a guy’s 6’6 and has never played offensive line, that’s a big adjustment,” Alexander said. “He’s gained weight and gotten strong, but he hasn’t lost his God-given ability to run and move. This is a great athlete game and at the collegiate level they want everyone to be a great athlete.”