How Germany helped flip the NFC Pro Bowl fan voting

Mark Nzeocha is the NFC's leading special teams Pro Bowl vote-getter. Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- San Francisco 49ers linebacker Mark Nzeocha isn't a household name. At least not in America.

But in his home country of Germany, Nzeocha's name is starting to ring out like the most famous German professional athlete in American sports: legendary Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki.

For proof of Nzeocha's blossoming fame in his home country, look at fan voting for this year's Pro Bowl. Amid the usual suspects topping the ballot, there sits Nzeocha as the leading vote-getter in the NFC for the special-teams spot.

Fan voting ended Thursday with Nzeocha racking up 183,150 votes, most among all special-teamers. According to the NFL, roughly 80 percent (146,520) of Nzeocha's votes came from Germany. Nzeocha had support from all over Germany, not just his tiny home municipality of Neusitz. Unless, of course, every person in Neusitz voted for Nzeocha roughly 71 times.

"Honestly, it means the world," Nzeocha said. "The football community in Germany is so small and it's such a tight-knit group, it's just like if one of us makes it, everyone is behind him. Which is super, super cool to see. ... It's still a new sport in Germany and the interest is growing, which is really cool to see. I guess they have shown all the Sunday games on free TV now and more and more people are really getting into the sport, which honestly can only help the sport in Germany and it helps the NFL, too, just expanding the platform. It's a great thing."

Nzeocha and the rest of this year's Pro Bowl hopefuls will find out Tuesday night if they made it into the annual all-star game. Under the current format, the fan voting accounts for one-third of the equation, with player and coach voting rounding out the rest. If Nzeocha is selected, he will take his own special place in history among Germans playing major American professional sports.

For the most part, NFL fans voting for the Pro Bowl don't have much of an idea who to vote for in the special-teams spot. Evidence of that can be found in the disparity between the leading vote-getters at, say, quarterback and the special-teams position.

At RanSport, a sports network in Germany, they're keeping tabs on Nzeocha, one of a few Germans to have made and stuck on an active NFL roster. RanSport and NFL Deutschland have made it a point to rock the vote for their homegrown linebacker.

One of the people leading that charge is Roman Motzkus, who played professionally for the Berlin Adler (Eagles) and German national team and now works as a football analyst for RanNFL, which is the network's American football show on a station called ProSieben Maxx. When voting for the Pro Bowl began, the campaign for Nzeocha began.

According to Motzkus, the broadcast for each week's games featured reports on Nzeocha and the network's website featured information on Nzeocha and Pro Bowl voting. Beyond that, RanSport and NFL Deutschland made regular use of their social media channels, putting out tweets that could be retweeted by fans, which would count as a vote for Nzeocha. One such tweet from RanSport on Nov. 29 garnered 805 retweets, good for as many votes.

"Mark gets the support of the whole football nation in Germany," Motzkus said. "We are very proud to have a player in the best football league of the world. He has a lot of supporters in his homeland."

Among them is the German fan organization that specifically supports the 49ers, known as "The Niners Empire Germany." That group also did extensive work to get out the vote for Nzeocha.

Of course, the grassroots efforts didn't necessarily make it all the way around Germany. One spot, in particular: the Nzeocha household.

"My brothers know all about it," Nzeocha said, laughing. "I don’t know if my parents are that into it. They are definitely not on social media like that."

That Nzeocha is even in position to make it to a Pro Bowl is a testament to how quickly he learned American football. As a kid who was well aware of Nowitzki, who is from 39 miles north of where Nzeocha grew up, Nzeocha mostly was into basketball. One day when Nzeocha was 14, a former coach came to him and asked him to come to a football practice.

At the time, Nzeocha knew nothing about American football, which has a burgeoning following in Germany, and had never even seen it played on a video clip. All it took for Nzeocha to fall in love with the sport was that first practice. From there, Nzeocha would seek out football games and clips on YouTube because when games were broadcast in Germany, they were on past his bedtime because of the time difference.

Nzeocha proved a quick study and was voted to the junior German national team after playing with his school's club team. It was there that Nzeocha was introduced to international competition in 2008. He played in the European Championship and was voted first-team All Europe, which drew the attention of American coaches.

That interest helped Nzeocha realize the opportunities football could bring. He put highlight tapes together and reached out to schools. As it turned out, the University of Wyoming had German linebacker Oliver Schober, who had opened a pipeline from Germany to Division I college football. At one point, Wyoming had four Germans on the roster, including Nzeocha and his brother Eric.

Nzeocha bounced between safety and linebacker for Wyoming and had enough success to be a seventh-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2015. His transition to pro sports was made easier by the fact that Dallas was already a Nowitzki town. Nowitzki invited Nzeocha to participate in his annual charity baseball game and offered advice on what it takes to make it as a pro.

"Right away we clicked," Nzeocha said. "He's big-time in Germany. There's not a lot of German guys playing U.S. sports professionally, so obviously that's something special to us, and if you meet a fellow German, there's big-time support there."

Indeed, although Nzeocha and Nowitzki haven't spoken in a while, there's still plenty of encouragement going in both directions. Nowitzki, who stunningly has never been voted an NBA All-Star starter in his 21-year career, recently joked about not having the voting campaign Nzeocha has received from their home country.

"If he makes the Pro Bowl, that's a huge deal," said Nowitzki, a 13-time All-Star. "It's almost like back in the days when [former Houston Rockets center] Yao [Ming, of China] was a starter. That's what happens when voting gets people in, but I'd be happy for him. If you grew up in a country where that's not your sport --- I mean, our league over there is not very good I'm guessing, even though I never watched a football game in Germany -- it's hard."

Nzeocha came to San Francisco in September 2017 when the Niners signed him off the Dallas practice squad. He appeared in 10 games last season with most of his work coming as a special-teamer. His fearless approach has earned an expanded role and regular snaps at SAM linebacker.

"Mark's done a real good job for us," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "He's done a really good job on special teams. ... Mark runs and hits and usually if you run and hit, you're a pretty good special-teams player."

For as much as Nzeocha has enjoyed the support that could land him such an individual honor, he's equally pleased with what it means for the sport's growth in Germany. Football was popular in Germany in the days of the NFL Europe but that was mostly limited to stadiums on game days, according to Motzkus.

Since 2015, ProSieben Maxx has been broadcasting regular-season NFL games on free TV. Even with the time differential making it tough, Motzkus said there's between 500,000 and a million viewers every Sunday night and the Super Bowl reaches nearly two million people.

Many of those people have spent the better part of the past month voting for Nzeocha and reaching out to him on social media to let him know they're cheering for him. Nzeocha calls the past few weeks "surreal" and even taped a message in his native language to thank all those who voted for him.

Lest there be any doubt about how much the support means to Nzeocha, he took about 10 minutes to make sure he got his message just right before finally being satisfied enough to hand the phone back to a Niners staffer.

Whether it was all enough to actually land Nzeocha a Pro Bowl spot remains to be seen, but if it does, rest assured Nzeocha won't take any of it for granted.

"That would mean the world to me, especially since I've gotten all the support from back home," Nzeocha said. "To have the opportunity to represent Germany a little bit would be really, really cool."

ESPN NBA reporter Tim MacMahon contributed to this story.