Oklahoma linebacker Tom Wort is having an identity crisis.
This may come as a surprise to the Sooner faithful who saw the 6-foot, 227-pound middle linebacker record 66 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss on his way to earning freshman All-America honors last season. Those fans know exactly who Wort is, having chastised him for personal foul penalties against Utah State and missed tackles against Cincinnati only to deify him for a 10-tackle, two-tackle-for-loss, one-sack performance against Texas in the Red River Shootout. Showing up big against the Longhorns guarantees name recognition in Norman.
Wort isn't a stranger in a strange land. He's a stranger in his homeland.
Crawley, England, is a small market town of around 100,000 people located 30 miles south of London. Aside from being home to Gatwick, the ninth busiest airport in Europe, Crawley is about as unremarkable as English towns get. Its most famous sporting son is boxer Alan Minter, who won the bronze medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics as a light middleweight and went on to capture the world title at the same weight. That should have changed when Wort stepped onto the Memorial Stadium field for the first time last September against Utah State, but it just hasn't worked out that way.
Wort's family relocated from the Ifield region of Crawley to Rhode Island when Wort was 14, then ultimately settled in Texas. Wort still has a strong allegiance to his British roots and a desire to make his hometown, and home country, proud of his achievements. "It's frustrating to be unknown in England for what I'm doing at Oklahoma," Wort said. "It's a dream of mine to be recognized back there, but I'm just not sure if it's an attainable dream. I know I've just got to keep working hard to try and change the perception. But it's tough."
The perception problem is really a shape problem. In sports-obsessed England, professional football is played with a round ball. The NFL barely registers compared to the juggernaut Premier League, and few British sports fans are even aware of college football as a serious pursuit. (Clubs develop soccer talent from a young age; audiences for university games are limited to a few dozen parents barking advice from the sidelines.) However, a small but dedicated audience has developed for American football since TV coverage of the NFL began in Britain in 1982. A healthy dose of FBS games can now be found on British airwaves every weekend, but for Wort to compete with the Steven Gerrards and Wayne Rooneys of the world, he's going to have to accomplish more than what he did as a freshman.
Wort's standing with one of the most prestigious programs in college football should place him among Britain's most successful sporting exports. But an informal survey of the patrons at Crawley's County Mall reveals the truth: None of the locals have heard of him. "Never heard of him or college football" said one shopper. When informed, they express nonchalance about his achievements and deliver the occasional raised eyebrow over his heritage. Indifference reigns. "I mean, it's good that he's from here, but I don't think it's going to have much impact on the people of Crawley because nobody knows who he is," added another shopper.
But when Wort talks about life in Norman -- his South London twang spiked with a Texas drawl -- it hardly sounds like he's moved half a world away. "It's crazy," Wort said. "I have to pinch myself every day. That first game against Utah State, running out in front of 86,000 people ... for a kid from Crawley, that was a real eye-opener. The Sooner fans are crazy. They're fantastic. They're like a soccer crowd back home, very passionate. If we lose a game then it ruins their whole week. That's a lot of pressure."
Pressure is something Wort can handle. Lightly recruited until his junior year of high school, Wort was shocked when he started receiving daily letters and phone calls from the likes of Florida, USC and Oklahoma. He'd come to believe that if his football career extended beyond New Braunfels High, it would likely be at a Division II school. On the heels of a remarkable 213-tackle junior campaign, Wort's performance as a senior earned him All-America honors.
In the back of his mind, Wort worried he might not be taken seriously as a football player at a major program due to his heritage. As "the English kid," he felt a need to shatter the impression that his ceiling was lower because he'd played less football than other recruits. "It was hard," Wort said. "I had to outwork everyone day after day to show them that I could play the game. They thought I was just some soccer player in pads, that I wouldn't be able to handle the step up from high school ball in Rhode Island to Texas and then from there to the Sooners. No one really embraced me as anything other than 'the English kid' until I got to Norman. At that point I wasn't such a big joke anymore."
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is quick to debunk any talk of his rising star being an outsider: "Tom plays the game like someone who has played it his whole life," Stoops said. "He has a tremendous understanding and all of the physical attributes required to excel. When I watch him play, he looks like any other high-quality player that would have come up through the American football system. We're very excited about having him in our program because he's an outstanding player and a great young man. And I also like to hear his accent!"
The Sooners will be hearing much more from Wort in the coming months. He knows a strong spring is expected of him after his solid freshman campaign. He recognizes, too, that the NFL will beckon at some point down the road. It would be another milestone for the well-known unknown from Crawley. "I won't lie, I allow myself to think about it occasionally," Wort said. "I used to stay up late in England and watch the Raiders on TV and now here I am with the chance to maybe play at the next level. That's my dream. But I have a job to do with Oklahoma for the next few years and that's a dream I'm living every day right now."
Wort has another dream: Maybe one day, American football will be as popular in England as it is in the U.S. "I'd love to be able to go back and see it played at the level it is here, with the great facilities and coaches for kids and really see its popularity flourish."
If Wort has his way, he'll be a big part of making that dream a reality. "I suppose I'm a trailblazer of sorts," Wort said. "I know it's going to be tough, but bringing football home to England would be amazing. Will it happen? I don't know. But I love England, I'm proud to be English and I hope that I can be a force for change back there, that maybe schools will go recruiting for the next Tom Wort there and kids can grow up wanting to emulate me."
The kids will have to figure out who Wort is first. But when they do ... crisis over.