NORMAN, Okla. – Football is king where Oklahoma linebacker Tom Wort is from. Just not American football.
Wort's father would regularly bring footballs back to England from his business trips to the U.S., feeding his son's obsession with the game played an ocean away. Wort would promptly get them confiscated by the headmaster. No room for that at recess.
"I'd be playing around with it on the playground, I'd be playing catch and he came and took it away from me because he said that because of the point, if it hits someone, it might hurt them," Wort said.
Wort kept inflating the $2 footballs his dad would bring home and kept playing the sport with his friends. He's finally found a much more football-friendly place to do it.
On Saturday night, the British-born Wort is expected to play for the first time for No. 7 Oklahoma, starting against Utah State at middle linebacker in place of the injured Austin Box in a debut that was delayed a year by an injury of his own.
STATS LLC doesn't keep complete stats on college football players born outside the U.S., but he is one of at least five active Division I players born in England. One who will be on the opposite sideline: Tariq Polley, an offensive lineman who started eight games for Utah State last season.
Wort sports a mohawk like another Oklahoma middle linebacker, Brian Bosworth, famously did some years ago. And like Bosworth, Wort can't wait to get on the field and get started.
"He'll be wanting to run in the stands and hit somebody. So, look out if you're in the first or second row," coach Bob Stoops said. "I think (the challenge) will be to get him to calm down and just see things, understand the schemes and responsibility and play with some discipline there."
Even in England, football was in Wort's blood. His father, Brian, played running back and then offensive guard for an amateur team for about 10 years before giving it up when Wort was a toddler. He's got pictures of his son dressed up in his old gear at about that age, and Wort remembers discovering his dad's helmet and shoulder pads in the garage later on and giving it a try.
It turned into a bonding experience. Wort would stay up past his bedtime to watch some of the NFL games that were broadcast in England at the time, with his father helping to teach him the rules of the game.
"I just liked the game," Wort said. "From the first day I saw it, I liked it."
He just never got to play it. Living south of London in a town called Crawley, Brian Wort never came across an organized youth league. Instead, it was just Tom and his pals trying to learn how to throw a spiral like the quarterbacks they saw on TV.
"It literally was backyard football," Brian Wort said.
It wasn't until Wort was in eighth grade and his father's job working with the Schlitterbahn water parks relocated the family to Rhode Island that he got to play American football for real. His father remembers that Tom didn't care much about what school he'd be attending or the house where the family would live.
"The one thing that he wanted to know was, 'Where is the local football team and how do I sign up?'" Brian Wort said.
It didn't take long for Wort to pick up the game, and a subsequent move to the San Antonio area for his junior year of high school suddenly turned him into a sensation on the recruiting trail. Letters started flooding the family's mailbox, with Oklahoma among the early ones to arrive.
After visiting only three schools, Wort signed on with the Sooners and arranged to arrive early. He went through spring practice last year as a freshman and had impressed coaches when a right knee injury just before the opening game knocked him out for the season.
He'll wear a brace on his surgically repaired knee.
"We really are waiting for Saturday and if he does play, it's going to be unbelievable to see him out there," his father said. "As much as we've encouraged him, he's worked so hard for so many years to get to this stage."
And as the NFL continues to expand its reach with an annual game in London, Wort said it's in the back of his mind that maybe someday he can help "bring football back over to kids in England." Even now, he'll occasionally get Facebook messages from players in England who are following his career.
The tattoos on both of his biceps show his love for his homeland, with one showing a royal coat of arms and the other the country's patron saint.
"I want to keep it close to me," Wort said. "Being out here, being away from my family, I'm not going to forget where I came from."