Brian Casey: Import Life - Finland

American football in Europe is a growing sport with no ceiling. Organizations and teams, rules and regulations, and the understanding of football are getting better and better each and every year the sport develops. When I first came overseas to play football, Germany and Austria were the be all to end all with football in Europe. Now, a decade later, the popularity and growth spans throughout many countries and produces legitimate top divisional leagues within Europe. Continuing our series of articles on the life of an import in Europe, we will look into playing and living in the country of Finland.

The American Football Association of Finland (SAJL) was founded in 1979 and is the national governing body of American football in Finland. The Vaahteraliiga (Maple League) is the highest level of football played in Finland, and the league is concluded with the Vaahteramalja (Maple Bowl). The league’s first season was played in 1980, with Espoo Poli being the first ever Maple Bowl champion. To date, the Helsinki Roosters are the most successful team all-time with 17 championships won. The Helsinki Roosters and Porvoo Butchers both have the record with consecutive championships won, six.

Before coming to a new country, an athlete might be unsure of this next step in his football journey. Playing American football overseas can bring excitement to an athlete as well as nervousness on not knowing what too expect. Now in his fourth season playing overseas, Vaasa Royals quarterback Justin Sottilare recalls his first expectations before coming to the land of a thousand lakes, “I expected it to be cold and I was right! Now in my 3rd season here, I’ve come to expect cold weather most of the year with a few months of warmth. When it comes to the football, I wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to the organization and talent level of the league. After a few seasons, I’ve started to appreciate the both of those. The league is very well organized and the talent is high. Having every game for the entire season be a TV game shows how much the sport has grown in recent years.”

Like Sottilare, Roman Runner is a seasoned vet when it comes to playing American football in “My first season, my expectations was surrounded about how I was going to perform on the Gridiron. I didn’t know what to expect in terms of the culture. I am a very open and adaptable person, so I embraced the Finnish/European lifestyle.”

Finland. Runner has spent his entire overseas career in Finland. Now in his fourth season, the wide receiver and return specialist for the Hämeenlinna Huskies looked back on his expectations before coming to Finland,

One of the perks of playing American football in Europe is the freedom and chance to play in multiple countries throughout your overseas career. The life expectancy of a football player in Europe is not long, and contracts generally consist of one season. The turn over is quick and that leaves an athlete looking for a new team and a new country to explore.

Mississippi native Bernard Luster is no new comer to playing football in Europe, or in Finland for that matter. Now in his fifth season overseas, Bernard has spent two prior seasons with the GFL Marberg Mercenaries before finding a home in Finland with the Helsinki Roosters. I asked Bernard how he compares Finland to other countries he’s played in overseas -

 “Finland seems to be a lot more physical than the other country I've played in and the competition from week to week is more balanced. Meaning the majority of the teams in the 1st league actually plays to the level where it shows they actually do belong in the top division.” said Bernard.

Head coach and quarterback of the second division East City Giants, Jabari Harris, has split time playing between Poland and Finland throughout his five year overseas career. The twenty-five year old veteran quarterback noted the differences between the two countries style of American football:

“Compared to Poland, I believe that Finland is a more developed and competitive league these days with tons of more imports being used per team. However, the fan support, professionalism, and popularity of American Football in Poland, surpasses Finnish American Football greatly.” said Harris.

A Touchdown Europe Hall of Famer and recently retired, quarterback Micah Brown has seen his fare share of football in Europe. Brown spent two seasons with the Helsinki Roosters and is able to compare his seasons played in Finland -

“Personally, I believe a difference in the league was the connection to other team's imports and domestic players. 2016 season, there was a conscious and genuine effort among the imports to take a networking and friendship approach to our experience playing there. We created a league wide chat/support group, invited each other to events, dinners, visits, etc. and it not only made for a better experience, it also encouraged a culture of great sportsmanship. This model was also inclusive of the domestic players as time went on, which added to community sociability.”

American football is still a developing sport in Europe, but each year huge strides are being made. I have been fortunate enough to play overseas since 2011. Since then I have seen the game improve dramatically. Either that be with camps, exposure through scouts, social media, and various forms of internet videos being watched.

All four of Runner’s seasons played in Finland have been with different teams. Prior to this season played with the Huskies, Runner spent a season each with the Turku Trojans, Porvoon Butchers, and the Seinajoki Crocodiles. The receiver noted how the game has changed in Finland over the years, “The game is getting better slowly but surely, I definitely see the stride in preparation by athletes. Players want to get better. A lot of European youth players are getting scholarships to American Colleges, which I believe plays a huge part in this.”

Luster as well has noticed the growing change of the sport in Finland, “The speed of the game is picking up rapidly and the knowledge of the game and the way it's being played and televised is getting to the level it should be to compete against other countries top leagues.”

While playing in another country, an athlete is able to benefit from the cultural aspects the country has to provide. There can be a lot of down time while playing overseas, which can produce opportunities to get out and see what the world has to offer. Bye weeks and holidays give an athlete this opportunity.

Brown and Harris highlighted a few cultural aspects they liked during their time spent in Finland, “I appreciate how Finns communicate. They are very straight forward and to the point! As a culture they're also kind-hearted and caring people and to top it off, they enjoy life! They're a grateful community that puts life into a perspective to ‘Carpe Diem.” - Brown.

“Finland is very diverse in the capital area. People are open mined but at the same time, they keep to themselves. It’s a safe place with opportunity to build for yourself if you work hard and make the right connections. Food here is pretty good and healthier because it’s a great selection of natural foods. The weather is a bit unpredictable, but the Finnish summer is amazing!” - Harris.

The most important factor with your stay in a foreign country, is how will your team and it’s organization treat you? This component can make or break your view point on the country you played in. The athletes interviewed weighed in on how their respective organizations treated them.

“The East City Giants have treated me very well. Everyone does their job, and handles things in a professional way.” - Harris (East City Giants).

“Seinajoki Crocodiles, Porvoo Butchers, Turku Trojans. I have nothing but great things to say about those clubs. They treated me with respect, as that feeling was mutual. Still till this day, it’s all love with every club. And so far, the Huskies are treating me great. They are asking a lot from me and expect a lot from me; that is the type of pressure I love on my shoulders. Funny thing is, that I am not even there yet.” - Runner (Hämeenlinna Huskies).

“It’s been great here in Vaasa. I have everything that I need to live a comfortable life. There are a lot of things that go under the radar when it comes to running a football program but I think Seppo has done a great job putting all the pieces together.” - Sottilare (Vasaa Royals).

“The organization has treated me great. I'm comfortable with speaking to everyone and it feels like family.” - Luster (Helsinki Roosters).

The 2017 season for the SAJL currently ended this past weekend with the Helsinki Roosters defeating the Vaasa Royals with a final score of 37-9. Luster was apart of the winning team and spoke of his future plans after winning the championship, “I would like to continue to work toward my goals of having the opportunity to play in the NFL/CFL.”

Sottilare and the Royals were on the wrong end of the championship score. As his season fell short of an ultimate victory, the quarterback made personal strides finishing top in the league as a passer with 3,188 passing yards. Justin mentioned where he would like to go from here, “I am looking to continue traveling, and playing or coaching. As an import, if you can find a steady source of income working remote, than you can continue to travel and play wherever you’d like without any worry of salary. For me this is a perfect job. I get to wake up every morning and be excited to work, travel to crazy parts of the world, and have experiences that I didn’t even imagine 4 years ago. At some point, I’d like to pick a country and move there for good, but that’s still in a few years’ time.”

Brown is currently enjoying retirement and being able to spend quality time with his wife, son, and friends. He finished his career playing for the Lazio Marines in the Italian League. Brown’s accolades span from Germany, Poland, Finland, and Italy. He is an example on what a quarterback and player would like to accomplish while playing overseas.

Runner finished the season second in the league with receptions and yards, as he led the Huskies to an 8-4 record before falling short to Sottilare and the Royals. In the mean time, Runner plans to work on a project with a former boss, a clothing line called CaliFinness.

Harris continues his work with his second league team and helping them grow as an overall organization. “I plan to continue to build a life here in Finland, while also enjoying the opportunities to play and coach Football. I hope that someday, I can build the Giants into a respected and well-organized football program that’s recognized for excellence through”.  His efforts do not go unnoticed as his desire is what sets him apart from the rest.

I would like to thank all the athletes interviewed in this piece. Your statements and testimony are what make a difference and shed light onto this still growing sport. I myself have never played in this distinguished country, so I appreciate learning from these great players on what this country has to offer, I hope you do as well!

Brian Casey