When the winter darkness hits you aren’t really sure that it has. The symptoms can be as such. You are depressed and you know not why. You are anxious to do something, but you haven’t the energy. You are looking forward to warmer weather and brighter sunshine. Last October, I had the blues and I decided to do something about it. I’ve been a football fanatic since ’79 when I learned who Tony Dorsett was. After moving to Florida that year, our family followed the path of the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers who surprisingly were 3 field goals away from the Super Bowl. The game became a part of my life.
And with maybe a little bit due to my recent turn of 30 years on this planet, I had to do something about the funk I was in. I couldn’t afford a Chrysler PT Cruiser, so I bought a Sony Playstation and spent more than a few winter evenings as quarterback in John Madden’s NFL 2000 game. In January, the desire for football became more profound. Living in Finland didn’t allow me to witness the weekly mayhem in the previous autumn of the NFL, although I tracked the scores and games for my fantasy football team.
Last January with this winter funk, white pale skin and embarking in a new life with my soon to be wife, I decided to take my fascination with the game one step further. I sought out the SAJL Suomen amerikkalaisen jalkapallon liitto (Finnish Association of American Football) and posted a message on the bulletin board. “American football player seeking Finnish team.” My credentials weren’t outstanding. I didn’t play high school or college ball. The closest to tackle football was in the 8-man tackle squad that I joined in the Ft. Meade league of ’93. But I remember those games vividly. I was the center for half the season, I played offensive line, I played defensive line. I didn’t play extremely well, but I had the chance to play. The last game was held in a thunderstorm. We got our asses whipped by the Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital team that had a few giants on their squad, but most importantly, they brought half of DC to root for them on our home turf. So my little post on the bulletin board was just a first step. What if I could play again? I’m not that old. And besides, I had the support of my soon to be wife. What more could I ask for?
In Finland there are two leagues. The Maple League is where the pros play. I’ve seen these monsters in the form of one of Europe’s Top 10 Best teams, the Helsinki Roosters. With a team roster over 60 players, I knew there was little chance of playing ball. So I turned my attention to the 1st Division League. I saw it as the semi-pros. More of an opportunity to hit the starting line-up although I had the desire and the size but a fresh lack of experience on my side. The Division winner last year was the Jyväskylä Jaguars. They were playing in the Maple League this year. The second best team was the Helsinki Wolverines. I figured that they got stopped one game short of the championship last year, so they would still be hungry for more this year.
That’s when I got a call from Wolverine head coach, Henri Von Holten. One of the team’s players, Jarkko Ylinen had emailed me about the Wolverines practice times. Jake had given my posting to Henri and he called me up. Practices were Thursday and Sunday nights at the Tali Sports Hall. Indoors I thought, sure beats practicing in the cold. So I bought some new sneakers and joined the squad, running myself crazy, sweating the depression right out of me. Nothing like some extreme exercise to help you go to sleep and night and take away the day’s anxieties.
After a wedding and two weeks off for a honeymoon in Isla Mujeres Mexico and Florida, I returned to practice with one goal in mind – To start for this team. I had played center before. And soon enough I was practicing as center. It was a natural move. Last year’s center didn’t mind the coaches decision, he was moved to left tackle. There were no hard feelings. I learned the plays. I memorized my blocking schemes, I was fitting in as the only Yankee playing with these Finnish white boys.
The long off-season kept me fit. It allowed me to have a fresh new outlook on life. There was actually something to beat my winter’s depressive funk, it was football. I surfed the net and bought a helmet and shoulder pads, new shoes, etc… with the help of my two older brothers who played high school football with the Leto Falcons. They were thrilled and they helped.
I was number 63. Lee Roy Selmon of the classic Buccaneers on the offensive line. That was my attitude and all the Wolverines kicked ass that year. It was an experience of a lifetime.
Who would have thought? Nando Calrissian, Rookie of the Year at age 30!
In the 2000 season, the Helsinki Wolverines went 9-1 and won the First Division Championship in the Spaghetti Bowl with a 41-3 win over the Varkaus Steelers. In 2001, the Wolverines went on to play in the Maple League, making it to the playoffs with a 4-4 record.