Playing for Karelian Pies

When I was living in Finland, I used to go into town on Sunday nights and watch American football at the sports pub. The owner was a nice guy and usually reserved at least one screen for it, overuling the hockey, horse racing or Formula One racing.

One of those nights, I was sitting there watching and minding my own business when this young blond-haired guy walked up to me, outfitted in a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey. “Are you American?”, he asked.

I replied in this affirmative, unlike when I was riding around in  taxis in the Middle East and was asked my nationality. I knew I had nothing to fear from your normal Finnish dude.

“Why don’t you join us”, my new-found friend said. I did so.

This was my introduction to the Lappeenranta Rajaritarit (or “Border Knights”), the city’s semi-professional football team. The name comes from the town’s closeness to the Russian border.

Lappeenranta is in Karelia. This region has been fought over for centuries.

Mikko, the “poika” who introduced himself, was a wide receiver, and probably the best Finnish player on the team. Most of the players were Finns. The team was allowed three American “ringers”.

One of them was usually the quarterback. I made the acquaintance of one the American Lappeenranta signal caller: he called me after he had incurred a season-ending injury.

This young fellow was out of some school in the Midwest, and he wanted to talk to me about finding work in Lappeenranta as an English teacher. The Border Knights had let him keep his apartment and coach, but his salary was cut to part-time wages.

I went to a couple of their games, once with my whole  family in tow. The first time we were treated to the match. The second time I paid.

I really enjoyed the Finnish footballers. They loved the game.

They knew the NFL well. Many of them played fantasy football. 

Once they organized an exhibition at the local recreation center for youth I took my elementary-aged son.    The boys had set up stations all over the room where kids could do various football type activities. My favorite was when my son got to don pads, a jersey and a helmet.

My most memorable event with the Border Knights was watching the Super Bowl with them, the only one Peyton Manning and the Colts have won together. We watched it in the basement of the sports pub at 3 am.

I remember walking out about 6 am on that snowy, dark morning. I caught the bus over to the university where I worked. It was a surreal experience.

The concept of American football being played on a minor league level overseas motivated me to choose John Grisham’s recent novel “Playing for Pizza” for my intermediate reading and writing English class here in Virginia.

I’ve been teaching my current students the game. I even get to tell anecdotes to compare my experience with that of the protagonist, a shamed NFL quarterback who ends up playing for a semi-pro team in Italy.

Globalization is really here. When I drive down the streets of my current American university town, I can sometimes see a bunch of collegiate kids playing cricket. I suppose some Finnish guy has the same feelings I have at that sight when they spot the Border Knights at practice.

It’s a small world.


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