From Flagstaff to Finland …
By Ed Odeven
(Published in the Arizona Daily Sun on July 5, 2005)
You’ll probably work for 40 years before retiring. But who says you gotta have one job, in one locale, for that time span?
John Perrigo certainly didn’t.
The former Northern Arizona defensive end is playing football for the Seinajoki Crocodiles of the Finnish American Football League this summer.
He graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in health promotions. He plans to become a physical education/health teacher and a coach in the near future. For now, Perrigo’s content to play football, experience a new culture and delay getting a “real job.”
“I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do, because I have never been to Europe,” Perrigo said of his post-college plans. “To (also) play football, it sounded like an experience I would always remember.”
As of Saturday, the Crocodiles were 4-0 with Perrigo playing rush end and serving as a defensive line coach. In that span, he collected 22 tackles, including 12 for a loss, and six sacks. He also expects to see some time at linebacker and wide receiver or tight end before the eight-game regular season ends. (After the season, the top four teams advance to the playoffs.
The winners square off Sept. 10 in the Maple Bowl.)
The language barrier hasn’t been a big deal.
“Every player and coach speaks English,” said Perrigo, who was tops among NAU defensive lineman in tackles for three straight seasons, 2002-04. “Some just speak it a lot better than the rest.
“…When I have trouble understanding I just nod my head and smile, and it seems to work perfectly so far.”
Perrigo is one of two Americans on the squad — the other is former Wagner and Florida Atlantic quarterback Dave Bateman. A Canadian player, linebacker Ian Williams joined the squad recently. He has dual citizenship (Canada-France); teams are only allowed two non-Europeans on the roster.
The Crocodiles are comprised of players ranging in age from 20-39.
There’s another big distinction Perrigo and Bateman share: “Only the Americans get paid to play football,” Perrigo said.
“The players on the team all have jobs other than football,” he continued. “So they show up whenever they can to practices and/or games depending on what they have to do for work.
“Over here you can play on a team as long as you like, still being able to fulfill your needs of having a family and/or job.”
All the coaches are volunteers.
“They do it for the love of coaching,” said the Montana native who initially posted his football credentials on Europlayers.com. The rest of the process: Perrigo sent a tape of his game highlights to Finnish teams and NAU defensive line coach Bill Smith put a good word in for him. Then he signed a contract — he got the call during Christmas break.
When he’s teaching defense, something he learned from Smith, NAU defensive coordinator Corey Batoon and Jacks head coach Jerome Souers, Perrigo tries to stick to the basics.
“With the time restrictions of everyone,” he said, “we don’t have time for meetings or films, so the focal point of practice is mostly practicing the plays we anticipate the other team will run.
“…I try to teach the other defensive linemen some of the finer techniques that many have not learned over here in Finland.”
Of course, some players need more coaching than others.
“One of our defensive tackles told me he has been taught to attack and kill, never focusing on any fundamentals,” Perrigo said.
The talent level of players in the Finnish American Football League is wide-ranging.
“I have seen players who would not be successful in high school (in America),” Perrigo said, “and others who would be successful making Division I-AA or Division II (teams.”
Again, the lack of salaries affects the talent pool.
“On some teams it is so hard to get players to play, since they get no income, that anyone they do get usually plays two ways, anywhere they can put them,” Perrigo said.
What about the fans? What are they like?
In this land of countless lakes, where ex-Edmonton Oiler Jari Kurri is a star, where javelin throwers are treated like kings, where little ski jumpers want to emulate the artistry and grace of the legendary Matti Nykanen, a few hundred fans for an American football contest is considered a big crowd.
The atmosphere of a game is quite different, too.
“The players do not get as excited before a game and at halftime as we would at NAU,” Perrigo said. “We really have no crazy players on our team.”
But when the game ends, Perrigo has been treated to a new ritual.
Both teams select a game MVP, sometimes it’s a gift certificate to a local pizzeria, other times it’s a few towels.
“The captains meet in the middle, point to their team and all together give a ‘hey, hey, hey’ as loud and deep as you can,” Perrigo explained.
“The opponent does the same, and then the lines go around the end and everyone gives each other a high-five.
“I do not know really what it means, but I just kind of go with the flow, a skill I have learned helps you out a lot here.”
In Seinajoki, a city of around 30,000 in Southwestern Finland, there are 22 hours of daylight in the summer, giving Perrigo plenty of time to pursue outdoor activities.
Perrigo has gone fishing in the Baltic Sea and toured the countryside by bicycle. He also rents a ton of movies and video games during his spare time.
And he’s enjoyed barbecues at his coaches’ homes. It is there where he’s gotten accustomed to one aspect of Finnish culture: hanging out in the sauna, the Finnish indoor steam bath.
“Everyone here has a sauna,” he said. “And it’s a ritual when you hang out, you sauna together.
“The weird part for me was the (cultural norm) over here is you sauna naked. They are not co-ed. But the saunas are refreshing if done right.”
Eating out, according to Perrigo, is quite expensive in Finland, but he has enjoyed tasting numerous Finnish dishes, including boiled potatoes and casseroles.
When he’s not hanging out in Seinajoki, Perrigo visits Tampere, the hometown of ex-Phoenix Coyote Teppo Numminen, and Helsinki, the nation’s capital.
“Both have a lot of cool, old buildings,” he said.
Perrigo also enjoyed a recent sojourn across the Gulf of Bothia.
“I took a boat over to Stockholm, Sweden,” he said. “That town was amazing. … I then went to Estonia and visited the remains of an old medieval town.”
Sounds like Perrigo is content to hold off on getting a full-time job for now.
In fact, he might go back to Finland next summer to continue his playing career.