When I boarded a plane to play American Football in Finland—letting go of the NFL dream after seasons of toil in the Canadian and Arena Football Leagues—the door of life opened wide for me.
For, by boarding that plane, I chose to use my athletic talent for freedom, travel, and adventure—and enough money—rather than the anxiety and exhaustion of the road to riches.
I would never sign an NFL contract. But I would enjoy playing football again. Less pressure, more fun. Less money, more experience. Less linear, more cyclic.
My folks didn’t get it. Neither did my friends. With the pay cut, my agent stopped representing me. People told me I was crazy. Maybe I was. But maybe it’s good to be a little crazy.
After a bus ride and three separate planes and 24 hours of travel, I made it to Finland. And not even Helsinki but a town of 50,000 a couple hours north called Seinajoki. I remember descending into the one-runway airport, and all I could see was trees all the way to the horizon. I wondered if there were reindeer down there. Or gnomes. I also wondered if I’d made a mistake.
Team officials greeted me at the terminal where a very small press conference and photo shoot was held. They then drove me to my “house”—a small, spartan apartment to be shared with three other Americans, three blokes from England, and a huge Scandinavian fellow who looked like something from those “World’s Strongest Man” competitions I used to watch in the 90s. The Americans had thick southern accents, the Brits spoke a hard cockney, and the big Finn gestured with hands and broken English but, somehow, we understood each other just well enough to laugh and live and play good football.
The club gave us a shared “auto” to get to and from team events. Little van type thing that us football players crammed into knees to chest. We bonded as a group on our drives and in our workouts, practices, and games across the bucolic country the natives call Souma and the rest of the world knows as Finland.
The team also gave me a bicycle, a bicycle I could use to escape on solo explorations. And I loved that thing. I’d pack a bag with books, my journal, my camera, a couple beers and homemade sandwiches and just go. On days off (three a week!) I rode that old bike everywhere, to places even the homegrown players hadn’t been. Through the cafes and night clubs of the cityscape on to the outskirts of town where old barns and ancient churches dotted the scene; to old battlegrounds where the tiny Finnish forces fought off the invading Soviets and their largest army on earth in the early battles of World War II; old villages where “Little People” were rumored to once live; and at night I could catch glimpses of the aurora borealis in the skies to the north.
Yet my favorite thing about Finland was the forest streams and rivers that interlaced the landscape. Even in summer it would usually rain for an hour or two in the afternoon, and water was everywhere. The landscape was lush, with ferns bigger than I ever thought possible. I found great spots along the water to take photographs and write and think and not think and just be. After three seasons of toil in North American pro football leagues, I thought I was finally finding some happy living in my career.
Riding around the forest one day, I got caught in a downpour. Serious cloudburst that caught me by surprise. Instantly I was soaked through, but I didn’t want to go home. Wanted to keep going. Further.
I was close to one of my favorite streams that led to the big river. A beautiful cascade of water over rock through the woods. It was to that spot I rode on my old bike, the trail becoming muddier as I pedaled. When I got to the stream the water was cresting the banks and flowing fast, the swift sound of water an Om in my ear.
I dismounted my bike while it was still rolling and ran down the bank. I saw a path of rocks that led to a big boulder in the middle of the current. I hopped and leapt over five or six rocks and managed to not fall in the white water before reaching the smoothed boulder of my aim.
The water flowed by me on all sides, fast and white and free. The trees surrounded me like guardians and the rain fell harder from above. Other than my bike, there was no sign of man anywhere. Perfect and natural, out on my own a million miles from home I looked up and outstretched my arms. My face turned to a smile that grew to a laugh that led to uncontrollable tears. I felt deep connection to the universe, and I knew I was in the right place.