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 Football: U.S. to Finland

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Timo Rahkola Checks his Ancestral Culture

Timo Rahkola in Helsinki, June 2011
Timo Rahkola (right) and team mates after the 2010 Championship game.

Through a series of friendships, UMD 2011 alumnus Timo Rahkola, is playing football in Finland. Rahkola plays for the Helsinki Roosters, one of the eight professional, American-style football teams in Finland.

It all started in 2008 at the FinnFest USA celebration when he served as a security guard for Tarja Halonen, the President of Finland. That led to a friendship with Dr. Pentti Arajarvi, the husband of the Finnish president, who is a professor at University of Joensuu. The friendship with Arajarvi led to scholarships and recommendations, and in January 2011, Rahkola began university studies in Finland.

Soon after he arrived at Joensuu, Rahkola formed friendships with coaches and players of American-style football. Through that networking experience, Rahkola tried out and secured a position on the Helsinki team.

Rahkola grew up in a Finnish family in Esko, Minn., speaking some Finnish and enjoying Finnish customs, like taking saunas on a regular basis. His grandmother, Mummo, still makes traditional Finnish dishes. His father takes pride in the family's Finnish roots and helped with the 2008 FinnFest USA event. Living in Finland was always one of Rahkola's dreams.

The opportunity to travel to Finland was presented to Rahkola at UMD. He majored in music education. He played the clarinet in the UMD concert band and electric bass in the pep band. He also played football as a defensive lineman for UMD’s football team. Partly because of his Finnish background, he was assigned security detail to the President of Finland, Tarja Halonen, at the 2008 FinnFest, a celebration of Finnish culture co-hosted by UMD. He played on both the 2008 and 2010 UMD's NCAA Div. II championship-winning football teams. All of these experiences, and a reference letter from Pentti Arajarvi, garnered him scholarships and the opportunity to enroll for his last college semester in Finland.

At Joensuu, Rahkola studied Finnish education, teaching Finnish arts, Finnish music, Finnish language, and the history of Finland, the European Union, and the Baltic States.

He met an American Club football team who invited him to play and coach. It was through contacts with the club that Rahkola visited all of the teams in the Vaahteraliiga, "Maple League," the national premier football league. He eventually signed a contract with the Helsinki Roosters. Their season began at the end of May and the last game will be sometime in August, depending on the playoff schedule.

Rahkola said football in Finland is different than football in the U.S. The games typically have 200 to 500 fans in attendance and the championship games have up to 5,000 attendees. Hockey is the most popular sport, followed by what Americans call soccer.

“Football is the little brother sport here,” Rahkola said.

Rahkola will spend a total of eight months in Finland and is anxious to return to Minnesota. “You spend years building friendships on campus, then all of a sudden it’s a whole new frontier,” Rahkola said. “I’m homesick for UMD.”

He has felt the full force of Finland's polar nights and midnight sun. In January, there was little daylight. "I would get out of class as the sun rose around noon and a hour or so later the sun would set," he said. Now, he is experiencing the opposite phenomena, “I have huge windows in my apartment. Even though Helsinki is at one of the most southern parts of the country, the sun shines through the night. That makes it pretty hard to sleep.”

In preparation for his return to the states, Rahkola has been scanning American newspapers for job opportunities. Ultimately, he would like to teach music to middle school children.

Rahkola is especially grateful for one aspect of his travel experience. “One of the best things about being in Finland is being able to connect with our close family friends and to see where my heritage came from.” He's eaten a lot of foods that his grandmother made in Minnesota: Karelian piirakka (a pie with a rye crust and a rice pudding filling) and Finnish kakku, an eggy, buttery, oven pancake topped with jam. "I know so much more now about my culture and traditions." he said. "It's not culture shock, it's culture check."

— written by Cheryl Reitan


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