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Every football player in the United States grows up dreaming what it would be like to play in the National Football League. While it’s a pleasant thought, few Americans ever have the chance to experience it due to the highly competitive nature of the league and the limited roster spots available. For the vast majority of players it’s not a realistic ambition.
The sheer improbability of an athlete coming from Finland to play in the NFL just makes Seppo Evwaraye’s story all the more remarkable.
Evwaraye was born in Vasaa, Finland to a Finnish mother and a Nigerian father. They moved soon after his birth to Nigeria, where the family lived until his father Frederick passed away suddenly when Seppo was 5 years old. Seppo’s mother Sirpa moved the family back to Finland soon after, where he spent most of his childhood.
While he was growing up in Finland, Evwaraye didn’t immediately take to athletics. “I was really in a dormant state in regards to sports until I was about 12 or 13,” he recalls. “I got into American football through my older brother, who was playing for the West Coast Vikings. I started with flag football because there was no such thing as youth tackle football. At the time, football was considered too dangerous to be played under the age of 16.”
When Evwaraye turned 16, his life changed in a big way. “Once I got into football pads, it was love at first sight,” says Evwaraye. “Finally, there was a sport that promoted being a big guy. You didn’t have to be a certain mold. You didn’t have to be skinny or small to be good at it. There were positions for players that had more size than coordination. I also came from a mixed-racial background, and the level of acceptance in football was profound. We had players from various ethnic backgrounds and it was never difficult to fit in.”
And a big guy he was. Evwaraye stood at 6’5″ (1.95m) and weighed in at 320 pounds (145 kg) in his prime. Before he got to that stature, Seppo quickly understood that to give himself the best chance to develop as a player, he had to play in the United States.
“I wanted to play at the highest level that I could,” notes Evwaraye. “My first move was to leave home at 16 to play for the Porvoon Butchers, one of the top teams in Finland at the time. After one season with the team, I went to Nebraska to play high school football. I was very fortunate that the school I attended – Laurel Concord – was small enough that I was able to play right away but big enough that I was still able to get noticed by college recruiters.”
Laurel, Nebraska was certainly small. At the time when Evwaraye moved there, the town’s population was 986. It sits at the cross-section of Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota, all cornerstones of the sparsely populated American Midwest. The town had zero traffic lights and only one public school. Evwaraye was the big man on campus – both literally and figuratively – and started on both the offensive and defensive lines. He stayed with host parents Jim and Carla Erwin, who lovingly welcomed him into their home with open arms.
“It was really a great time. I was really fortunate. I’m still in touch with my host family from there and I still consider them my family. It’s been tremendous.”
Evwaraye began building some interest among small colleges in the Midwest. Prior to his Senior year at Laurel Concord, he attended a summer camp at the University of Nebraska organized by the team’s coaching staff just before the 2000 season. “I did not think in my wildest dreams that I would be offered a scholarship by Nebraska. On the last day of the camp, I got a note that the head coach [the great Frank Solich] wanted to see me in his office. I immediately assumed the worst and figured that there was some sort of emergency with my host parents. I went into his office and he sat me down. He said I had a good camp and that they were interested in me. Naturally, I assumed that he’d ask me to walk on, but a week later I got a scholarship offer in the mail.”
Evwaraye had invites from other schools, but quickly decided that Nebraska was the best fit for him. At the time, the Cornhuskers were ranked #2 in the nation and the school had historically been known for producing solid players on the offensive and defensive lines. He also understood that he had a support system there with his host parents nearby. He didn’t want to go to another state where he’d have to start all over again.
He enrolled in the fall of 2001 at the University of Nebraska, redshirting (deferring eligibility) his first year as a defensive lineman. “The difference in the speed of the game was unbelievable,” Evwaraye points out. “Everybody was big, everybody was fast, everyone was strong. Plus, they all had incredible technique.”
Evwaraye spent that first semester playing catch-up, getting stronger and adjusting to the speed of the game. The following spring, he performed well but suffered a foot injury that summer which nagged him the whole season. “That first season on the regular roster, I spent moping around and feeling sorry for myself. After having a successful spring, the fall camp just broke me and I didn’t meet expectations. A month of two-a-days in full pads, 6 days a week, for 2 and a half hours per practice. Back then they could do that. It really broke me and I got down. The major positive that came out of this is that football really taught me how to get over the small stuff.”
That season, he broke his scapula making a tackle against McNeese State. It took him a year and a half to recover, and meanwhile Frank Solich and his entire coaching staff were fired following the 2003 season in a move that is still considered controversial to this day. The Cornhuskers had finished 9-3 that season and Solich’s record in six seasons at Nebraska was 58-19. Athletic director Steve Pederson hired ex-NFL coach Bill Callahan, who had recently been fired by the Oakland Raiders after a disastrous 4-12 season.
“At the time, I was 3rd on the depth chart at defensive tackle. The coaching staff told me that there would be a better opportunity for me to play at offensive tackle, where there was no sure starter. Although it was tough for me to make the transition, I decided I wasn’t going to be the first guy from Finland to make it this far and not leave some sort of mark.”
Evwaraye started his final two seasons at offensive tackle. Playing in front of 85,000 fans on a weekly basis was surreal for him, an experience he could only dream of growing up in Vaasa. He finished his career as an Honorable Mention All-Big 12, Second-Team Academic All-Big 12, and Nebraska Lifter of the Year. With his exceptional size, strength, and quickness, he was drawing interest from NFL teams and scouts.
He was the first Finn to play Division 1 college football in the United States, but his job was not done there. “I was thinking about the NFL big time. It was one of my main goals when I left Finland, the other being to play Division 1 football. I wanted to see absolutely how far I could make it. My advisors told me that I was going to be a 2nd day pick [in the 2006 NFL Draft] at best, so I needed to have a big pro day.”
Evwaraye did have a solid pro day, becoming the first offensive lineman from Nebraska to run a sub-5.0 second 40-yard dash. Tragically, an error in paperwork seriously derailed his plans to play in the NFL.
Since the school year had ended, Evwaraye’s student visa was set to expire. He needed to apply for an Optional Practical Training visa (OPT) to work in the U.S. for one year. After signing to an NFL team, the league could change it to an F-1 visa, which would stabilize his legal status in the United States. The International Student and Scholar Office at Nebraska provided him with the forms he needed to apply for an OPT visa, however they had mistakenly given him old forms. The permit had cost $175 in 2005, but $180 in 2006. Evwaraye sent a check for $175 along with his paperwork, only to have the visa rejected due to insufficient payment. He was instructed to leave the United States within weeks or face banishment from entrance to the United States again in the future.
“It was a pretty dire situation. Thankfully there was someone at the University of Nebraska who helped me through the process to have my application reviewed again. Still, the draft came and went and I was offered a free agent contract by the Carolina Panthers and couldn’t sign it because my legal status hadn’t been resolved. They offered a $12,500 signing bonus and a decent start in the league, but I missed out on that.” Eventually, the decision on Evwaraye’s application was reversed in the summer of 2006, but it was too late. The Panthers had already signed a player from North Carolina to take his place and Evwaraye was stuck wondering what his next move was.
“July rolled around and I didn’t know what to do next,” says Evwaraye. “I wasn’t in school and I couldn’t work. What made things worse is that I never even got the opportunity to get cut. It would have been an end to my professional career and I would have had some closure.”
Evwaraye still had a semester left on his athletic scholarship aid, so he decided to get proactive and enrolled in graduate classes at Nebraska in the fall. He began training for another shot at the NFL, and eventually Tony Allen, Director of International Player Development for NFL Europe, got in touch with him to offer him an opportunity. He attended NFL Europe training camp in February 2007 in Tampa Bay, Florida, and was quickly allocated to the Cologne Centurions.
With the Centurions, Evwaraye played well at offensive guard. He dealt with a nagging shoulder injury that year, NFL Europe’s final season, but was offered a spot on the international practice squad with the Minnesota Vikings following the season. Evwaraye spent the whole 2007 season with the Vikings.
“It was an awesome experience,” recalls Evwaraye. “While you’re going through it, you don’t know how to appreciate it. I played alongside great offensive linemen like Matt Birk, Steve Hutchinson, and Bryant McKinnie. I went up against Kevin Williams and Pat Williams every day in practice. That 2007 was Adrian Peterson’s rookie year, so it was a pretty special season.
“I thought I was doing well, I got complimented often by the coaching staff. That coming offseason meant that I had a real chance to make the 53-man roster. I felt I had a shot. The Vikings and I spoke about signing a 2-year deal to fight for a practice squad or game roster spot, but it all came to an end when I found out I had to have surgery on the shoulder I injured while playing in NFL Europe. Rehab would take 5-6 months, and as soon as the Vikings understood this they went in another direction.
“It put an end to everything as far as my NFL aspirations. I thought about it and wondered if I really wanted to keep pursuing this. Between the end of the season with the Centurions and the start of camp with the Vikings, I had only had 2 weeks off. I was really tired of playing year-round. I reflected on all of it for a while during rehab in Nebraska. I eventually came to the conclusion that I’m ok with this being the end of my professional career. In my mind, I had made it. I had gotten to an NFL locker room, played in pre-season games. I was holding my own in practice. I felt like I would have been worth a roster spot the following season, but I was tired and I was ready to let it go. And I was okay with that.”
Evwaraye has a great perspective about the whole experience. “The Carolina situation was a tough pill to swallow because it wasn’t my own doing. But I learned to move on from it. I got my shot, it just came a bit delayed. I got to live the NFL life and to see the inside of an NFL locker room. In Finland, there are only a few others who have ever done that [the others being Michael Quarshie, Klaus Alinen, Karri Kuuttila, and Matti Lindholm].”
After Evwaraye put his NFL dreams behind him, he re-enrolled at the University of Nebraska’s graduate program in Physical Education and Exercise Science. During the summers, he played with the Porvoon Butchers back in Finland. The Butchers won the league championship (known as the Maple Bowl) in both 2009 and 2010, Evwaraye’s final season as a player.
In September 2011, he moved back to Vaasa after completing his Master’s degree and got involved with the Vaasa Vikings. “I mainly spent the first year in 2012 observing. I got involved a little bit with the club, but I had been gone for 14 years and didn’t want to immediately jump into something full-time.”
“My view of football – what it should be and what it is – was vastly different. It’s not a hobby. You don’t play football, you’re a football player. I knew that my expectations would be really high if I ever ran things. I spent the first year mainly planning. My goal was to make the team younger and to make them more competitive. I wanted players to commit to training and to the team.”
On March 27, 2013, the team issued a press release: they Vikings would now be known as the Wasa Royals. It was a fresh start to the organization: new colors, jerseys, management, and coaching staff. Evwaraye has led the way as Team President and Head Coach, and the Royals’ first season in Division 2 (the Finnish 3rd division) resulted in an undefeated 10-0 season and a league championship win over the Hämeenlinna Huskies. After being promoted to Division 1 (the Finnish 2nd division) the next year, the Royals completed the 2014 season with a 9-1 campaign, winning another league championship after defeating the Hyvinkää Falcons in the Spaghetti Bowl.
Following the season, the Royals had the opportunity to move up to the Maple League, Finland’s highest national league, but instead chose to spend one more year in development before making the jump. “The quality of the game between the Maple League and the 1st division is remarkable, notes Ville Väänänen, manager of the Finnish College League. “While they did win the 1st division last year, I think the team chose wisely not to rush things and move up again. They’re building a solid organization, and I believe that the Royals will be playing at the national level in 2016.”
In two seasons with the Royals, Evwaraye has lost only one game as head coach, a 1-point loss at home in 2014 to the Hyvinkää Falcons on a last-minute field goal in front of 1,058 fans at Kaarlen Kenttä, the Royals’ home stadium. Evwaraye has instilled a sense of commitment that has sent the team on a meteoric rise up the national ranks in Finland. The Royals have established themselves as having a superb off-season training program and the team is one of the most hardworking teams in the country.
“Every practice is mandatory,” explains Evwaraye. “If you’re going to miss too many practices, I say, ‘well, this isn’t for you.'” This has set the tone for his organization, and it’s a leg up that the Royals have over most teams.
During the team’s first season, they averaged 567 paid attendees per game. In its second season, they’ve grown to 903. They anticipate that number being over 1,000 this season, which is far and away higher than the average for Maple League teams, estimated at just over 300 per game.
Finland is a country that’s mad for hockey, but the experience at a hockey game pales in comparison to a Royals game. “In the first season, I didn’t care if the fans watched a second of the game. I just wanted them to have a good time. We provide great food and music, bouncy castles, cheerleaders, football tossing competitions, raffles, merchandise, and interactive games with the audience. Our goal is to create an environment where sports fans go to hockey games in winter and American football games during the summer. We’re building brand loyalty and a unique experience for fans and hopefully this leads to a generation of young fans who want to play for the Royals when they’re old enough.”
There’s no doubt that Seppo Evwaraye’s experience playing at the highest levels of American football has taught him what it takes to create a successful franchise. Fortunately, he’s been able to apply what he’s learned to the game in his home country. For the Wasa Royals, the sky is the limit.
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