A 130-kg. Finnish Cinderella story in American football
Klaus Alinen about to get into NFL and become the most prominent Finn in US sports
by Petteri Ala-Kivimäki
Klaus Alinen, 24, could soon be the best-known Finnish athlete in the United States. It is hard to believe when watching Alinen drive his small Spanish sedan along the windy streets of Pori.
"I don't really need a seat belt when driving this thing. There is no space for me to move in any direction even if I crash," says the football player as he drives his Seat Cordoba.
A native of the community of Ulvila, Alinen is an astounding man, and not only because his size. Alinen's story is almost unbelievable.
As a tight end for the Atlanta Falcons, Alinen is the second Finn to sign a professional contract with a team in the US National Football League, or NFL.
The first was Matti Lindholm, who took part in a Minnesota Vikings training camp in 1987, but was dropped after the first week. Michael Quarshie signed his contract a few hours after Alinen.
The NFL season is short, but all the more popular. For example, the New York Times usually has several pages devoted exclusively to football, but only one article about ice hockey, often only the results of games. The final game, the Super Bowl, brings the entire country to a halt.
In the States, NHL games are shown on channels specialised in fishing and rodeo. The Super Bowl is the most watched television show in the US, during which advertising time is also the most expensive.
How is it possible, that someone who started by playing Pesäpallo [a Finnish sport resembling baseball] on the Ulvilan Pesä-Veikot team, is about to enter the thoroughly American NFL circus through the employees' entrance?
Quite a few American boys dream of playing in the NFL. They start at age six, and only a small fraction of the very best end up as professional athletes.
Alinen dreamed of the NFL as a small boy as well. But he played pesäpallo.
Alinen's uncle, Sami Alalampi, was the first Finn to play in the European NFL in the mid-90's. Alalampi was the Young Alinen's role model. Alinen drew NFL logos, when the rest of the children were more interested in Metallica and AC/DC. "We tossed the ball around with my uncle when I was small. We played catch until my hands ached. And sometimes we practised tackling wearing ice hockey pads," Alinen reminisces.
Next summer Alinen is competing for a spot in the team at Atlanta's training camp. About half of the 100 men participating in the camp will become part of the team.
"There are maybe eight ends, of which three or four will be selected for the team. I have a good chance of being accepted if no major changes occur in the set-up," Alinen says.
Alinen is giving a 12-year head start to many competing for the same position, since he started playing football at age 18.
"There was no team that I could join near home, and I did not want to move elsewhere. The Pori Bears was revived in 1999 and I joined the team," explains Alinen.
The pace has been fast since then. Alinen gained plenty of experience, and 30 kilograms of body weight. He moved from Pori to Berlin, from where Atlanta drafted the bulky and promising forward.
If Alinen makes the team, he will instantly become the best-known Finn in the US. A few touchdowns, and he will be on a completely different level of stardom.
At least the service is high class. The man throwing the passes in Atlanta is the NFL's best-paid player, quarterback Michael Vick. He signed a ten-year contract for 130 million dollars in 2004.
"You need to be on good terms with this man in order to get the ball. He throws hard and true, the passes are easy to catch. He is a big star, but nevertheless humble."
Alinen has always been large, but never mean. Old teammates remember with warmth how Alinen was the giant of the youth pesäpallo camp, and the only one who admitted that he missed his mother.
Sometimes he also missed something more practical. When UP-V was playing a game in Loimaa, the 14-year-old Alinen had forgotten his shoes at home. No store in Loimaa had shoes big enough for the adolescent.
Shoes were a problem for Alinen for a long time. His shoe size is 50 (about 14 UK and 15 US). "It was almost impossible to get shoes that fit in Finland, so that I had to walk around in all kinds of footwear. Whenever I visit the States I buy two pairs of shoes, one pair for use, and another pair for storage. Right now I have two cardboard boxes full of shoes being shipped here from the States", Alinen grins.
A handful of young hockey players dreaming of the NHL finally fulfil their dreams. Klaus Alinen is definitely the only Finnish pesäpallo player about to live out his dreams in the NFL.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 30.1.2006
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PROFILE: Klaus Alinen
PETTERI ALA-KIVIMÄKI / Helsingin Sanomat