Champions

I’m nervous. I’m genuinely a little nervous. Its certainly not what I was expecting to feel on the countless occasions that I have been over this moment in my mind. For two seasons I have been sharing my life as a football player with you, hoping one day to be sat in the position in which I find myself today, ready to tell you all the story of how the Wolverines won the Maple Bowl. So here I am. We won. Finally, I am sat at my laptop, victory cap sat on the table beside my second cup of coffee, with a two-day-old dazed smirk hung lazily across my face. But I’m strangely nervous. I have so much to say and yet so many horrible clichés to avoid. So many people to thank, without turning this into an over dramatised Oscars acceptance speech. So much of my own personal achievement to regale you with, taking care to emphasise how tiny my part has been in the achievements of everyone associated with the Wolverines.

So here it is. Unplanned, undrafted and unashamed. My post-Maple Bowl victory article. I hope you enjoy it as much as I am enjoying the fact that I am able to write it.

Crocodiles 27 – 30 Wolverines

Helsinki Wolverines - Maple Bowl Champions 2011

Last week was without a doubt the most difficult of my career as an athlete. The joy of beating the Butchers had evaporated shortly after the final whistle and had been replaced by a biting anxiety. I read around a hundred pages of my new book last week and I don’t know the name of the main character. I watched two films and I cannot tell you what happened in either of them. I spent a week just waiting to put an entire year’s work into a three hour exam. I do not think I will ever be an accomplished enough writer to articulate quite how I felt, but I do not remember ever being so utterly consumed by an upcoming event.

The game itself must have been fantastic for two thousand spectators in the stands and all those watching on TV across Europe. Our defence was incredible. They held the Crocodiles’ record-breaking offence from the very first minute, allowing our offence to stretch out a thirteen point lead that would ultimately prove unassailable. The loss of Cedric Johnson in the third quarter to a possible ACL tear could have been a fatal blow to our title hopes but for the remarkable courage of our offence. Where many teams would have hung their heads and retreated to the safety of sultry excuses, we stepped up and put together a fourth quarter scoring drive against the odds. I have never seen such belief as I have in that huddle as we marched down the field. Stokes completing a pass to Vili who caught it and scampered for the extra yards and the first down. JD’s huge run to take us into the red zone. The pile of offensive linemen three yards deep into the endzone with Stokes clutching the ball beneath them. A quite astounding sense of collective invincibility that I have rarely had the pleasure of experiencing.

The culmination of that final scoring drive

To say that we deserved the victory is somewhat redundant. Everyone who steps on the field and gives their all deserve the victory. The Crocodiles certainly deserved the victory. As did the Butchers and the Border Knights. I am sure that they have put in as much effort as we have this season. I’m proud to be a football player and I’m proud to play in a league that is so competitive thanks to the efforts of the players and the organisations to which they belong. Almost every single one of the Crocodiles players and coaches were as gracious and magnanimous in defeat as they had been in victory. A fantastic team and a season to be applauded for everything that they have achieved. The messages of congratulations that I received from Brett Rosenbaum, their English linebacker, were pure class and the sign of an excellent sportsman. He’s a great ambassador for the British game.

However, the Wolverines are worthy champions. For the first time in the team’s history, the Maple Bowl belongs to us. What an absolute privilege to be a part of something that so many people have worked so hard for. Ultimately, the biggest congratulations go to the General Manager of the team Peetja Mannila. For years he has poured his heart and soul into the Wolverines in order to build them into the championship team that we now are. This year he took an even more hands-on approach as the defensive coordinator. It is quite simple really, without Peetja there is no championship and probably no Wolverines.

Parading the trophy to our loyal fans

Congratulations also go to Mika Lonnqvist, who after twenty years of football retired from the game with a Maple Bowl. He has been a devoted servant to the Wolverines for longer than most of the current players have been at the club. He’s an exceptional man and an example of what happens when you work hard and persevere. The same goes for Joni Nyholm who has faced so many tough battles in his football career and his life. On Saturday he overcame them all with his friends and his family around him to cheer him on. I’m proud to have met both of them and I’m glad to have been part of something that I know they have longed to achieve.

So now for me to say thank you. This is the part that I have been dwelling on since the final and for the whole season that preceded it. This season has been the most amazing that I have ever been a part of and I would have felt the same way even if we had lost every single game.  The championship obviously means so much to me as it is the culmination of so much hard work and twenty years of sporting mediocrity. But this season has been like no other in my life because of the astounding amount of support that I have received from so many people. Again I am in serious danger of dropping into the realm of cliché, but I cannot stress enough how much it has meant to me. My heart is pounding as I write this (though that may be the fourth cup of coffee doing it’s work).

A phenomenal amount of people in the UK have sent me messages of congratulations and kind words. My biggest fans are undoubtedly my sister and Terry Nutkins. I am so happy that both of them were able to fly out and see me play this year. They have made me feel like a star at every step and I am truly thankful. The unconditional support of my parents has gone without saying from the moment I tied my rugby boots twenty years ago. Although your presence at games appears to be a jinx (sorry mum!).

In the week leading up to the final and in the two days since, the messages of good luck and congratulations from so many people have been amazing. You have taken your time to give extra value to something that is so important to me. Many of you took the time to watch the game on the internet and share the link with others so that they could support me too. Others added the Wolverines badge to their profile pictures on Facebook and urged others to do likewise.

Life as an import player is fantastic. I am in the privileged position of being paid to do something I love. But it also has its challenges. For four months of a year, I leave friends, family and home behind me. My purpose becomes only to play football. It is my job, it is my life. I cannot express how much it means to me for so many people to show support and to give so much value to that. I hope that you are able to understand how much it means to me and that in future, I can repay each and every one of you.

Thank you of course to all of the Wolverines. From player to coach to fan to cheerleader, you have helped me to achieve something that I was beginning to think might never happen. You are all fantastic friends and I am grateful to you for allowing me to be part of your first ever championship.

The victors

So now I will sign off. Not for the last time, I am sure. It has been a pleasure to write this post and I hope that I have been able to articulate my thoughts and feelings without gushing too much. Thank you for everything and congratulations to the Wolverines.

Bam

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