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Ambassador for the game

Saugus High graduate leads team and sport of football in Finland

Posted: September 9, 2009 10:37 p.m.
Updated: September 10, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Saugus High graduate Zack Schafer breaks a tackle in this undated photo for the Kuopio Steelers in Finland. Schafer is one of two American players on the team. Saugus High graduate Zack Schafer breaks a tackle in this undated photo for the Kuopio Steelers in Finland. Schafer is one of two American players on the team.
Saugus High graduate Zack Schafer breaks a tackle in this undated photo for the Kuopio Steelers in Finland. Schafer is one of two American players on the team.

At this time last year, Saugus High graduate Zack Schafer was taking handoffs as the starting running back for the University of Redlands.

On Sunday, he will be taking handoffs as the starting keskushyökkääjä for the Kuopio Steelers, when the team plays in the Spagettimaljaan, Finland’s first division American football championship game.

“I never imagined I’d be playing in Finland when my career ended at Redlands,” Schafer says. “I always wondered and hoped there would be something I could do with this. I thought about going to some combine. I never imagined I would end up over here. It has been an amazing blessing. To lace it up every Saturday has been such a blessing.”

For the Steelers, Schafer’s presence has certainly been a blessing as well, one in which translated to 307 rushing yards off 33 carries and two touchdowns in the team’s 34-16 semifinal win over the Pori Bears on Saturday.

On the season, Schafer has rushed for 1,720 yards, and amassed 2,304 total yards from scrimmage and 21 touchdowns, all of which lead the league.

The Steelers are 8-1 on the season.

“Despite the basic truth that football is a team sport, sometimes you see a player that can contribute more than can be expected from one man. Zack is one of those exceptional players,” writes Steelers team president Jarkko Surakka in an e-mail to The Signal. “His performance throughout the season is nothing short of perfect.”

Kuopio head coach Jon Hart, an American, sees it too.

Hart is a former assistant coach at Cal Poly Pomona and friend of Redlands head coach Mike Maynard.

“I got a call from Jon back in January or February, and (he) wanted to know if I could recommend players to go to Europe with him,” Maynard says. “(Zack) is a phenomenal running back, phenomenal player, and I knew that Zack wanted to continue to play. He was looking for an opportunity, and I knew that Zack would fit in well from an attitude standpoint and had the maturity to fit in with the kind of program Jon wanted to run. ... Everything Zack does, he does well.”

He was correct.

Maynard says he still receives e-mail updates from Hart on the team’s season.

In his most recent correspondence, Maynard read seven key words that can sum up Schafer’s season.

“He’s the best running back in Finland,” Hart wrote.

What started locally developed during his time in college.

When Schafer first entered the Bulldogs’ program, Maynard recalls the back’s style as more of a slasher, based primarily on quickness and explosiveness.

Over the years, he became a power runner.

“Zack had unique skills coming out of Saugus High School,” he says. “He had been well-coached in terms of how to run the football.

When he got to Redlands, he really became a physical kind of runner.”

Schafer had little time to transition from Redlands to Kuopio, which is located in Mideastern Finland.

He graduated on May 23, and on May 26, he stepped on a plane headed to Europe.

Schafer was thrilled for the opportunity.

“Especially in this job market. I might as well skip the country for a little bit,” he jokes.

The 22-year-old lives in an apartment near downtown Kuopio with his roommate Brian Cottone, a former linebacker at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania and the only other American player on the team.

Schafer says the adjustment to life in Finland has been very easy.

“Finnish people are great, very refined,” he says. “I’ve been told by the football guys that 70 percent of everyone (in Finland) speaks English. Me and my roommate get around just fine.”

From a financial standpoint, Schafer says that usually only the American players get paid.

And it’s not much.

“It really varies depending on where you are in Europe and what level you are playing at in that certain country,” he says. “Brian and myself are paid 500 euros a month over here.  As you can see it’s not really about money, just the chance to keep playing.”

The amount converts to roughly $724.65 per month.

“The pay may not be that much but the team over here in Finland takes care of us so well it doesn’t even really matter,” he says.

“Everything is pretty much paid for and they treat us like family.”

But Schafer’s involvement is not limited to simply running the ball.

He has also become an ambassador for the sport, coaching his teammates and with youth programs.

“Zack’s attitude on and off the field has been very professional and he has helped a lot getting new fans to the Steelers and sport of football,” Surakka says. “He has taken a big role in coaching as well helping the Steelers’ offense to become best in (the first division).

“He has also spent a lot of time with our junior program and he is great inspiration to our young boys,” Surakka adds. “He is very humble and works very, very hard. He truly has earned our respect and friendship. I know all this might sound sugary, but anything less said about Zack’s attitude and hard work for the team and for the game of football would be a huge understatement.”

Schafer leads drills for the offense, while Cottone helps out with the defense.

And while the sport has to compete with others that are more prominent, Schafer says interest is growing.

“Although you have soccer, football is pretty huge and the people who play it are pretty serious about it,” he says.

He also notes that the game translates well from country to country.

“Getting hit over here doesn’t feel any better than getting hit in the U.S.,” he says. “There are definitely differences on the field.

Speedwise it might be a step slower. ... They have some good talent over here. It is exactly the same game.”

If the Steelers beat Oulu Northern Lights in Sunday’s championship game it will be the third time they have done so this season.

There is the possibility that with a win, the team could be moved up to Finland’s premier division, the Maple League, replacing the league’s worst finisher on the season.

The promotion largely depends on organizational structure and sponsorships in order to become licensed by the SAJL, the Finnish American Football League, according to Surakka.

American athletes play a big role in getting those sponsors.

“I have been involved with football in Finland from 1991, and I have seen how much damage a one bad-behaving U.S. player can create for organization (or a bad-behaving Finn),” Surakka says. “But Zack and Brian have been the best ambassadors for football a team president can hope for.”

After the game, Schafer says he will be coming back to Southern California, his family and his girlfriend.

“I don’t think there will be any adjusting back to California,” he says. “I’m pumped to have some warm weather and sunshine. Hopefully

I can get to the beach a couple times back home before the heat subsides. It will be a little weird, though, going from football everyday to nothing back home. Time to say ‘hi’ to the real world.”

Beyond that, it’s out of his hands.

“God brought me here and when I get back, God will take me to where he wants next,” Schafer says. “I think I’m going to stay close to football. It has been and will continue to be a big part of my life.”



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