Disclaimer: Even though the writer has the vocabulary of a 12-year-old, he actually managed to interview the players in english with a competence of a 5-year-old. So, telling > spelling.
Last week wasn’t business as usual for two Falcons, as Alex Mack and Ben Garland joined the American Football Without Barriers foundation to spread the joy of American football around the globe. This year, the destination just happened to be Finland. Lucky for you readers, this time I was able to do more than just photoshop myself next to them. It was time for some investigative blogournalism.
Why are NFL players in Finland?
First lets dive in a little deeper - what is American Football Without Barriers or AFWB? AFWB is non-profit organization that works an international ambassadors for football, and aim to help disadvantaged youth around the world by promoting health and education. It was founded by Gary Barnidge, Breno Giacomini and Ahmed Awadallah. AFWB hosted their first camp in 2013 in China, and after Brazil, Turkey and Egypt, it was Finland’s turn. Finland doesn’t necessarily fall in line with the previous countries, as most of the participants in training sessions play American football on different level leagues here in Finland. But with the foundation of the sport laid down and the drills not being completely foreign, there was a chance to really teach something to these camp attendees.
The NFL players that were in Finland with AFWB were Johnson Bademosi of the Detroit Lions, Gary Barnidge and Kevin Hogan of the Cleveland Browns, Alex Mack and Ben Garland of the Atlanta Falcons, Jordan Cameron of the Miami Dolphins, Cooper Helfet of the Oakland Raiders, Barkevious Mingo of the New England Patriots, and the trio of DeAngelo Williams, Roosevelt Nix and Zach Mettenberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers
Here is the program of the week:
- Wednesday 22th: Press conference & autograph signing in Helsinki
- Friday 24th: Finland, Snow and Sauna - various outdoor activities in Lahti inluding watching the cross country skiing & ski jumping world championships
- Saturday 25th: Mens open camp (AFWB also took part in the national teams practice), outdoor activities and a dinner in Tampere
- Sunday 26th: Open camps for women and youth in Vantaa
- Monday 27th: Coaching clinic in Helsinki
Looking at this schedule, my nose told me there would be something even bigger than the charitable actions of the foundation and players to write about. I took my gear (actually the practice wasn’t full gear) with me, and headed to the open practice.
After the open practice was done and the guys were done praising my dynamic agility, I got a chance to interview Mack and Garland on their trip, last season, what is ahead, and that one thing my blogournalists 6th sense had been telling me: YEAR END RANKINGS FOR PING PONG.
Finland is cold
Alex Mack is an AFWB veteran with multiple camps on his belt but for Ben Garland, Finland was the first one. For those of you who follow these guys on social media, you can sense from the pictures that the weather in Finland this time of the year wasn’t the warmest possible, as proven by Mack’s frozen swimming gear.
You can get a good sense of what the weather was like from this picture of these guys, while they were in Lahti watching the ski-jumping world championships up on the jumping tower.
Turns out both of these guys, despite the weather, loved their stay in Finland.
But smoke saunas are hot
Talking about their trip highlights so far on Saturday, Mack mentioned going to a smoke sauna (which he described as absurdly hot) and diving straight to the Baltic Sea. Garland said that running out of a hot sauna to the frozen sea was a bucket list thing for him. And don’t get this mixed with anything you associate with saunas or steam rooms you might be more used to. This is a sauna that’s between 210 to 260 F, and running straight from there outside to 15F.
These guys are now Vikings, technically. In the Nordic sense, not in that Minnesota sense. And to anyone thinking why would someone do this to themselves – it’s called culture, look it up. Actually never mind, don’t. The US got to the moon while we were rolling in the snow in the middle of winter.
Gritting through injury
On their visit to Lahti, the AFWB players played some no-gear hockey on a frozen pond. That lead to a news paper calling Mack “the highest paid hockey player in Finland.” But at the same time, all I was thinking about was that leg. Mack brushed it off quickly, telling me it’s fine, and actually on the practice field when he was showing blocking techniques it didn’t seem to bother him at all. Instead Garland later in the evening was sporting a walking boot, to help with the torn plantar fascia he suffered during the season.
As I was doing this interview right after the open practice, I needed some extra motivation for next days camp of our own team. So knowing these guys had been around Dan Quinn, the man who talks in bumper sticker slogans, I knew they would have the right words. Garland thought for a minute, and said the best slogan this year had to be Pop the Trunk, the one we got to hear during the Super Bowl week. Mack didn’t even need to think for that long, before going with "never said it’s going be easy, but it’s going to be worth it.” Needless to say, I was jacked. And ready to
go home and heal my sore muscles be fast and physical with my main question.
The magic of ping pong
Like other brave blogournalists before me, I felt it was time to go ahead with the tough questions. Ping Pong. Garland started laughing as soon as I mentioned it. He emphasized how it has brought the players more together, by being able to play as they want and living the brotherhood instead of just being on their phones and so on. In the Falcons locker room, people were having fun together, joking around, playing ping pong and that really has brought the whole team together. With that foundation, brotherhood in place, Ben said he feels like there are great things ahead for this team. Mack said ping pong was fun, though admitted he never played too much of it - but he saw it as good way for the players to get together and relax.
That wasn’t enough for me, and I knew it wouldn’t be enough for our readers. With player X and player Y claiming to be the top dog in ping pong this season, I needed to know who really is the top dog. Ping Pong Alpha. So I took the matter to my own hands. May I proudly present to you – the year end rankings by Alex Mack and Ben Garland:
- TOP3 by Ben Garland: DJ Tialavea, Julio Jones, Patrick DiMarco
- TOP3 by Alex Mack: Julio Jones, Matt Ryan, Eric Weems
- So Julio in on both lists, I think he has to be crowned Ping Pong Champ 2016.
- Neither of the guys put themselves on the list, with Mack even saying that he would be the absolute last on the list.
- I’m going to get that shirt framed.
When players dont have time to go to Lapland, you bring Lapland to the players
After the camp portion was done, the players headed to a frozen lake to fool around with ATVs, and sleds pulled by reindeers and huskies. Things that are usually associated with Lapland. However as the players didn't have time to head 500 miles north, that experience was brought to them in Tampere. The players seemed to have a blast out there.
Meanwhile I got myself ready for 5 course dinner. Situated in Näsinneula, the restaurant is in an observation tower in Tampere where the restaurant spins around the tower slowly showing the customers a great view of the whole city. It literally is like Space Needle, but it just isn’t in a horrible city like Seattle. I got to sit with Mack and Garland, and I really got to say that I was impressed how genuine, down to earth guys they were.
The 3 hour dinner went flying past us, while eating and discussing everything from Falcons to how Alex hated going to restaurants when he was younger cause he always had to leave hungry. Luckily the food in Näsinneula was great, and portions were decent sized. One of the funnier things were Ben trying to convince the waiter that he had an allergy where he needs double sized portions.
After the dinner, the visit in Tampere was done, and AFWB headed south. After the camp was done, Mack was going to Iceland with Mingo and other AFWB players, and Garland was supposed to head to LA before heading to Buckley Air Force base in Colorado for his other job as a Captain. Though looking at Ben’s Snapchat it seems like he took the trip to Iceland with Mack.
Our team has some really great guys on and off the field. These guys came all the way here, did their thing and managed to engage with fans really well. The AFWB offers a great experience for the fans, the players and everyone involved. So if you ever get a chance to attend one of these, go for it. AND DON’T FORGET TO ASK ABOUT PING PONG.