Despite football’s current issues — The National Anthem, Colin Kaepernick, and CTE — it’s still a staple of American culture. According to a recent poll at gallup.com, “Football remains by far America’s favorite sport to watch.”
Football is not the most popular sport in Sweden, but lately, it’s amassed a small, cult-like following. These days Scandinavia boasts youth leagues, high school leagues, professional leagues, and even a women’s league. That’s right. Women play football in Sweden. And no, I’m not talking about soccer. I’m talking about shoulder pads, helmets, and pigskins—American football.
Take, for example, Joey Stein, a native Californian, one-time Arkansas football coach, and European league veteran. He’d just come off stints in Austria and Barcelona before he and I met up in Karlstad, Sweden, where we both played for the Crusaders in 2011.
“Some of the players I met had been playing together for 20 years or more, which is unheard of by American standards,” Stein said, remembering the different teammates he played with across Europe. “And most native players pay dues just to be part of the team.”
In other words, the European leagues are more like football “clubs.” And in return for their dues, players are afforded a chance to score touchdowns, make tackles, and of course weather all the risks that come along with the game.
Tracey Gere, an expatriate hailing from Washington who’s played and coached football in Sweden for nearly twenty years, knows those risks well. Tracey was the head coach of the Crusaders when Joey and I played there. The funny thing about Tracey was, he didn’t just coach, he also played in the games.
“The first time, I didn’t even tell my wife I was going to play. I just put myself in, and then I got hit. Hard. The field was tilting back and forth,” Gere said. “It felt like one of those party games where you spin around a bat 10 times then take off running.”
“On the bus ride home,” Gere continued, “I was having a conversation with someone when everything just went blurry. Their voices sounded just like the teacher in the old Peanuts cartoons.”
Tracey’s concussion went undiagnosed, he eventually recovered, and then he coached—and played—in every game for the rest of that season. Despite valiant acts of perseverance like Tracey Gere’s, much of football’s allure is lost on Scandinavia.
Fredrik Eklund, one of my go-to receivers on the 2011 Crusaders’ team, explained the average Swedish perspective on football like this: “A local might wear a hat with a football team on it over here, but they are just doing it because they like the way it looks.”
In other words, college or NFL fan gear is more like a brand name to the average soccer-and-hockey-loving Swede. But to guys like Eklund, football means so much more.
“I’ll never forget my first practice,” Eklund said, recalling a rain-soaked afternoon when he was first introduced to the gridiron. “All these funny words I didn’t know. It was like being new at work. It was so exciting. I loved it.”
There was another receiver named Fredrik on the Crusaders that year. Fredrik Isaksson. Isaksson suffered a great number of injuries throughout his career: dislocated knee cap, torn ACL, torn meniscus, broken collarbone, broken fingers, and three documented concussions.
When I asked Isaksson (now 29 and a legal advisor working in Östersunds) if it was all worth it, especially considering Sweden’s general lack of interest in football, the numerous medical bills he had to pay, along with the money he spent on equipment and his dues to the Crusaders team—he summed it up about as well as anyone I’ve interviewed for this series:
“It’s a weird thing,” Isaksson said, “to sacrifice your body and money and time for something that in the end doesn’t really mean anything, but I guess, in a way, it means almost everything.”
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Photo provided by the author.