|"Like hockey, it is a contact
sport and you get to hit people." --
Kurenniemi got his first look at American football when
he watched the 2005 Super Bowl between the Philadelphia Eagles and
the New England Patriots on television. He was hooked.
Now, the UW-Stout exchange student from Tampere, Finland, is making his bid for playing time with the Blue Devil football team as a cornerback.
"I found the game so fascinating," Kurenniemi said. "There is a tactical side that is more complex than where I was playing hockey. Like hockey, it is a contact sport and you get to hit people."
Like many Finnish youngsters, Kurenniemi grew up playing hockey and he played hockey for 17 years before putting on the football pads three years ago for a hometown team.
"I started playing hockey at a young age, but I wasn't real talented at it," Kurenniemi said.
Kurenniemi played two years with the Tampere Saints, starting off as a running back in a wishbone formation. He made the switch to defense when the team moved to an I-formation and was the odd man out. Injuries on the defense allowed him to move to cornerback, a spot Kurenniemi found more to his liking.
The Saints were a member of Finland's top tier of eight teams for two seasons. But before the start of the 2011 season, injuries took their toll and the team was forced to drop a couple competition levels.
Kurenniemi wanted to play top-tier ball and went 200 miles to the hometown of his father to find it, playing for the Rajaritarit (Border Knights) from Lappeenranta.
"I wanted to keep playing at the top level," Kurenniemi said, explaining there are three levels of American football in Finland. Kurenniemi played nine games this past spring and summer for the Border Knights before coming to the United States.
A mechanical engineering student at the Tampere University of Applied Sciences, Kurenniemi was looking at coming to the United States on an exchange program. His university had a partnership with two schools – Bemidji State University and UW-Stout.
Kurenniemi had to apply and be accepted by the program and was only asked to rank the two schools in the order he preferred to attend. Stout was his first choice, and he couldn't have been happier when he was assigned to attend Stout.
"I am happy they put me here," said Kurenniemi, who arrived at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport two days before Stout's football camp began. "Everyone has been so interested in Finland and they have been so helpful and nice. I was only allowed two suitcases, so the team helped me out with some things I couldn't bring."
While Kurenniemi was interested in playing football during his stay in the States, he did not contact Stout coach Clayt Birmingham until after he had been accepted to Stout. The coach asked Kurenniemi to send some game tape.
"He contacted us and he sent some film over the internet," Birmingham said. "He was a decent player over there and we wanted to make this a good experience for him."
"I got into school first, then pursued the football," Kurenniemi said. While at Stout for just the single semester, Kurenniemi plans to take some classes in industrial management, a few physical education classes and some American history courses.
Classes have not yet started, but the learning curve for Kurenniemi has started on the football field. Fluent in English, he is just working to process all of the football information he is learning.
"I am pleased with my own progression, but I have a lot to learn," Kurenniemi said. "I have learned so much that I haven't been able to translate everything to the field.
"The pace of the game is faster here, and there is competition for every position. Here there is actually a second string, third string, fourth string. At home, everyone who wants to get in (to the game) does."
"We didn't know what we were going to get when he came in here," said co-defensive coordinator Travis Destache, who works with the defensive backs. "We were really surprised. Athletically, he has all of the tools. He has definitely moved up the depth chart and hopefully we can get him onto the field."
"I didn't expect to play," Kurenniemi said. "I am just happy to get an opportunity to practice. I have done much better than I expected."
Kurenniemi would like to translate his experience at Stout into more playing time when he returns home. Kurenniemi did not make the roster of the Finnish national team and has his sites set on making the 2014 team.
Destache said Kurenniemi has fit in very well with the team.
"He is learning tons, but our guys are learning tons from him," Destache said. "At the end of practice, during stretching, the defensive backs are all learning a Finnish word of the day."
Birmingham, who has made several trips to Europe to promote and teach American football, believes having Kurenniemi as part of the program is good for both sides.
"It is great to have him here," Birmingham said. "This is just another, different experience for our players as well."