Oliver Vasanoja grew up wanting to play football.
It’s a goal that each member of the UW-La Crosse football team at one point set for themselves and are in the process of achieving as an Eagle. But Vasanoja’s path to reach Veterans Memorial Field was a long one — a 4,186-mile journey from his hometown of Vaasa, Finland, to be exact.
Vasanoja and his brother, Walter, also a UW-L football player, made the trek at separate points of 2016, but found at their destination of La Crosse the chance to pursue an education and the chance to play football in the United States — a higher level than their club program in Vaasa.
Oliver quickly became a leader among the offensive linemen, and his authentic, magnetic personality has made him a team favorite. Vasanoja has displayed a level of maturity that inspires confidence among his coaches.
So how does a Finnish military veteran become a 22-year-old freshman football player half a world away from home?
Well, it started with an email.
‘LET’S SEE WHAT’S GOING ON WITH THIS GUY’
As the recruiting director for the UW-L football program, Andrew McGlenn has spent countless hours poring over stacks of DVDs and screening digitally-submitted highlight tapes from hopeful recruits.
When Vasanoja’s recruitment materials came across his desk more than a year ago, even an experienced evaluator like McGlenn — an offensive line coach who played tackle for the Eagles and graduated in 2005 — was challenged to draw any conclusions from what he saw on his screen.
“I had no frame of reference for that tape,” McGlenn said last week. “They’re playing on soccer fields, they don’t have hash marks on the field, I just have no idea.
“But the tape was so dominant, I had to look into it.”
While McGlenn couldn’t ascertain much about the level of competition, but what he could see was that Vasanoja was running over people and finishing blocks — football guy lingo for putting opponents into the ground.
“Oliver was just destroying guys on film. The tape alone made me think, ‘Let’s see what’s going on with this guy,’” McGlenn said. “The more I got to find out about him, I was really intrigued.”
Vasanoja was exposed to football at an early age. In Finland, sports are run through clubs as opposed to through schools. Vasanoja’s father, Raine, played linebacker for clubs in Sweden and Finland, and coached the club his sons played for.
“We grew up on the sideline,” Vasanoja said. “Through football, (Walter and I) got interested in playing in the United States, because the level (of play) is higher here. We wanted to challenge ourselves and come here and play.”
Mike Schmidt, UW-L’s second-year coach and a 2008 graduate, had experience at his previous stops recruiting players from other countries. But a majority of those recruits were military children that had either been born in the U.S. or had lived stateside before.
Vasanoja being a international player is a unique experience, Schmidt said.
“This is a guy who’s truly a Finn, and getting to know their style of football has been exciting,” he said.
His highlights — mostly run blocking, he said — showed Vasanoja had the raw physical tools to play in the U.S., but he had commitments that forced him to put his football dreams on pause.
All Finnish men must attend a military call-up the year they turn 18, and barring any mental/physical limitations or an accepted postponement, they will be conscripted into service. Conscription can be as short as six months or last a year.
“It’s just something you know when you’re in high school: You’ve got to get your military service done,” Vasanoja said. “That’s something I prepared for and something I enjoyed. After that, I started looking forward to college and preparing my body for college football.”
After his year in the military, Vasanoja spent a year working in a hardware store, working on finding a place to play college football. He was ready to make the trek as soon as he heard back from McGlenn. Their correspondence made coming to UW-L less of a “what if?” for Vasanoja.
“It’s been my dream (to play college football), but that dream was made a reality when coach McGlenn contacted me back,” he said. “It’s been a dream, but it took some work to make it happen.”
A CONSCIOUS DECISION
Vasanoja joined the Eagles in August, and almost immediately took on a leadership role. His age essentially made him an older-brother figure to his peers, but his personality is what draws people in.
“I don’t know if there’s a kid who is enjoying his college experience more than Oliver Vasanoja,” McGlenn said. “He’s always smiling, he’s joyful, and it’s so genuine, that’s why guys like him so much.”
While he was learning the ropes of the Eagles’ offense and adjusting to the speed of football in the U.S. — what Vasanoja says is the biggest difference in the American game — he was quick to take on a vocal leadership role.
That’s intentional, he said.
“I definitely strive to be a leader every day. The military experience has really helped, but it’s a conscious decision I make to be a leader. I enjoy being in that position,” Vasanoja said. “Especially because we graduated five seniors from the O-line last year, that’s something we need.”
McGlenn agrees. Seniors-to-be Dylan Bauer and Spencer Sousa are valued members of the offensive line unit, but they’re less inclined to speak up in the group.
“Our two seniors are very quiet, private people,” McGlenn said. “So to be able to have a guy who’s comfortable with being vocal is important, especially when it’s a guy who has a great a feel for it as Oliver does.
“You can be loud, but after a while it becomes ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf.’ He understands situations when to be loud or lay back and all that. I don’t have to coach him on that.”
McGlenn also said Vasanoja has a tactfulness and skill in speaking to the group that are remnants of his military training.
At 6-feet tall with a barrel chest, Vasanoja has a nearly prototypical body type for an interior lineman.
During spring practices, he’s getting reps at center, but has the versatility to play center or guard. McGlenn said he believes Vasanoja has the intellect needed to play center and make the line calls, and the physicality to be a disruptive guard on double-team blocks.
As happy-go-lucky as Vasanoja can be away from the field, he’s different between the lines.
“When it’s go time, it’s go time. I feel like I maybe unconsciously flip that switch when I need to,” he said.
McGlenn has seen Vasanoja continue learning UW-L’s systems, so now the goal becomes refining the physical aspects to make him a top-notch lineman.
“Oliver has an intense desire to be the best football player he can be, and he knows the way to do that is to finish plays and grind it out. His mentality is just that way,” McGlenn said. “His intensity is consistent and genuine, which allows him to be the player that he is.”
The Eagles will have a new starting offensive line this season, and Vasanoja is high on the coaches’ list of players to fill one of those slots.
Said Schmidt: “Nobody’s going to outwork him, nobody’s going to put in more time than that kid and there’s nobody that has a better mentality for playing that position than him.”