An American in Finland

Sherwood High School graduate Lukkes Gilgan has spent the past two summers playing pro football overseas
by: photo courtesy Lukkes Gilgan GILGAN ON THE GO — Lukkes Gilgan takes off with the ball during a game in Finland.

Lukkes Gilgan was a standout quarterback and defensive back during his football playing days at Sherwood High School.

After graduating from Sherwood in 2006, Gilgan wanted to continue his football career.

So he attended Willamette University in Salem and became an outstanding safety for the Bearcats.

After finishing up at Willamette, Gilgan again was looking to continue his football career.

The National Football League wasn't calling. But Gilgan loved playing football and he'd be willing to play anywhere.

Absolutely anywhere.

Even Finland.

And that's exactly what he did.

Gilgan, 23, has spent the past two summers playing football for the Jyväkylä Jaguaarit of the Finnish Maple League.

'I love football more than anything,' said Gilgan, who arrived back in the local area at the end of July. 'You do something like this because you love football. It's not the NFL, but it was such a fulfilling experience. It is such a rare opportunity to play football past the age of 21 or 22. I would absolutely recommend this to someone who wanted to continue playing football.'

Gilgan's overseas opportunity began to take form as he was finishing up his senior season at Willamette.

He knew that a couple of his former Willamette teammates had gone on to play football in Italy and that the Willamette quarterback coach had played in a Finland league.

'I told them that I wanted to continue playing football,' Gilgan said. 'I sat down with them at the end of my senior season and talked with them about their experiences.'

After that, Gilgan decided to see if football overseas would work out for him.

So he registered with the Web site, and set up his profile.

'When I set it up, I didn't know if I'd get any interest,' Gilgan said. 'But I was contacted by a couple of different teams.'

One of those teams was the Jyväkylä Jaguaarit.

'That was the best situation for me,' he said. 'We emailed a contract back and forth.'

Finnish football

Soon after, Gilgan was on his way to Finland - Jyväkylä to be exact.

'It's right in the middle of Central Finland,' Gilgan said of the town. 'It reminds me a lot of Eugene or Corvallis.'

Jyväkylä is a member of the Maple League, which is the highest division of football in Finland. There are 10 teams in the league, spread out through the country.

Each team is allowed to have three American imports. Jyväkylä's imports were Gilgan and two of his former Willamette teammates, James Perez and Jake Forshey.

The three shared an apartment in Jyväkylä.

'I was living in an apartment with two of my best friends,' Gilgan said.

And that apartment became a whirlwind of activity.

That's because the American players, with their vast football experience, were sort of looked at as player/coaches for the Finland squad.

'We used our apartment as a meeting center,' Gilgan said. 'Every window was covered by dry-erase markers. The team had two coaches and a roster of about 30 players, so it was a different world in that aspect. We were kind of running practices.'

In fact, Gilgan helped install Willamette's fly offense to the Jaguaarit attack.

And that was OK with the Finland team, which, Gilgan says, was filled with players willing to be taught.

'The Finnish guys are great,' Gilgan said. 'They just loved to learn about the game.'

Meanwhile, Gilgan loved that he was still playing football - and getting paid to do so.

'I got paid for housing, food, insurance and a monthly salary,' he said.

And he earned it on the field.

The American imports are expected to play big roles for the Finnish teams.

'Every import plays both ways,' Gilgan said.

Gilgan did that, and then some.

At various times, he played at free safety, strong safety, tailback and slot receiver. He even ended up playing one full game at quarterback. That's because the team's usual quarterback was injured and Gilgan had quarterbacking experience - from his days at Sherwood.

'I played all over the place,' he said. 'I even returned kicks. I was on the field a lot.'

A different game

Gilgan said that the quality of play in the Finnish leagues, which run from May through late August, varies.

'The best teams, without the American imports, are like solid Division III teams over here,' he said. 'The worst teams, without the American imports, would lose by about 50 to a Division III team.'

Gilgan added that while football is big in some European countries, that's not the case in Finland, though, one or two games a week were televised. But their fields aren't exactly designed exclusively for football.

'We played on a fairly nice field,' Gilgan said. 'But on our field, we had all white soccer lines and blue football lines. Before each game we had to go out and put the numbers and hash marks on the field. That was a humbling experience, but you do it because you want to play football. It was all a great experience.'

Off the field

Gilgan's interesting experiences weren't exclusive to the football field.

'I've got a million different stories,' he said with a laugh. 'They don't have tourists in Finland, so three Americans walking down the street drew a lot of attention. Usually, one of two things would happen. People would stare at us awkwardly or they would catch a glimpse of us and put their eyes down and not look up.

'But because the guys on the team are so great, we had a great time. And once we got to meet the people around the city, they were excited to talk to us.'

There also was a time when Gilgan and his two Willamette teammates had a weekend off and came up with the idea to take a trip.

'We decided to go to Lithuania,' he said. 'That was the cheapest flight we could find.'

But unfortunately for the American trio, they went to Lithuania on a national holiday.

'Not one single place was open,' Gilgan said. 'We were just walking around on empty streets. But it was still a great experience. I had never been to Europe before. You get to learn how different things are. It was all just a cool experience.'

In the 2010 season in Finland, Gilgan's Jyväkylä Jaguaarit team went 3-7. He was immediately invited back by the team for the 2011 season. Gilgan signed an eight-game over 10-week contract with the squad for the 2011 season.

The team was 4-4 on the season, and eliminated from playoff contention, when Gilgan left to come back to Oregon.

Coaching future

Now back home, Gilgan is ready to start a new job, as the outside linebackers coach at Willamette University.

'My goal is to coach college football and turn that into a fulltime job,' said Gilgan, who coached defensive backs at Quincy University, in Quincy, Ill,, in the 2010 season. 'I've kind of known that for a long time now. I've been blessed as a football player to play for great coaching staffs at Sherwood and Willamette.'

With the Willamette post, Gilgan isn't sure that he'll get the chance to play in Finland again in 2012. Even if he doesn't return, he says he had no regrets, great memories and, of course, he had the chance to keep playing football.