Jon Baker and team

Jonathan Baker (right center) gathers with all of the team’s import players at a get together before they all leave for their home countries.

I was all set up. The living room was complete with two TVs and two laptops. My teammates and I were all ready for week one of the NFL regular season to kick off. The anticipation is a bit strange when you’re experiencing an eight hour time difference. As the clock inched closer and closer to 8:00 p.m. here in Finland, we were ready for the United States professional football league to begin (I’ve learned specify the country being in Europe for so long).

This would prove to be a fun and relaxing evening for us, as we experienced quite the week prior. A business venture took place where we made an arrangement with the Maple League playoffs, courtesy of a fourth place regular season finish. It was all good times for the Crocodiles, being the organization’s first appearance since the 2016 season.

It was precisely why I had wanted to return. Joining the team late last season after my French season had wrapped up, the hole was too great to climb out of, and the postseason was missed by one spot. I felt like if I had been with the team since the start of the season, we would have made the playoffs and fought for a championship. All the hard work had paid off, as heading into the final week of the regular season, we had wrapped up the fourth and final spot for the 2019 Maple League Playoffs.

We rested much of our roster the final week, knowing we had a big test in the semifinal round against the seven-time defending champion, Helsinki Roosters. The Roosters always seem to be the best coached, most disciplined, while bolstering the league’s best talent. We nearly snagged them early in the season at home, but came up short, 29-21. Then dropped a more Rooster-like performance on the road, 66-35. They were a top five ranked European team for a reason (certainly the best I had gone up against while playing overseas). We prepared with a ‘third time’s a charm’-like approach.

It was a chilled, cloudy day last Saturday in Helsinki. As the kickoff went high in the air, the ball would fall to the field bringing a light, steady rainfall with it. We had prepared for this and tried going to work with our running game. After all, we finished the regular season with the league’s leading rusher, Christian Powell, with more than 1,600 yards on the ground.

The Roosters quickly showed why they held the best defense in the Maple League. The run plays failed to break through like before, and our passing game failed to add a spark. The first couple of possessions quickly stalled, while the Roosters offense went to work quickly, going up 14-0.

We finally found our groove on offense late in the first quarter. Powell busted a long run to flip field position before we were faced with a fourth and nine from the Roosters 27-yard line. My receiver, Stéphane Fortes, came down with a deep throw on a post route in the end zone to break the seal, 14-7.

That would be it for the first half successes. We made it into the red zone twice more after that, but penalties and miscues would hurt our chances for more points. The second half would begin with a hill to climb, 28-7.

Our defense would set the tone in the second half, and the offense would take advantage. Holding the Roosters on multiple possessions, we finally strung a couple drives together. Our first drive of the second half ended in a red zone touchdown. This time to my receiver, Patrick Mckoy-Wilson, on a seven-yard slant route. But here came the Roosters defense, able to tighten it back up quickly, forcing some big sacks which resulted in punts.

With another tough drive, the Crocodiles forced their way into enemy territory once again. This time behind another big catch from Fortes on 4th and 10, keeping two feet inbounds along the sideline on a fade-route. A couple plays later, and I found Mckoy-Wilson on a hitch and go-route up the right sideline for another score, 35-21. But with under four minutes left to play, it was too little too late as the Roosters would run out the rest of the clock. Final, 35-21.

It was heart-breaking. Seeing my teammates with tons of emotions all over the sideline. After our final team huddle, we conversed with one another and chatted about each of our appreciation for the other. I kept smiling thinking on our huddle last year and how the mood felt so very different. Like we had so much to prove still and so much left to do. This year was oddly comforting. I knew what our team had done and felt accomplished in what we proved to the Maple League in 2019.

Helping lead the offense (this team for a full 12-game season) we finished with the 3rd scoring offense in the league. The 3rd offense in total yards. Powell led the league in rushing, while I was the least sacked quarterback in the league. We even had the league’s leading receiver in yards in Fortes. All thanks to the hardest working offensive line group I had been around since my time in Europe. Early in the year they struggled to grasp the offense and know who to block against certain defenses. After a long and extended meeting I had with them following a week five loss, it all seemed to finally ‘click’.

They were blocking the right defenders, Powell was finding running lanes again, and I was being pressured less. It’s also when our stats began to pile up. It was a proud moment as the quarterback and co-offensive coordinator. Helping lead men into the players they are capable of becoming. Just giving them direction, and seeing them do the rest of the hard work and enjoying the process of it all coming together.

It was bittersweet, it always is. Finding your mojo the way we had, you want to just keep playing and playing, knowing you will always find a way to succeed. But it all had to come to an end at some point. And last Saturday in Helsinki was that time. That final moment.

These last three seasons playing professional football overseas has been such a dream. The friendships I have made are some of the closest in my entire life, and ones that will continue until the day I pass. I called Paris, France home. I adapted a Finnish lifestyle. I played in two different European leagues. I made memories in 17 different countries. I was visited by family and friends. I played more than 30 extra football games after college. I am a professional athlete. And for all of those reasons, I am grateful.

Grateful the Lord chose me to allow these gifts to flow through and experience all of these life-altering adventures. Grateful for a set of loving parents who constantly push me to break the mold, all while supporting me with every step I take. Grateful for a family who cheers the other one on while picking the other one up. Grateful for friends who made the effort to stay connected with someone who is half a world away.

Last but not least, grateful to you, the reader. That you would follow along on this journey with me. Allowing me to document each of my adventures, my highs and my lows, and to help motivate a kid from Maryville, Missouri to travel off, continuing the sport he loves, seeing the world, and trying his absolute best to make his community proud in the process.

As you may have guessed, this will be my final writing for 2019. You might be curious as to what is next for me. With this season ending, it almost seems as if I’m back to the start. Well, if that is indeed the case, then enjoying my teammates’ company in Europe while watching football seems like a pretty great start.

All the best,

Go Crocodiles!

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