Jaren Wilcox knew nothing of Finland. Not the language, culture or cuisine. He doesn't share Finland's passion for ski jumping, ice hockey and Formula One racing, and he certainly didn't know the country is home to a professional football league.
That's football as in touchdown, field goal and zone blitz. Not football as in set piece, red card and "goaaaaaaaaaalllllllllllllllllll."
A former North Carolina Wesleyan teammate did, and thanks to his reference, Wilcox, a 2007 Tabb High graduate, recently agreed to play with the Helsinki Roosters in Finland's Maple League.
"I've been waiting for an opportunity," Wilcox said, "and I finally got it."
Wilcox's European opportunity will commence in April, when he heads to the continent for a season that runs through September. A 5-foot-11, 247-pound defensive lineman, Wilcox will be accompanied by former college teammate Antonio Harris, a running back/linebacker from Portsmouth.
Both learned of the Maple League from North Carolina Wesleyan assistant coach Kevin Burant, who moonlighted in Finland and sent coaches there highlight tapes of Wilcox and Harris.
"They liked what they saw and offered me a contract," Wilcox said.
As you might suspect, the Maple League's pay scale is radically different from the NFL's, so Wilcox's income tax won't solve the European debt crisis. But the team does provide an apartment and round-trip airfare.
"They pretty much take care of you, but (the money) is nothing to go crazy shopping over," Wilcox said. "I look at it as a chance to go (elsewhere), maybe the Canadian Football League."
Wilcox earned a business administration degree from North Carolina Wesleyan in May after an All-USA South Conference career. He led the Bishops with 7.5 sacks as a junior and senior and twice helped them reach the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Wilcox had hoped to play closer to home at Christopher Newport. But he said his own academic neglect as a high school freshman and sophomore precluded the necessary grades.
To his credit, Wilcox righted his academic course and graduated from Wesleyan in four years. Since, he's been living on the Peninsula, working out and hoping to satisfy his football cravings. Some Arena League tryouts didn't pan out, but Wilcox didn't lose faith.
"There's a little hesitation just because you're away from your family for six months," said Wilcox, whose only previous international travel was a cruise to the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. "But I'm ready for a new experience, another chapter in my life."
Wilcox will carry a heavy heart overseas. His father, Clarence, died in April at age 50 of a brain tumor.
"He made sure to make it to all my games, no matter where they were," Wilcox said.
Wilcox never dreamed his games would be in Finland. But the Maple League, or Vaahteraliiga, was founded in 1980, and the Roosters have won 14 championships, most recently in 2004.
Team officials sent Wilcox game tapes, and Wilcox said the competition is "good." He has communicated via social media with future teammates and coaches and found all fluent in English.
"Over the last few seasons in the Maple League our defensive line has been a bit too thin in terms of number of actual DL-players," Roosters coach Juha Hakala said on a European football website. "That's why we decided to recruit more power and skills. Jaren Wilcox is a perfect combination of explosive power and speed.
"I'm also counting on Jaren's skills and attitude, which he will use as a player and DL-coach to take our young and talented linemen to the next level."
"I never really thought about it," Wilcox said of a coaching career. "But you never know, I might really enjoy it."
There is one perk of the player-coach gig.
Wilcox won't have to worry about playing time.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP