American football in Bergen
A chance encounter with the unusual sport changed Jon Torstein Bakken’s life, sparked new youth sports opportunities in Norway
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
Many Norwegian Americans follow soccer in Norway, but most don’t know that American football is alive and well in both Oslo and Bergen. In Norway’s second city, the game made its way there via a high-school exchange student for whom football was a life-changing experience.
When Jon Torstein Bakken was a child, his parents, both from Bergen, decided to take a sabbatical in Florida to improve his mother’s health. In 1974 they set out to visit his father’s cousin in Fort Lauderdale, and the family spent a happy year together in the Florida sunshine.
One day, he and his dad found a Miami Dolphins helmet in a ditch alongside the road, and the 7-year-old proudly put it on for a family portrait. At the time, he had no idea what American football was about, and little did he know that the game would someday change his life.
The family returned to Bergen, but America fever had taken hold. In 1984, Jon Torstein decided he had to go back, this time as an exchange student to Forks, Wash., a small town on the Olympic Peninsula, later made famous as the setting of the Twilight saga. In those days, Forks was mainly known as the rainiest place in North America, but that wouldn’t bother the Norwegian: Bergen is, after all, a very rainy place.
When the teenager landed at Sea-Tac Airport, he was met by three host family brothers, and soon the subject of football came up during the car ride home to Forks. His new brothers couldn’t wait for him to join the high school team, but he knew he couldn’t kick a soccer ball for his life. Bakken didn’t realize that American football was something entirely different.
Bravely, he decided to give it a try. His coach and team members offered encouragement, and before long, the “unathletic” kid from Norway found out he could kick a football in Forks. Soon he was taking part in homecoming, bus rides to away games, and having the time of his life.
After his year abroad, Bakken returned home feeling inspired. He toyed with the idea of starting an American football team, and eventually he got in touch with an active group in Oslo to ask for advice. Finally, on May 12, 1987, his new team held its first practice on a gravel field with 12 players. An American who was living in Norway came to help coach, but he had “rugged edges” and unfortunately scared off many of the first players.
Bakken didn’t give up, though. His got in his car, drove down to Bergen’s fish market, took out a football, and started throwing it around. Some guys from a local motorcycle club got interested, and soon things took off. By the fall of 1987, close to 30 young adults were involved, and the Bergen Bulldogs were born.
In the beginning, the players didn’t even have helmets. After some successful fundraising, which included driving pirate taxis, they were fully equipped and competing against Oslo. But they knew they also needed some local competition, too, and soon the Bergen Flyers started up. By 1990, Bergen was playing in the Norwegian National League.
Both teams became part of the club Bergen Storm, and life was moving full-speed ahead. But in 1996, Bakken and his wife were expecting their second child, and it was time to take a break. The family moved to the northern borough of Åsane, where he started working as a teacher’s assistant.
But it wasn’t possible to give up football, and soon Bakken got some kids interested in joining an afterschool program. They practiced flag football a few times a week and founded their own sports club. The name “Seahawks” seemed appropriate because of Bakken’s relationship to Seattle, whose NFL team is the Seahawks. And besides, Seattle is a sister city to Bergen.
Today, close to 60 young adults participate in the Åsane Seahawks, and there are two youth programs with around 120 players. The Norwegian Confederation of Sports provides a yearly subsidy of NOK 30,000 (approximately $3,900). The association also raises revenue through the National Lottery System grassroots share program, in which ticket-buyers can donate 5 percent of their purchases to support a designated organization, which brings in NOK 40,000-50,000 (approximately $5,200-6,500) a year.
The Åsane Seahawks even have their own website, www.seahawks.org. Bakken live streams their games, with followers as far away as Brazil. He broadcasts in Norwegian but throws in an English word here and there for his foreign viewers. Many of the players come from immigrant families with relatives abroad, who eagerly listen in.
Recently, Bakken began working with the city’s health authorities to set up a program for larger kids to foster weight loss, physical fitness, and self-confidence. Through American football, they discover that they, too, can be athletes, be it in the position of linebacker, running back, or quarterback, and most leave the program healthier and happier. In the coach’s own words, “The clubs have always been about teamwork, addressing the key question of how to inspire and how to get inspired.”
Bergen’s girls are getting in on the game, too. Bakken’s wife organized a cheerleading squad that practices twice weekly, with an emphasis on physical fitness. The squad was soon winning awards and made it to the European championships by 2001.
American football has taken Bakken on an incredible journey. Over the years, he pursued various lines of work to support himself. He ran a sports store, worked as a car mechanic, and dabbled in computers, but his passion for sports remained constant. Once in his 30s, he realized that it was his destiny to turn his hobby into his profession. In the end, his merits and life experience got him admitted into a university program for teaching physical education and coaching, and he has never looked back.
Finally, there is a renewed connection with the United States. The coach reached out to the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association via its Facebook page, and after a few online chats, a partnership started to grow. They are working to bring players to the United States to play side by side with American youth, learn about coaching techniques, and to make new friends.
Coach Jon Torstein Bakken knows from experience about the positive power of sports and is full of optimism. He knows firsthand of the value cross-cultural exchange: in his own words, “like the Amish, it can make sense to kick your kids out into the world for a year or even a couple of weeks to figure out who they are and what they want to do. It can be life changing.”
Lori Ann Reinhall is a multilingual journalist and community activist based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association and state representative for Sister Cities International, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.
This article originally appeared in the September 7, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.