The Åsane Seahawks American football team in Bergen, Norway, was born 20 years ago, in March 1998. Today, its head coach is a 28-year-old Seattle native. This is the story of the Seahawks football team you probably haven't heard of.
A Seattle native is the head coach of the Seahawks.
No, not the Seattle Seahawks. The other Seahawks.
The Åsane Seahawks American football team in Bergen, Norway.
In 1985, a 16-year-old Norway native named Jon Torstein Bakken spent a year as an exchange student at Forks High School, roughly 140 miles west of Seattle. While he was there, his host brothers convinced Bakken — who “couldn’t kick a soccer ball if my life depended on it,” he told The Times this week — to try out a different sport.
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That’s how, during his only school year in the United States, Bakken doubled as a placekicker and admittedly ineffective defensive end.
It’s why he returned to Norway the following spring with an unexpected mission.
“In 1985, he saw the (Seattle) Seahawks and he also saw the American football culture and he loved that,” Sam Strickland, the Åsane Seahawks’ head coach, told The Seattle Times in a video interview last week. “The whole town showed up. It was what you do on a Friday night: go to a high school football game.
“That’s what he fell in love with, and he wanted to build that up in Bergen.”
For those understandably unfamiliar, Bergen is the second-largest city in Norway, known as “The City of Seven Mountains.” Nestled on Norway’s western coast, it boasts roughly 280,000 residents. It’s broken up into a number of boroughs, with Åsane being one of them.
And, randomly enough, Bergen and Seattle are also sister cities. In 1970, to celebrate Bergen’s 900th anniversary, the city of Seattle sent a totem pole, which currently resides in Nordness Park. There’s also a mini-park in Ballard that was dedicated by King Olav of Norway.
It should come as no surprise, then, that in March 1998, Bakken chose to name his football team the Seahawks.
Twenty years later, the Åsane Seahawks still exist. Their head coach is Sam Strickland, a 28-year-old Seattle native who played offensive line at Nathan Hale High School and fell in love with the Seattle Seahawks during their run to the Super Bowl in 2006. He met his wife, an international student from Norway, while in college at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif.
They eventually moved back to Norway, and Strickland managed to find a little piece of home.
“The Åsane Seahawks found me, because Americans kind of stick out like sore thumbs here,” he said with a laugh. “I’d shown an interest in the past. I went to one of their games previously. So the president knew who I was and found me on Facebook and said, ‘Hey, can you come help out?’”
Strickland started as a strength and conditioning and offensive line coach but quickly climbed the ladder. Last year, in his first season on the Seahawks’ staff, the team finished 4-4 and fell to the highly favored Oslo Vikings in Norway’s national championship game.
But while the Åsane Seahawks share a nearly identical logo with their Seattle counterparts, that’s where most of the similarities end.
“It’s an interesting thing, because coming from the United States, where you probably have hundreds of high school teams in the state of Washington, we have three levels (in the entire country),” Strickland explained. “We have Division II, Division I and Elite Series. Last year we were in Elite Series and there were four total teams.”
Both the Elite Series and Division I play 11-man football, while Division II operates with just nine players on each side. To prevent any competitive advantages, each team is allowed one import from the United States.
Practice typically starts in the middle of February. (“If we can scrape the fields clean from snow, we’ll practice,” Strickland adds.) The preseason kicks off in March, with the regular season running from April through June. At the end of the regular season, the two top teams from Division I are added to a six-team playoff with the four Elite Series teams.
Year after year, they make it work.
And in a country (and continent) dominated by soccer, that isn’t always easy.
“We tried to host the Super Bowl at one of the local bars,” Strickland said. “We walked around Bergen handing out flyers and getting people excited. Maybe we had one guy in a Brady jersey show up.”
And yet, the Seahawks continue to fill their roster. In all, they have roughly 100 players across four different teams — under 13, under 15, Division II and Elite Series.
“There’s a pretty big niche to fill with bigger kids that need an athletic outlet,” Strickland said. “There isn’t a sports organization run through schools. It’s organized through neighborhoods. So if you want to be a competitive soccer player, if you are not one of the best in your neighborhood by 12 or 13 years old, you might as well quit sports.
“There’s soccer, and that’s about it. Maybe handball. Maybe hockey. You can’t really find something for big guys.”
That’s where the Åsane Seahawks come in. The youngest player on Strickland’s Elite Series team is a 16-year-old center. And the oldest player? Well, that’s harder to answer.
“It’s a mystery what his actual age is,” Strickland said of the Seahawks’ veteran offensive lineman, who he guesses is in his mid- to late-30s. “I never asked him how old he is. Or maybe I asked him once and he laughed at me.”
Still, with limited resources and an unknown age range, Strickland and Co. were able to cobble together a competitive team. Last year, in their top finish in team history, the Seahawks won all four of their home games and lost all four of their road games.
This was not an accident.
“It’s difficult, because I think if we were all put together in the same geographic location — if we were an hour drive away from each other — this would be a very competitive league,” Strickland said. “The lady who runs the whole league said the MVP (last season) was the mountains, because we had a nine-hour drive to away games, because we live on the west coast.
“All the other elite teams live on the eastern portion of the country, which is a very interesting dynamic. All these Oslo-area teams are very competitive amongst each other. They do very well. They come over here and we blow them out. We put up three, four, five more touchdowns than they do. They’re all tired. They’ve been on a bus for nine hours. They’re stiff and sore. Or they fly over that day or the night before. It’s not ideal.
“Same thing with us. We travel seven to nine hours to get there … and we get blown out. We’re dehydrated. We’re stiff. We should take a nap but we have to play a game. So there are long days. The mountains are the MVPs.”
Granted, the Åsane Seahawks aren’t the only team that’s had to deal with significant travel.
Last weekend, in the franchise’s first game in Europe, the Seattle Seahawks trounced the Oakland Raiders 27-3 at London’s Wembley Stadium. Bakken attended, calling his first live Seattle Seahawks game “the cherry on top of one of the great sundaes of my life.”
The other Seahawks are not as talented as their namesake in the NFL. Strickland estimated that his team’s understanding of the game most accurately compares with the American high school level. They don’t have fancy uniform combinations, and they’ve never played in front of more than 400 fans. They can’t afford to charter a plane to road games on the other end of the country, and they’ve never been on television (with the exception of last season’s loss in the championship game).
Still, if they can scrape the fields clean from snow, the Åsane Seahawks will keep practicing and playing. Strickland will keep holding onto a little piece of home.
“I always say it’s been a dream of mine to coach the Seahawks,” Strickland said, “and I’ll leave it at that.”