Kuopio Steelers edge defender Semmie Radji could prove a difference maker in Finnish ‘battle of champions’

If you are an athlete from the Netherlands, chances are that at some point someone has tried to dub you the Flying Dutchman.

It’s as lazy as it comes for sports’ nicknames, overplayed and unoriginal, but in the case of Semmie Radji, it should probably be used a little more. The Kuopio Steelers outside linebacker doesn’t play a position typically associated with game-breaking speed or the high-flying acrobatics that might make the moniker roll off the tongue, but he fits the description of the legendary ghost ship perfectly.

That is to say that for Finnish offenses, Radji is the ultimate portent of doom.

Flying off the edge, Radji is the type of player who can change a game. In five contests so far this season, he’s racked up 20 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, with the last two being tops in the nation. Fans have grown accustomed to that type of production, but it hasn’t always come naturally to the defender.

Photo: Jari Turunen

Growing up in Almere, Holland, Radji was a late bloomer and was far from the most athletic member of his friend group. He was an average soccer player but then something changed when he was in his mid-teens.

“When I turned 15 or 16, I hit a growth spurt. All of a sudden, I became bigger and stronger than most of my teammates,” Radji recalls, noting he found himself suddenly losing interest in the beautiful game. “I was just looking for something different.”

Like many big-bodied Europeans, that’s when a friend suggested he try American football. The local Flevo Phantoms were more than happy to offer him an opportunity.

“I tried out and from the first practice I was like ‘oh, this is for me,’” Radji smiles. “I fell in love with the sport from the first practice and from that day on all, I thought about was football.”

The football lifestyle of physical practices and demanding gym workouts was perfect for him and his coach quickly identified Radji as a player with pro potential. Soon he was a Dutch national team player and an alternate for Team Europe, just missing out on a trip to the United States. He trained with the team in the offseason regardless and soon clubs in Germany came calling.

He joined the Lubeck Cougars of GFL 2 in 2016, then jumped up to the top league the next year with the Hildesheim Invaders. In total, Radji spent four seasons in Germany, amassing 163 tackles, 43 tackles for loss and 19 sacks during that time. Despite the success, the jump in competition challenged him mentally and physically.

“I came in thinking I was a three-tech because I was way bigger back then, I was still 265. I found out real quick that I was a defensive end,” Radji laughs. “The biggest difference at that level is definitely on the offensive and defensive lines and also the speed, knowledge, and coaching.”

He rose to the challenge but in his third season with the Invaders, suffered a devastating setback. A  fractured wrist and the tear of all the relevant ligaments cost him the entire year and Radji grew disillusioned. He contemplated retirement and life after football, but decided on a change of scenery instead. That’s when Steelers head coach Pekka Utriainen reached out.

“He told me a little about the history of the Steelers, that they’d been to the finals three times in a row and lost. They said we’ve got to bring you in to make this work now,” Radji says. “I was thinking about my own legacy basically. They were the underdog and I felt like an underdog. Coach Pekka was honest with me and very open from the jump, so we connected real quick and he just made me feel comfortable.”

That was more than enough to make him pack his bags for Finland, becoming the cornerstone of the Steelers‘ championship hopes. All he did to prove his worth was be named a Maple League All-Star and make nine tackles in the playoffs as Kuopio claimed their first ever Maple Bowl title.

Photo: Jari Turunen

That was an emotional moment for everyone in the Steelers organization, but it affected Radji on a personal level as well. To be counted on by a championship team after all he had been through was incredibly validating.

“I was one of the leaders, one of the guys that they could depend upon. It felt special that all the hard work, all the adversity I’ve been through, the multiple surgeries, was worth it,” Radji says. “What I think about is if I ever have kids, I can tell them about my story. How I never gave up working and ended up with a championship because I spoke it into existence.”

Still there are some who might question the merit of the Steelers’ 2020 Maple Bowl title in a year where the eight-time defending champion Helsinki Roosters opted to play without imports. That’s not an argument that anyone in Kuopio pays much mind to, but that talking point could be buried once and for all on Saturday when the two teams finally get a chance to go head-to-head for the first time at full strength.

Back for the chance at a repeat, Radji knows just how even this matchup is on paper.

“We’re both undefeated at the moment, so it’s the game that’s going to say who’s the best team in Finland,” he says. “They definitely deserve our respect because they’ve been the champions for a couple of years in a row, but this is a battle between champions.”

In a game like that, one play or one player could be the difference and there is no question that Radji could be the one to do it. The Roosters will have to keep tabs on him every play lest he leads to their demise and that is the role Radji was born for.

Watch the Kuopio Steelers face the Helsinki Roosters on AFI.tv, Friday, July 30 at 17:30 CET (5:30 pm, 11:30 am ET).

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.