At the behest of a friend during her college days in western Finland, Tytti Kuusinen decided to give American football a shot by trying out for the local professional team.
Similarly, in Birmingham, England, Ruth Matta begrudgingly agreed to a rugby teammate’s request to try out for an upstart team.
While neither Boston Renegades running back grew up dreaming of starring in American football in the United States, their athletic careers took unexpected turns in young adulthood.
Known for their complementary power and finesse running styles and as the best women’s football players from their respective countries, Kuusinen and Matta are among the half-dozen players who bring an international flair to the four-time Women’s Football Alliance reigning champion Boston Renegades (8-0), who will play for a half-decade of dominance Saturday (1 p.m., ESPN2) against the St. Louis Slam (8-0)for the championship in Canton, Ohio.
“It’s a very unique experience to move your whole life, and you can’t really understand it unless you’re doing it yourself,” Matta said. “To have other people doing the same thing as you is quite comforting.”
International players account for more than 10 percent of the Renegades’ 52-player roster, while the average WFA team might have one or two.
In addition to Kuusinen and Matta, the Renegades feature punter/quarterback Heather Marini (Australia), nose tackle Minna Lehtinen (Finland), and defensive backs Carmen Sacristan-Benjet (Mexico) and Jocelyn Forrest (Canada).
“When we won our first championship our brand expanded and folks overseas started noticing,” Renegades coach John Johnson said. “They wanted to see where they stacked up against our level.”
League-wide data on international players is not officially tracked by the WFA, CEO Jessica Dodge said, although she noted there’s traditionally a small international presence on most teams.
Overseas expansion is considered a major part of the league’s present and future. The league has a subsidiary operation, WFA International, which oversees a travel squad (Team United) that plays friendly competitions with the European Women’s Football Organization (formerly Team World) in a handful of countries. In addition, WFA International partners with foreign leagues, runs a player exchange program for American-born players to find teams abroad during the offseason, and provides international coaches with membership to the Women’s Football Coaches Alliance (WFCA).
“Just to see how they blend into their environments and become part of the bigger group has been awesome to see and understanding their cultures has been educational,” said Johnson, who traveled with Team United last year. “It’s amazing how popular the sport is and there’s a great thirst for knowledge and playing this game at a higher level across the globe.”
Some of the Renegades’ international players blazed trails here in New England. Marini, the first female to hold a Division 1 position coach role, is the quarterbacks coach at Brown University. Sacristan-Benjet was the first woman on the WPI football team.
Nicknamed “Freight Train” by public address announcer Kathy Schwartz for her power running style, the 30-year-old Kuusinen joined the Renegades last year. The 5-foot-4-inch fullback, who resides in Methuen, grew up playing soccer.
She started playing American football in the fall of 2012 as a 19-year-old, first-year student at the Seinäjoki University of Applied Sciences. A classmate informed her of a tryout for the local American football team, the Seinäjoki Crocodiles, and, on a whim, Kuusinen decided to tag along.
“I had no idea of American football,” Kuusinen said. “All I knew was that there was contact, they were wearing some kind of gear, and there was an odd-looking ball.”
Donning a helmet and shoulder pads for the first time, Kuusinen immediately connected with the game, drawn to tackling opposing players, and of course, running the ball. Finnish universities don’t traditionally sponsor sports, so the Crocodiles competed in the Maple League, the highest of three levels in the country. Kuusinen earned a spot on the country’s national team in 2015.
Upon graduation, she moved to Helsinki for work. She joined the Helsinki Wolverines, who she still plays for and coaches with during the WFA offseason. Kuusinen first imagined playing in the United States after scrimmaging Team USA in 2017.
“We lost by a lot,” Kuusinen recalled with a laugh. “I was just thinking that the game itself was such good football, and that if I could play every game against opponents like that, how much it could help me develop.”
So, after the 2019 season, Kuusinen contacted a handful of American teams, both in the WFA and the Women’s National Football Conference. She opted for the Renegades because the organization felt “the most professional,” in terms of player treatment and a sophisticated playbook, said Kuusinen, who works remotely in marketing communications for a healthcare company based in Finland. She joined the roster two years later because of the pandemic.
A Renegade since the 2019 season, the 4-11 Matta also grew up playing soccer but switched to rugby in college. A teammate pleaded with her to try out for a new American football team. She didn’t want to, but decided to appease her friend.
“As soon as I got the pads and helmet on, they gave me the ball and people couldn’t catch me,” Matta said. “I’ve just taken it from there, really.”
Matta, 34, still plays for the Birmingham Lions during the WFA offseason. A full-time athlete in the United States and mental health nurse for the eight months a year she spends in England, Matta has led the Lions to six championships. She’s also a member of Great Britain’s national team.
Matta discovered the Renegades through her own research when she decided to play football stateside. Matta narrowed her search to the East Coast, where games were “dogfights,” then chose Boston after listening to podcasts featuring the team’s players.
“You can tell a lot from the way people speak, and I felt aligned with their values,” said Matta, who lives in Taunton. “Boston is also probably the most European city in America, so I thought it would be a good match.”
While the Renegades seek their fifth straight championship, they’re made up of a talented group hailing from far beyond city limits.
“It’s a combination of countries,” Matta said, “and we’re stronger for it.”