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Fate, football and faith collide in the world of local Finnish phenom
2021-08-21
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With just over a year remaining until his graduation from Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School in the mid-1970’s, the athletic future of Kari Yli-Renko seemed clear: accept a track scholarship to the NCAA.

The son of Finnish immigrants had every reason to pursue this pathway.

In grade nine, Yli-Renko would sail the discus 46.10 metres at the SDSSAA city championships, assured his place in immortality given that this heave was among the Sudbury high-school track and field records that were retired in 2003.

At just 16 years of age, the eldest of the three kids raised in the area of Long Lake (joining countless other Scandinavian countrymen in that region, as many have come to know) would claim a provincial crown in the hammer throw, later competing in front of the home crowd in the summer of ’76 at the Canadian Junior Track & Field Championships.

In his own world of outdoor activities and saunas, both clearly staples for Sudbury and area Finlanders, this was all too natural.

“We played some baseball and other things, but track was the sport that I was really after, even before coming to high school,” said Yli-Renko, who garnered even more notoriety as a member of the Sudbury Track and Field Club, with coaches Errol Gibson and Bill McKetsy guiding him along.

“My parents liked that. My dad was kind of a purist about sports; he thought football was a brute sport and track and field was a pure sport. His feelings changed when I got as scholarship,” added Yli-Renko with a laugh.

One could hardly blame Kari’s father for his predispositions. Though very gifted athletically and graced with a physical template that offered plenty of up-side potential, his son had not demonstrated any particular inclination of excellence in other sporting pursuits.

“There were some guys from Long Lake that were doing track and field and football, a couple of guys that were older than me and they got me out (in grade nine),” said Yli-Renko. “I had absolutely no clue what I was doing; I was terrible. I would run around, flailing my arms.”

“But with Mr G (coach Doug Gingrich), it wasn’t just about the plays and techniques and such; he always had great people working with him. Before all of these things happened with Randy Fournier and (University of) Cincinnati sending a scout up to Sudbury, I thought I was going on a track scholarship to Northern Michigan.”

Two things effectively changed that plan.

As Yli-Renko began his final season as a member of the Lo-Ellen Park Knights, the aforementioned Fournier was beginning his freshman season as a member of the University of Cincinnati Bearcats. All of which might not have made a lick of difference to the former had a track teammate not introduced him to Ralph Roy and the Coniston Weightlifting Club.

“It was Ralph who helped me fill out my frame – he was basically my personal strength coach,” acknowledged Yli-Renko. “I started doing the Olympic lifts, power clean and squats, clean & jerks and snatches. When the scouts came from Cincinnati, I was starting to look like a lineman instead of a tall gangly bean-pole.”

“I always appreciated Ralph’s investment in time because it helped in both football and track and field, of course.”

The word quickly began to spread.

“It was going into grade 13 that Queen’s University, Western, these kids of people started coming around, inviting me to do visits to their campuses,” said Yli-Renko. “That’s when I realized there was something there in football, maybe even more than track.”

Unfortunately, while the raw data looked good, the prioritization of track had come at the expense of playing summer football with the Sudbury Spartans – and it showed.

“When I arrived in Cincinnati, coach Zimm (Dave Zimmerman) sits me down and tells me that I hold a distinction among all of the players that he had ever recruited and signed in 25 years,” recalled Yli-Renko, anxious to find out what separated him from the crowd. “Technically, you are the worst player I ever signed, he told me.”

“But you are 6’5”, weigh 250 pounds, you’re a good athlete and a good student, so we took a chance on you.”

Some rookies might easily become beaten down with this assessment. Not Yli-Renko.

“I thought I may not be in a great place (football-wise), but he’s given me the action plan. So that’s what I did, put in the work in the weight-room and on the field, and true to his word, by my sophomore year, I was starting.”

The northern lad would repay Zimmerman’s faith in spades. In his senior year, he was an all-conference right tackle, earning Academic All-American status the previous year. Inducted into the University of Cincinnati Athletics Hall of Fame in 1993, Yli-Renko also competed in track and field while at the school in his junior and senior year.

"I liked doing track because I could get out of spring football practices and go to Florida for track meets."

Graduating in 1982, Yli-Renko was selected in the eighth round of the NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. He would play in four pre-season games, still on the roster just 24 hours before the season opener before he was eventually released.

“It was kind of a crisis of faith,” said the man who has now spent the past decade or so working with LeaderImpact groups in Ottawa, Hamilton and Brockville after spending some time with Athletes in Action and the Ottawa Christian Leadership Centre. “It kind of made me examine what was going on in my life, and really, football had been my life. I started to see the relevance of my faith to my personal and professional life.”

Yli-Renko soon realized that, to some extent, he could have it all – or at the very least, he could certainly combine faith and football.

Unable to stick with the Bengals, he would spend three seasons in the USFL, most notably with the New Jersey Generals, a team that featured Doug Flutie at QB, Herschel Walker at RB, and Donald Trump as team owner. “People always ask me questions about what he was like and, to be honest, he treated us so well as players,” stated Yli-Renko.

“Of course, he would land his helicopter in the middle of the practice field and walk around and say hi to everybody; but he knew everybody’s name. You see his public image now and he wasn’t that way with us.”

Still, with the league in peril, Yli-Renko would make his way home in 1985, suiting up with the Hamilton Tiger Cats, Calgary Stampeders, Ottawa Rough Riders and Toronto Argonauts before retiring from football in 1994.

Graduating at the top of his class in business school at Cincinnati, Yli-Renko would spend the off-season working in a variety of settings: banking, with Deloitte & Touche, etc... – a mixed career path that he did not necessarily see coming while still at Lo-Ellen.

“I enjoyed the classroom in high-school, but I enjoyed the sports and camaraderie of the teams probably a little more than school,” he admitted. “In university, I got into a business program that I really enjoyed and I just thrived.”

No surprise then that Kari Yli-Renko remains ultra grounded.

“Through faith, I understand that there are important things here, in terms of being secure in your identity, in who you are.”

Whether that identity had included football or track and field or none of the above, this local product was going to be just fine.

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