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NFL Japan raising level of play

High school students tackle football's fundamentals By

by Kaz Nagatsuka

A quarterback throws the ball, but it doesn’t necessarily have a beautiful spiral and barely reaches a wide receiver who is 25 yards away.

News photo
First-year High School players work on their tackling practice as guest coaches and other players look on
during the High School Players Development clinic at Todoroki baseball field in Kawasaki on Jan. 14.
KAZ NAGATSUKA PHOTOS

Elsewhere, two linemen try to push and shove each other with pads to pads and helmets to helmets. But neither man could overpower the other.

If these were scenes from a professional or college football team’s practice, they wouldn’t be acceptable. But these kids are allowed to come to the field again, because they’re only studying “Football 101″ and need to enjoy the game more than anything now.

That’s the main concept of the program.

NFL Japan held a football clinic for first-year high school players, primarily from Kansai and Kanto regions, in December and January for the third straight year.

The clinic, called the High School Player Development (H.S.P.D.), which focused on fundamentals, was held at Todoroki baseball field in Kawasaki on Jan. 13-14, and drew a total number of 169 students (70 on the first day and 99 the next day) from 25 schools in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, up by 28 from last year in Kanto.

The same program was held at the campus of Kansai University in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, on Dec. 28-29.

News photoKentaro Namiki, a quarterback of the X League’s Asahi Beer Silver Star, explains the importance of
leadership to the high school players during the clinic.

“There were so many things that I didn’t know about, so I think it became a great opportunity for me to come out here today,” Shota Kamisaku, a first-year linebacker at Komaba Gakuen High School of Tokyo, said with a grin. “Now I’d like to get a regular spot, capitalizing on today’s experiences.”

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The program’s curriculum, originally organized by the NFL and brought to Japan in 2004, was designed for Japanese football players. Its primary objective is to raise the overall competition level.

The main focus of the program is to teach football basics to the high school players, most of whom have just started the sport, as well as helping them learn the importance of leadership, sportsmanship, team chemistry and gaining distinction as scholars and athletes.

“Throughout the day, we basically kept working on fundamentals,” said Ayumu Kohara, a defensive back at Komaba. “(But) the tackling practice was something different from the one we do back at the school.

“I think we were taught by great coaches today.”

Sure, no doubt, the guest coaches of the H.S.P.D. were top-flight Japanese players and coaches, mostly from the X League, such as Obic Seagulls defensive back Kohei Satomi, Asahi Beer Silver Star quarterback Kentaro Namiki, Fujitsu Frontiers head coach Satoshi Fujita and Onward Skylarks offensive coach Nachi Abe.

Satomi, Namiki, Abe are all former NFL Europa (formerly known as NFL Europe) players.

“The overall level is growing,” said Jiro Arai, Fan & Football Development Senior Manager of NFL Japan. “This is only the third year for us to have this program, though the athletic abilities of the players are getting better year in and year out.”

Arai knows the reason why.

“Football used to have a bit of an image, like a sport for those who were left out of baseball and soccer,” Arai said. “But if you look around the guys today, they are such athletes that can play in any sports.”

Arai encouraged the clinic’s guest coaches to pass on their enthusiasm for the sport, helping the students gain a lifelong appreciation of the sport.

The coaches understood Arai’s words. That much was evident at the clinics. They rarely scolded the players and kept praising them every time they made nice plays.

“We just want to make them understand that football is a fun sport to play,” Arai said.

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There weren’t only Japanese coaches on the field.

Robert Hunt, an International Player Development scout and a former NFL player, told the youngsters that the most important thing is to enjoy football — no matter where they play it.

Hunt, a former offensive lineman for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who was a seventh-round draft pick in 1999, moved to Japan in September. He travels throughout the country to watch a slew of high school and college games.

He offered this advice to the students at the clinic:

“No matter what your position is, you practice what you learned today in everyday life. If you are a defensive back, you can practice your backpedal in a hallway of your school.”

In the offseason, Hunt coaches for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europa.

It might have been only the first steps for most of the H.S.P.D.’s participants, but their learning experience through the days helped boost their motivation on the gridiron.

“We want to win the national championship, and eventually, I want to be the best defensive back in Japan,” Kohara said in an excited tone.

Japan has yet to send a player on to the NFL, as it has to the MLB, NBA and NHL. But this persistent effort may lead to a day when we see a Japanese player catching the ball or tackling a running back on the NFL grass — not an exaggeration, Hunt said, believing the day will come.

The reason?

“Because the sport is developing through programs like the H.S.P.D. and more people get involved, playing in the X League and other championships,” Hunt said. “Baseball has been here so long, and you realize how many baseball players are playing in the major leagues. Hopefully, football meets that point.”