Stardom often starts with a simple reason.
University of Hawaii product Kevin Jackson began his new gridiron career in Japan five years ago, not really expecting anything. He just wanted to play football, and the country was “the fastest way to get back onto the field.”
Jackson was a prospect at UH and was called up for Green Bay Packers’ minicamp in 2003. But after failing to make the cut, he struggled to find a place to play for almost a year.
Then, Jackson received a phone call from a Japanese friend, Kazuki Omura. Omura, who was then the offensive coordinator of the Obic Seagulls, was at UH to study coaching. Jackson met him during his senior season and they became roommates.
Omura asked Jackson if he wanted to give it a shot in Japan.
“Kaz (Omura) happened to give me a call and said, ‘You want to come to Japan to play?’ ” Jackson said of the call from Omura, who now serves as the assistant head coach for the Kwansei Gakuin University Fighters. “So I figured that Japan was the fastest way to get back onto the field.”
Jackson joined the Seagulls in 2005 and quickly came through. The defensive end was selected as the season MVP and helped Obic win the X League championship. He was the first foreigner to be named MVP.
“I didn’t expect that,” Jackson said of his early success with the Seagulls, who will take on the Panasonic Electric Works Impulse for the 2010 X League championship in the Japan X Bowl on Monday at Tokyo Dome.
“I came to Japan the year before and watched the Seagulls’ game. And they lost to a strong opponent, I think it was Onward (Skylarks; predecessor of the Sagamihara Rise).
“I remember, talking to the guys and they were like, ‘We want you to come next year. And I was like, ‘Yeah, OK.’ So what I wanted to do was win. I figured if I can give everything I could do, we could win. I didn’t expect all that (MVP and championship), but I just tried hard to win.”
Since then, Jackson has been one of the team’s main defensive weapons, and furthermore one of the best players in the league. The 29-year-old, who has been one of Obic’s vice-captains since 2009, has been on the all-X League team for six consecutive years.
Seagulls head coach Makoto Ohashi refers to Jackson as a “reliable man.” He says the American player has brought something Japanese players don’t really possess.
“(Jackson) has a mental instantaneousness,” Ohashi said. “Japanese players tend to need motivation to play hard, such as, ‘I’ll have to do my best because we’ve practiced a lot,’ or, ‘we need to win because we’ve lost to Panasonic in the last three games.’
“But this guy doesn’t need that. When there’s an enemy standing in front of him, he’ll try to beat the guy with his maximum power.”
Despite coming from the sport’s homeland, Jackson says it wasn’t necessarily easy to convert to the Japanese game. And at 193 cm, he believes it is more obvious for a defensive lineman like himself.
“Back in the States, a lot of tackles I played against would be taller than me and weighed much more than me,” he said. “(But) a lot of times, the guy in front of me is shorter than me. So it’s kind of harder. In America, naturally I’m smaller than the guy, so it’s easy for me to get a good angle.”
And while Jackson thought his speed was his big advantage in the States, he now tries to utilize his power against smaller Japanese players.
“Especially, we run a 3-4 (defense) this year. I’m playing between a tackle and tight end,” said Jackson, a former quarterback in high school. “It’s more of me beating up a tackle to make a linebacker free. So I’ve kind of shifted from speed to power.”
“But,” Jackson continued, “the next game, I’d have to focus more on speed because of the offense Panasonic runs. They spread the field and pass the ball a lot. So I’m going to get to the quarterback a little bit more.”
Although Jackson already has one X League title from his first year here, it would have a different significance for him if Obic grabs another trophy come Monday.
“My first year, I just wanted to play,” he said. “But now, I want to win for all the guys (on the Seagulls), because a lot of the guys on the team now weren’t there in 2005. They never won before.
“So I feel more of a responsibility.”