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Tono set to recapture past glory on gridiron

by Kaz Nagatsuka

A man once called a football “phenom” has risen once again.

More than a decade and a half ago, a collegiate quarterback named Minoru Tono was in the center of the spotlight on the gridiron. He guided the Ritsumeikan University Panthers to their first-ever Koshien Bowl national championship title as a sophomore.

With a strong arm and exceptional scrambling ability, Tono was a marquee player. Some even dubbed him “Tono, the Phenom.” In terms of talent, he’s considered one of the greatest quarterbacks in the country’s college football history.

But his glory days wouldn’t last long.

Tono injured his right shoulder, his throwing shoulder, during his senior season and dislocated the same shoulder in his first year with the Asahi Beer Challengers of the X League. After that, he was never the same and played as a backup for much of his time with the Challengers.

In the 2010 season, however, Tono made a name for himself once again and earned the starting spot back. He ended up leading the X League East Division with 653 passing yards.

Furthermore, Tono, now 36, was selected for the 45-man national squad, which takes on the South Korean national team in the 1st Asian Championship on Saturday at Kawasaki Stadium. The game is also the Asian qualifier for July’s World Championships in Austria.

“I’ve played on the collegiate national team against the Ivy League all-stars in the Ivy Bowl,” Tono said after a Tokyo news conference on Tuesday. “But it was obviously different from the World Championships. So I feel like it’s paid off that I’ve continued to play.”

Japan head coach Kiyoyuki Mori chose three quarterbacks from three different generations — Shun Sugawara, 25, of the Obic Seagulls, Tetsuo Takata, 29, of the Panasonic Electric Impulse and Tono.

But Mori said he didn’t necessarily think of the age balance, though he expects the veteran Tono to provide some stability for the team.

“One of his traits is, he stays composed no matter what kind of situation he’s in and you can expect his best performance given the circumstances. We thought that he’d be very valuable for the national team,” said Mori, also head coach of the Kajima Deers. “(But) we don’t expect him to teach young players. We expect him to be a weapon for us.”

Defensive back Tadanari Sano, one of the four co-captains along with Tono on Team Japan, said Tono’s game now is similar to what he saw back in their college days.

“I think his knack for passing is coming back, and he’s not rusty when he takes off and scrambles,” said Sano, a 33-year-old Kajima player. “He surely had some differences (from not being completely healthy), but he’s the player we saw during his college days.”

While a national team selection wasn’t realistic at all for an injury-plagued Tono during the last World Championships, which was held in Kawasaki in 2007, it was something he couldn’t put out of his mind, because Japan faced the United States in the final for the first time in that level (Japan lost 23-20 in overtime).

“Japan played evenly against America, despite the size difference,” Tono said. “That was an epoch thing and I wanted to be part of it.”

Japan and the United States are in different groups at the World Championships and only could meet in the final. But Tono certainly wants to preserve his spot on the national squad until the July extravaganza.

“I’d like to capitalize on this opportunity,” he said. “And then, hopefully, I’ll be able to show how much what I’ve done against them.”