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Waku leaves comfort for American dream

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Working for a big, stable company while playing as a top football player in Japan, Kenzo Waku could have had a nice, easy life if he had stayed where he was.

But that existence wasn’t for him. Instead, Waku chose to pursue his dream, leaving the status quo behind in order to achieve his ultimate goal — playing professional football at the sport’s highest level.

Waku was an employee at Nomura Securities Co., one of the largest securities firms in Japan, while playing football for the Asahi Drinks Challengers in the X League as a defensive lineman.

But Waku quit Nomura Securities in 2009 to devote himself to the sport, aiming at playing in a professional league in North America.

“Well, I was kind of scared at the beginning,” said Waku, 27, in a Skype interview earlier this month from Pittsburgh, one of the stops on his current trip to the United States. He’s been there since mid-February participating in tryouts for the Canadian Football League and an NFL Regional Combine.

“But considering what was at stake, I thought I would have bigger regrets by staying at Nomura Securities than not taking these chances. I asked myself some questions, and came to this conclusion.”

Waku, who is known for his exceptional pass-rushing ability in Japan, had actually wanted to do this a lot earlier. But there was one serious issue that kept him from crossing the Pacific — both his parents had life-threatening illnesses.

“I wanted to take tryouts, but my parents were sick and I didn’t want to leave them,” Waku said.

Eventually, his father, Etsuzo, died of cirrhosis in 2007 and his mother, Mitsuko, passed away from cancer two years later.

“At that time that I wanted to pay back my parents,” said Waku, a native of Minoo, Osaka Prefecture. “So I really felt down.”

But despite losing his parents, Waku had no reason to hesitate. He finally earned the ticket to chase his dreams.

Waku began by particpating in tryouts for Arena Football League clubs a couple of years ago, and was then hired by the Columbus Lions of the Professional Indoor Football League last year, although he ended up playing only one game due to a visa issue.

This winter, Waku tried to take a another step toward the NFL and CFL.

First he travelled to Phoenix to physically tune up for two weeks at Athletes’ Performance, a training facility famous for attracting big-name professional athletes from the NFL, MLB and NBA to work out during their offseasons.

Having finished the intense training program in Arizona, Waku then headed to Chicago for the NFL Regional Combine (he said he was the only Japanese there). Then, after a short stay in New York, he landed in Pittsburgh for a tryout with the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders.

Waku, who took most of the tryouts as a linebacker due to his 178-cm, 100-kg size, will participate in his final tryout of this trip this Saturday for the CFL’s BC Lions, the 2011 Grey Cup champions, in Los Angeles.

Waku didn’t sound too optimistic about his chances of playing in the NFL or CFL, yet he wasn’t pessimistic either.

Most importantly, he seems to be enjoying every moment as a football player.

“I’ve gotten used to this,” he laughed, when asked whether it is tough traveling around the United States to take tryouts. “Because I took about five tryouts for the Arena Football League two years ago, too.

“I’ve been able to play, enjoying what I’m doing now.”