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Pro Bowl week improves Japanese coaches’ football knowledge

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

A pair of Japanese coaches once again had the opportunity to experience football’s highest level by being a part of Pro Bowl activities last week in Hawaii. This is the fourth consecutive year that the program has been held by the NFL in conjunction with the Hawaiian Tourism Authority.

This year, Masato Itai of Kansai University and Mutsumi Takahashi of Otemon Gakuin University were granted this rare opportunity.

So what did they see and feel throughout their brief, but genuine NFL experience?

Here is a diary of last week’s activities to provide some answers.

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Tuesday (Jan. 21)

Both Itai and Takahashi arrived at around 9:30 a.m. at Honolulu International Airport and checked in at Pro Bowl headquarters. And there wasn’t much time to rest after their long journey. They had to attend meetings for coaches and players in the evening.

Itai was assigned to Team Jerry Rice, the legendary, now-retired San Francisco 49ers receiver, while Takahashi was put on Team Deion Sanders, an ex-cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys, among others.

Itai, a former NFL Europa wide receiver, said that he was a little disappointed to not be able to see the coaches from the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers because the clubs remained in the playoffs until the conference championships. But he was still excited to see the league’s other coaches.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to watch the offensive coordinator throughout,” the 43-year-old said of his plan for the days to come in the Aloha state.

Meanwhile, Takahashi, who’s been the only Japanese-born player to have played in the top division of the Arena Football League in the United States, was busy moving around in the meeting room and greeting other NFL coaches, including Chuck Pagano, head coach of the Indianapolis Colts who led Team Deion Sanders in this Pro Bowl. For this rare chance, Takahashi prepared his business cards in English.

“You won’t get an opportunity like this very often,” he said. “I’d definitely like to take advantage of it.”

Wednesday

Under this year’s new format, a draft was held and the Pro Bowl slections were officially split into two teams.

But for the Japanese coaches, it wound up being perhaps the slowest day of the week. The reason? There were no activities that the Pro Bowl coaches were required to attend (including the draft) before evening meetings for the coaches and players.

While he acknowledged the language barrier, Takahashi remained bold while talking to the NFL coaches, and it apparently paid off this day. Of course he wasn’t completely serious, but Pagano introduced Takahashi as his “assistant head coach” in front of other coaching staff during the meeting.

Itai mainly joined the quarterbacks group and was nicely treated by the unit’s coach, Ken Dorsey. Itai revealed that Dorsey shared his thoughts with him, advice that he hopes will help Newton to master throwing well-timed passes like established stars Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints) and Philip Rivers (San Diego Chargers) routinely do. The latter two veteran players were on Team Jerry Rice.

Thursday

The teams took the field for the first time in the week at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam during the morning and both Japanese coaches looked impressed by the warm and cordial welcome for the NFL All-Star players from those stationed there and their families.

“It seems a lot of them had waited for the practices since 3 a.m. in the morning,” Takahashi said excitedly. “They prepared the field with the NFL logo on it for us. It was just great to see the scenery.”

Itai, in the meantime, was surprised to see top NFL wideouts like Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals and Brandon Marshall of the Chicago Bears greedily ask Panthers wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl and Rice questions, such as how they’d be able to break tight coverages.

Friday

The squads held another morning practice at Kapolei High School on the western side of Oahu Island. While there, the Japanese coaches got to have even closer interactions with NFL coaches and players.

Pagano said that this program has provided tremendous opportunities for growth for Japan’s coaching ambassadors.

“If they didn’t have the opportunity to come over here and spend time and do this stuff and hang out with all the coaches that have been through since the program started,” Pagano said, “you’ve got no chance to grow. So I think it’s great for anybody.”

Asked what the Japanese pair would be able to absorb in the Pro Bowl, where advanced Xs and Os weren’t really expected to be showcased, Pagano replied that there were still numerous lessons they could bring back home.

“They can learn from an organizational standpoint, a little bit of meeting time, how we set up meetings and a bit of practice stuff,” he said.

Saturday

On the walk-through day, called “Ohana Day,” both Team Rice and Team Sanders took part in final preparations in front of thousands of fans before Sunday’s game at Aloha Stadium.

Though the players were so loose and joked with each other, Itai and Takahashi maintained serious looks, trying to keep focused on any details that happened on the gridiron.

Mike Shula, the Panthers offensive coordinator, took many questions from Itai after the practice wrapped up, and said that even if there was a language barrier, watching how the players and coaches do their jobs is an important lesson.

“Watch these players. This is the best of the best,” Shula, who worked for Team Rice in Hawaii, suggested. “Especially with the quarterbacks, if you are an offensive coach. And we’ve got older veteran quarterbacks (Brees, Philip Rivers and San Francisco’s Alex Smith). Watch how they interact with the other players, watch their leadership, and physically watch their accuracy, their timing, and those are all things you can just gather and learn and then relate them to your own players.”

Sunday

It was a quick week for the Japanese coaches, but they had yearned for this moment: game day. As in the previous days, the two arrived at the stadium on team buses, and got to taste the NFL experience up close and personal.

Though Aloha Stadium was hit by continuous rain for much of the game, it wound up being a more competitive, entertaining contest than in previous few years. Team Rice pulled ahead in the closing minute and grabbed a 22-21 victory over Team Sanders.

After the game, Itai and Takahashi, with satisfied manners, reflected on the special week they went through.

Itai joked that he gave his family some inconvenience by being absent from home during the period. But he was excited to be in the program and happy to see the players give a strong effort in this year’s game.

“I saw that (Saints tight end Jimmy) Graham and (Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony) Gonzalez were still studying the plays in the bus on our way to get here,” Itai said.

Itai had worn NFL uniforms twice in preseason games in Japan, in 1997 for the Kansas City Chiefs and 2000 for the Dallas Cowboys. But it’s been a while since then and being in Honolulu as a coach certainly gave him different impressions of the league.

“I’d experienced the NFL a bit as a player, but this was my first time as a coach,” Itai revealed. “There were some play calls that I didn’t understand back then. But it was great to be able to figure them out today.”

Meanwhile, Takahashi was impressed to see that the players didn’t focus on developing one particular move or play, but tried to execute the fundamentals at a high level.

With that being noted, Takahashi said that it’s possible for Japanese players, who are considered fundamentally sound athletes, to break into the NFL.

The most important thing is the ability to communicate, Takahashi insisted. In other words, the ability to boldly and without hesitation step into pro football circles, which he’d done all week.

“If you can try to communicate, put out your own thoughts and overcome the language barrier,” he said. “I think you can do it in (the NFL), especially if you’re a receiver.”

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After the conclusion of the Japanese coaching program at the Pro Bowl, both men viewed the experience as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, gaining knowledge and motivation to grow the game of football in their home country.