Playing in the NFL is the ultimate dream of every kid who plays football. The majority, however, never get to see that dream come true.
The window of opportunity to reach the NFL is even narrower if you don’t live in the United States.
But James Takada, who graduated from Tokyo’s Waseda University Senior High School (WUSHS) in March, has taken a step forward to make his longtime dream — carrying the ball as an NFL running back — come true.
Takada has opted to continue his football career at a U.S. college, University of Utah, rather than a university in Japan, because the 19-year-old thinks this option will give him a better chance of becoming an NFL player.
“I’ve been a big NFL fan since I was a kid and I always dreamed of playing in the NFL,” Takada told The Japan Times. “It was just a dream. But it became my goal to achieve it since I was 15 years old. That is when I seriously started to think about going to the United States to play football en route to advancing to the NFL.”
Takada was born in 1995 to an American father and a Japanese mother in New York, and the family soon moved to Connecticut where he began to watch NFL games.
“My father didn’t have playing experience, but he loves watching football and that affected me a lot,” Takada said. “I rooted for the Packers first because Brett Favre was my hero. I’m now a Giants fan, as are all my family members.”
It was natural that Takada wanted to play football, but unfortunately he did not have a football team near his home in Connecticut. Takada chose to play soccer instead. His family left the U.S. for Hyogo Prefecture when he was 6, then moved to Tokyo four years later. That’s when he was finally able to start playing football and he joined the Setagaya Blue Thunders, a touch football team in Tokyo.
By age 15, Takada seriously hoped to go to an American high school, but his parents did not want him living alone in the U.S. He decided to go to WUSHS not because it’s one of the best schools in Japan in terms of academics, but because its football team, the Bears, has introduced the philosophy used by U.S. colleges.
“General manager (Noboru) Hamabe had the experience of studying coaching for a year at USC and he has introduced its assignment and philosophy to the team. I decided WUSHS is the best for me,” said Takada, who gambled by taking the entrance exam for only WUSHS. Had he failed the exam, he would have had to wait at least one year before entering a high school in Japan. “But I didn’t even think of failing the exam,” he said.
The gamble paid off. He joined the running back rotation as a freshman, despite it being his first year of tackle football. In his second year, Takada was selected for the under-19 national team as the youngest player to compete in the U-19 world championship in Texas in 2012. He rushed for 33 yards on six carries with a touchdown to help Japan beat France 27-6, but broke his right ankle in a 33-24 loss to Canada in the group stage. Japan finished third among eight nations by beating Austria 7-0 in the third-place playoff.
“It was the first time that I had played foreign players bigger than me,” Takada said. “Against Canada, they had speed and power and did not allow me a lot of (positive yardage). But I never felt overwhelmed. I never felt that I couldn’t battle. Through the U-19 worlds, I got confidence to play against them.”
As a senior last season, Takada helped the Bears clinch their fourth straight national championship. As the feature back, he averaged 95.6 yards in the tournament before adding 101 yards on 12 carries in the final.
Takada started to apply for U.S. colleges last summer, but it didn’t go well.
“To get a scholarship from the major football colleges, you have to make highlight videos of yourself and send them to the schools. But because my playing time was limited in the first two years due to shared roles and injuries, I couldn’t make one before last summer, which was the deadline,” Takada said. “So I decided to go to a college as a walk-on.”
But the reaction from U.S. colleges wasn’t very encouraging, because they couldn’t judge his ability or potential because he played far away from America.
One school that showed interest was the University of Utah, which plays football in the Pac-12, one of college football’s five major conferences, and Takada passed the entrance exam.
“Utah has been an underdog in football, but they have been improving,” Takada said. “They use a balanced attack and that will fit my ability.”
Takada left for Utah earlier this month and still is not sure when he can join the Utes because of NCAA regulations. The NCAA will decide if he’s eligible to join this season by judging his football background and academic scores.
“My football career had no problem, but my academic scores in WUSHS were evaluated too low for some reason,” said Takada, who believes there may have been some miscalculation or misunderstanding because of the different format of the academic scores between two countries. That he has two nationalities could play some role in a possible misunderstanding, he thinks.
Takada has asked the NCAA to review his case again and is waiting for an answer. Before he gets his answer, he can’t practice with the Utes or even use the facilities at the school. If the NCAA does not grant him eligibility, he still can be eligible for next season if he earns enough college credits.
Besides the NCAA judgment, Takada is not concerned about proving his ability in U.S.
“I might not be the fastest or most powerful back,” Takada said. “But I’m versatile and can adjust to various situations. That is what I can show them.
“One of the things I learned here in Japan is that the hard work pays off. I want to work hard to show what I can do and grab the chance.”