For the majority of football players in Japan, taking the gridiron in the sport’s mother nation, the United States, is beyond their imagination.
But running back James Takada Gray has made his boyhood dream a reality.
Gray, who was born to an American father and a Japanese mother and primarily grew up in Japan, was accepted by the University of Utah Utes football team back in January.
Gray had enrolled at the school last fall, but he wasn’t able to join the team right away because of the NCAA’s academic evaluation of his high school grades took time (he said the NCAA miscalculated his high school scores).
At any rate, his long wait is now over and the 19-year-old is officially a Ute. Gray and his parents sought an U.S. university where he could play football, trying out for their football teams before he was approved by Utah last June.
Gray said that he had to be patient before he got the nod, focusing on building his body in the weight room all those days and months.
“When I told my parents that I made the team in January, they cried,” Gray told The Japan Times at the team’s football complex.
Utah isn’t just any university either. The Utes compete in the Pac-12, one of college football’s five major conferences. They’ve produced numerous NFL players, such as quarterback Alex Smith (of the Kansas City Chiefs), wide receiver Steve Smith Jr. (of the Baltimore Ravens) and offensive lineman Jordan Gross (formerly of the Carolina Panthers). Gray’s position coach is Dennis Erickson, who guided the University of Miami to a pair of national championships in 1989 and 1991.
“I heard that I’m the first Japanese player in Division I-A, so I’m a pioneer,” Gray laughed.
And for a guy who had played in Japan, where football is not a major sport, to have all the pro-level facilities he now has at his disposal is just overwhelming.
Aside from their 45,000-plus-seat Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Utes have practice fields both inside and outside. And their football facilities also have gorgeous weight rooms, training rooms, equipment rooms and meeting rooms by position.
Gray, who went to Waseda University Senior High School in Tokyo until March of last year, reflected with a bitter smile on the tiny clubroom used by his high school team (he led the Bears to the Christmas Bowl national championships in all three years).
“Considering that (my high school team), I’m extremely fortunate,” he said. “We are provided with everything, like food, outfits, cleats, pads and helmets. I feel like, ‘Can I really have them?’ But I’m really appreciative about all this.”
Gray has no time to be psyched up about just being on the team. He is a walk-on, who could be dismissed from the team, and needs to prove his potential and ability to the coaching staff.
He confessed that he is stressed about surviving the competition for places on the team.
“I’ve been looking at NCAA football as a dream stage, and I’m obviously pleased that I’m here,” Gray said. “But I can’t afford to be happy about it too much, because I must move forward and work as hard as I can in my daily training.”
Gray, who stands 174 cm and weighs 80 kg, acknowledges that he can’t square off against the bigger players at the highest collegiate level in the States with his power or speed alone. He wants to showcase his qualities to the coaches — his versatility, football IQ and tireless effort, like his NFL idol running backs LaDainian Tomlinson, a former San Diego Charger, and Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs.
And Gray, whose dream is to play in the NFL, will stay realistic. He said that he sees himself playing in some snaps as a backup over the upcoming season (the team will open the ’15 season against the University of Michigan, which is led by ex-San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, at home in September).
“I think that it’s going to be my priority to earn the respect from my teammates and coaches,” said Gray, who represented Japan in the Under-19 world championships in Texas in 2012. “My present objective is to make my teammates and coaches remember my name, showing my potential.”
Yet in the back of his mind, Gray eventually wants to excel so he can bring some attention to Japanese football.
The Utes, led by head coach Kyle Whittingham, entered their spring camp a couple of weeks ago, and Gray put on the team’s jersey and helmet. The team is scheduled to host scrimmages this Saturday and April 18, and will play the Red-White intra-squad game on April 25.
“Both the players and coaches are full of energy as our practice has kicked off,” Gray said in an excited tone. “I’ve been impressed by the fast tempo of the practices and content of it every day.”