KOBE – Many people enjoy the convenience of today’s digital era, where they rely heavily on things like email, Facebook and Line to send messages.
But before that, writing letters was a major method of connecting people.
Mailing a letter in an envelope or a card certainly takes more time than sending messages through electronic means. But sometimes, the old-fashioned way leaves a bigger impression on the emotions of those receiving it.
That might have been what happened to football coaches Chuck Mills and Ken Takeda nearly half a century ago.
Mills, in 1970 the head coach at Utah State University, was dispatched by the U.S. State Department to host football clinics in Guam and Yokosuka for American servicemen.
Mills was advised by Mike Giddings, an assistant for the San Francisco 49ers who had a connection with Japanese football, to meet Takeda if he got the chance to go to Osaka after the Yokosuka clinic.
Mills did make the trip to Osaka. He visited the Japan World Exposition. But he did not get to meet Takeda, then the head football coach for the Kwansei Gakuin University Fighters in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, because he and his wife Barbara were so exhausted due to the incredible number of visitors at the Expo.
Afterward, Mills regretted not meeting Takeda, so he picked up a pen and paper.
“I felt I should write to Ken Takeda and say ‘Mike Giddings said to see you, I just couldn’t get there,’ ” Mills, now 87, told The Japan Times at a Kobe hotel, when he was invited to attend the 70th anniversary Koshien Bowl, Japan’s collegiate national championship, last month.
Takeda was astonished to receive the letter from the American coach, who had been an assistant with the Kansas City Chiefs when the Hank Stram-led club competed in Super Bowl I, and wasted no time writing back to Mills. He told Mills that it would be a dream come true for Japan to host an American collegiate team.
“That’s how it started,” Mills said. “So I started at my end and (Takeda) started at his end.”
Takeda was a little surprised that Mills was enthusiastic about the project, which was unprecedented because of the huge gap between the U.S. and Japan in terms of football ability. Takeda, who had obtained a Ph.D from Michigan State University in counseling psychology, didn’t think his wish would be fulfilled.
There was an obstacle for Mills, Takeda and the organizers to overcome. According to Mills, the NCAA told him and Utah State not to play abroad due to the group’s bylaws.
Mills and Utah State received a stroke of luck, however. The White House and then-President Richard Nixon ordered the collegiate governing body to give the Aggies permission to play in Japan.
“One of Nixon’s closest advisors was from Utah, and he heard that we couldn’t go,” Mills recalled. “So Nixon wrote a letter to the NCAA, saying that (then National Security Advisor Henry) Kissinger had just opened up relations with China, and he thought that sports was something that would help relations and that it was in America’s best interest to your young people to interact with young people in Japan.
“So if it wasn’t for Nixon, we wouldn’t have gone. That’s a key part of the whole story.”
Nixon was later regarded as a disgraced president for his part in the Watergate scandal, but Mills joked, “For that, I like him.”
Takeda knew Nixon was a huge football fan and thought that he could help make Utah State’s trip to Asia possible. Takeda remembered that when he went to Haneda Airport to welcome the Utah State team, Mills got off the plane waving the permission letter in his hand.
Eventually, in 1971, the games took place. Utah State crushed the all-Kanto collegiate team 50-6 on Dec. 19 at National Stadium and tamed the Takeda-led all-Kansai collegiate team 45-6 at Koshien Stadium on Dec. 26.
American all-star collegiate squads had come to Japan, and Japanese collegiate teams had made trips to Hawaii to play against the University of Hawaii previously. But the 1971 games were the first time that a single U.S. collegiate team had crossed the Pacific to play in Japan.
Takeda, now a professor emeritus for Kwansei Gakuin and the Kansai University of Welfare Sciences, said that not only had his all-Kansai team played against Utah State, but it also practiced with the Aggies before their game and that the Japanese absorbed a great deal from the Americans.
Takeda said, for instance, that taping knees and ankles wasn’t practiced by players in Japanese football back then, but the Utah State athletic trainers did it for their Japanese counterparts.
“They had a big impact, because we didn’t have to go over there but they came over here,” said Takeda. “And the coaches and players coached us even though they would play against us the next day or the day after. Through that experience, we were able to feel closer to American college football.”
Mills told United Press International after the game at Koshien, “I think it would be a good idea for an American university team to come to Japan once every three years. It not only would help to stimulate interest in American football, but would also give the Japanese teams a chance to find out their improvement and their level of play.”
True to his word, Mills returned to Japan, and it didn’t even take three years to happen. He came with his Wake Forest University teams in ’73 and ’74.
The exchanges would continue afterward. In 1986, Kwansei Gakuin even flew to the U.S. and played against Southern Oregon University (then known as Southern Oregon State College), which was also led by Mills.
Meanwhile, Mills gave Japanese coaches a chance to study coaching at his programs.
Keijiro Hirose, a former Kwansei Gakuin quarterback who was on the all-Kansai team in the ’71 exhibition, was the first. He coached under Mills in ’72 at Utah State and ’73 at Wake Forest.
It had been a long-time ambition of Hirose’s to study coaching in the States, but he didn’t have a connection. But the arrival of Mills in Japan gave him one. He was in his first year as a company employee, but quit to realize his wish to learn real football on U.S. soil.
“I was inspired a lot, because everything was so different from Japanese football,” Hirose said as he looked back on his time in the States. “We would play man defense, but they played zone. Because football was deeply understood by the school, their facilities were amazingly good.
“It was a culture shock to me, and I absorbed the most advanced football in the best way I could. That was big.”
Other Kwansei Gakuin alums, such as former linebacker Tomizo Isumi, who would eventually become a Kwansei Gakuin head coach, and the school’s current head coach, Hideaki Toriuchi, followed in Hirose’s footsteps. The door was eventually opened to others who weren’t Kwansei Gakuin coaches.
Of course, without Mills, they wouldn’t have been able to do it.
Mills said that he was astonished the men from the Far East had so much football knowledge, and there was never a time the Japanese coaches could not comprehend what was going on. He added they probably learned more about organizational elements, rather than Xs and Os.
Mills stressed they weren’t just standing on the sidelines as guests, but actively contributing as part of the staff.
“The first few days, maybe the first few weeks, they were hesitant. They don’t know anybody, it’s a different language, different culture,” Mills said. “But once they were comfortable, they contributed. They could put stuff together, give us ideas. They would have organizational ideas that we hadn’t thought of. Once they got comfortable, they were free to express themselves. We gave them responsibility like every other coach, and once they knew the way, they executed.”
Akira Furukawa, the vice chairman of the Western Conference of the American Football Association Japan and a Kwansei Gakuin grad, had learned coaching at the University of Denver between 1954 and 1955 (he majored in advertisement there), long before Mills and Utah State came to Japan. No Japanese had done it before Furukawa.
Furukawa said everything started with the 1971 games and that without them, Japanese football wouldn’t have crossed paths with football in the U.S. as quickly as it did.
“It would’ve been delayed by 20 years had they not come,” said Furukawa, who helped organize the games as the managing director of the association. “In that sense, Mills-san’s arrival in Japan was an epoch-making event. Not just the guys from Kwansei Gakuin, but coaches from other schools, including Kanto, benefitted from it.”
Out of respect for the American coach’s contribution, Japanese football established the “Chuck Mills Trophy” in 1974. The accolade is the Japanese equivalent of the Heisman Trophy and is given to the best collegiate player each season in Japan.
Meanwhile, not only did the event change Japanese collegiate football and the careers of those Japanese coaches, it greatly affected Mills’ life, as well.
Mills didn’t expect to develop such strong bonds with Japan when he first arrived. The only things he knew about the country before his arrival in 1970 were “World War II and Pearl Harbor.”
But as he interacted more and more with Japanese football, Mills’ affection for the country grew.
Mills’ late wife Barbara, a former stage actress, was a Japan fanatic as well. In fact, part of her ashes are buried in Takeda’s family plot in Nishinomiya.
“She really loved Japan,” said Mills, who thought about moving to Japan when he retired as athletic director at the Coast Guard Academy in 2000. “That’s where she wanted to be.”
Mills, a Chicago native, now resides in Hawaii — between the U.S. mainland and Japan. He still visits Japan once in a while and enjoys reunions with Takeda and other Japanese friends.
It all started with the exchange of letters between Mills and Takeda and the exhibitions games in Tokyo and Osaka.
“What if I hadn’t returned the letter, and what if Chuck-san didn’t pay attention and abandoned it at the time?” Takeda asked with a smile. “None of these things would have happened.”