‘Samurai’ blazing a trail in XFL


Being a pioneer has its rewards, but as many a sports trailblazer has learned over the years, going where no one else has gone before is not all glory. In fact, it can be downright tough.

Undersized for his position at 185 cm and 98 kg, linebacker Shinzo Yamada is making the most of his opportunity as the first Japanese ever to play professional football in North America with the Memphis Maniax of the new XFL.

Yamada’s task is difficult enough on the surface, before factoring in the reality that the eyes of the entire American football community in Japan are all upon him and that what he achieves will help pave the way for those that follow in his footsteps.

“The football is the same. I got used to the terminology in a couple of weeks,” Yamada told The Japan Times in an exclusive interview via telephone from Memphis on Saturday.

“The most difficult thing to adjust to has been the size of the players, which is so much different than in Japan. It’s hard to find the running backs over those big linemen,” Yamada says with a laugh.

The Tochigi Prefecture native speaks English very well, which has made his life a lot easier in the rough and tumble world of pro football. The 27-year-old Yamada is a backup linebacker — who plays primarily on passing downs — and also sees a lot of special-teams action.

“I’m signal calling the plays (on passing downs). At first it was hard for me to pronounce some of the words and for my teammates to understand what I was saying. But I’m getting through to them now,” Yamada says with confidence.

Through five games the Maniax are 2-3 and coming off a tough 21-19 home loss to the undefeated Orlando Rage on Sunday. Yamada has recorded five tackles thus far this season.

The XFL is trying many innovative things in an effort to attract football fans during the winter and spring. One includes letting the players put whatever name they want on the back of their jersey.

After four games of wearing “Yamada” on the back of his No. 46 uniform, Shinzo decided he would take advantage of the chance to be different, so beginning with the game against Orlando, he now wears “Samurai” on his shirt.

A star for the national champion Asahi Beverage Challengers, who was MVP of the West Division of Japan’s X League in 1998 and 1999, Yamada feels right at home in Memphis.

Strange, you say? Well, not really. You see, Yamada lived in Memphis for five years when he was growing up (from fourth through eighth grade).

It was during these formative years that Yamada began playing football and dreamed of one day doing it professionally. Yamada’s father worked for Sharp Electronics in Memphis and this is where Yamada, a graduate of Kwansei Gakuin University in Osaka, started playing football in organized youth leagues.

Yamada was recommended to the Maniax by Tom Pratt, one of his former coaches at Asahi. Pratt, who was the defensive line coach for the Kansas City Chiefs last season, had been a part-time coach during the season for Asahi Beverage for a couple of years and will return to help the team again this fall.

“I have the quickness to compete here and read the plays, so I’m getting used to it,” says Yamada, who is 10 to 20 kg lighter than his counterparts at linebacker.

He minces no words when explaining what his ultimate dream is.

“My final goal is to play in the NFL. That was my goal — when I was young and living here in Memphis — to play in the NFL.”

Yamada will return to Osaka after the XFL season is over, but isn’t sure where he will go from there. He is hoping to get invited to an NFL training camp and says his football future in Japan is probably as a coach.

“I’m concerned about playing for Asahi Beverage again, because if I play, I have to play all year round. It will be tough to stay in shape. It’s going to be hard for me if I try for the NFL.

“It will be hard for me to play in Japan. I may coach, but I will definitely help the Asahi Challengers in some role. But maybe I’m not going to play this year.”

Yamada, who is making $4,500 a game, is having a very positive experience in the eight-team XFL so far.

“I’m having fun and my teammates are very kind to me. A friend of my father, who also works for Sharp, is helping me a lot here in Memphis.” Yamada says it has been tough to get acclimated to traveling through different time zones and getting used to playing in less than friendly stadiums on the road.

“I’ve never played in this type of environment, where at the home game everybody is cheering for you and at the away game nobody is,” he says.

Yamada shows off his sense of humor when asked if he has ever been to Graceland, the home of former music legend Elvis Presley, saying, “Yes I have. That’s the only thing you can see in Memphis!”

The answer to the next question — does he think Elvis is still alive — is “no.”

Yamada is looking forward to seeing his parents and girlfriend, who will make the trek from Japan to Memphis later this month to see him play for the first time in North America.

The response to his making the team in Memphis has been very significant back home. He received more than 100 e-mails on the day it was announced he had made the 38-man roster, and after trying to answer every question he got individually, he finally had to set up his own Japanese Web site which includes photos and stats.

Fans can follow Shinzo’s historic journey by logging on to: www.shinzo-net.com

Having learned football as a youth in the United States, Yamada’s pioneering role has been made easier by the fact that he understands how much the game is a part of the fabric of America.

“Football means a lot to Americans,” he says. “Japanese people don’t understand what American football means to the Americans. This is a great thing for me to play in America.”