Japanese football players push to make strong impression in Europe


The NFL is still open for non-Americans, though the route has become a little different.

Eight Japanese football players, who passed a tryout in early January, left Tuesday for Barcelona to participate in the NFL’s new International Player Development Program.

The program was established after NFL Europa, which had long been considered the stepping stone to the NFL, folded after 15 years at the end of last season. The outline for the program includes three training camps in Barcelona, a pair of exhibition games against U.S. college teams in May and a game against a U.S. select squad in June.

The players that are chosen will be placed on international practice squads or receive international player exemption status.

The selected players will be granted spots on NFL teams as international practice squad players, and will be given a chance to be with a team for the entire season (although they’re not allowed to play in games except during the preseason).

For the international player exemption, each NFL club is permitted to add one foreign player to its 80-man training camp roster, and in that case the foreign player aims to make the 53-man opening-day roster competing with other American players.

Including the eight Japanese, about 60 foreign players will participate in the first round of the Barcelona training camps, which began Wednesday and conclude on Sunday. The second round is between March 24 and April 1, and the third between April 28 and May 6. There will be cuts after each round, and the number will be reduced to about 45 after camp ends.

“First off, the most important thing is to remain among the 45 men,” said safety Ryota Hori, who played in NFL Europa in the last two seasons and is one of the eight Japanese to go to Barcelona, in a telephone interview with The Japan Times. “Then we’ll play two games against NCAA teams, and I’ll need to apply myself as much as possible.”

Hori, who plays for the Onward Skylarks in the Japanese X League, said that the change in the programs isn’t going to change his approach.

Hori, who hurt his back last year and was limited in his training as a result, said conditioning-wise, the schedule helps because each training camp only lasts about a week, instead of the one-month camps held before each NFL Europa season.

“I’ve got confidence I canmake the 45 men at least,” said Hori, a Gifu Prefecture native.

Hori, the oldest player among the eight claimed this opportunity is his “last chance” to knock on the door of the NFL. Furthermore, he believes he can make a strong impression on the NFL coaches and scouts who will be present.

“Previously (in NFL Europa), I was desperate to gain a chance to play on the team,” he said. “This time’s different. I’ll need to give impressions to the scouts (of the NFL).”

Meanwhile, wide receiver Yuji Otaki thinks the change in the program is apparent. The 23-year-old, who played for the Frankfurt Galaxy last year, said the new system makes him hungrier and more motivated.

“Last year, we stayed at luxury hotels and this time I heard we’ll stay at places like youth hostels, and we won’t get paid for this,” said Otaki, a Hokkaido native who is Hori’s teammate at Onward. “So the whole thing makes me hungry for sure, and unless you go up, you don’t get anything. So in that respect it’s clear. I think it’s good.”

Last summer, wide receiver Noriaki Kinoshita was invited to the Atlanta Falcons’ preseason training camp as a free agent, and survived until final roster cut.

Watching this historical feat for Japanese football, Otaki’s initial reaction was “great,” and realized how big the gap between him and Kinoshita, both of who have the same alma mater, Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, was.

However, Otaki’s reaction gradually changed from one of admiration to one of chagrin and he restarted his training to try and reach the ultimate peak in football.

“(Wide receiver Shoei) Hasegawa-san and Kinoshita-san are (part) of my destination,” said Otaki, who played soccer until high school before switching to football in his sophomore year at Ritsumeikan.

“I’m in the same position (in terms of the position and the college), and I’ve been given so much stimulation and the feeling that I don’t want to be behind them.”

Otaki has pushed himself almost to the limit given the circumstances. While working as a normal employee during the day, he has gone to the gym four to five times a week over the last several months, because he realizes the importance of gaining the physical power needed to equally compete with American players.

Otaki said he now weighs 92 kg, up by about 3 kg since he started the hard training.

One clear element of Otaki’s football attributes is his exceptional height for a Japanese player. Otaki, who is 191 cm, said he knows he can take advantage of it in the NFL’s International Player Development Program.

“I have an edge in height and can catch high balls,” said Otaki, adding he liked to watch the New England Patriots because they used a mixture of tall and short receivers.

And as much as he’s physically ready, his mental determination is strong.

“My goal of this year is the NFL,” Otaki said. “Last year, I was like, ‘If I’m not good, OK, I can’t make it.’ But this year, I’m feeling like, ‘I must do it.’ “

The other Japanese players headed to Barcelona are: Shoei Hasegawa (WR, Matsushita Denko Impulse), Takeshi Miyake (DB, Obic Seagulls), Koki Kato (DB, Kajima Deers), Ryoma Hagiyama (WR, Obic), Takeshi Akiyama (WR, Kwansei Gakuin University) and Kenta Sato (DB, Nippon Sport Science University).