Japanese players chase NFL dream


Staff Writer

Former Dallas Cowboys scout Larry Dixon believes that as the world is getting smaller through globalization, there will one day be a Japanese player in the National Football League — though he can’t guarantee when.

“It’s just a matter of time until there is a Japanese athlete who is good enough to play (in the NFL),” Dixon said after the NFL Japan Combine held at the practice field of X League club Tokyo Gas Creators in Tokyo on Sunday.

Dixon and former New Orleans Saints and Kansas Chiefs scout Cornell Gowdy were invited to the combine to assess the participating locals, who mainly consisted of X League and college players. The players went through drills such as the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and bench press skill tests, just as prospective NFL players do back in the United States.

“I think I showed everything I had,” Waseda University running back Tomokazu Sueyoshi said. “Ever since I started watching the NFL when I was in high school, I’ve dreamed of playing there one day. And as I played for Japan in last year’s World Cup (in Austria), my desire to play at a higher level has become stronger.”

Dixon and Gowdy will pick up to five players who could advance to the NFL Regional Combine held late February in New Jersey. The top qualifiers then will proceed to the NFL Super Regional Combine (formerly known as the Elite National Combine) in late March at Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions.

Last year, former Waseda quarterback Tomotsuna Inoue, wide receiver Takeshi Akiyama and kicker Hidetetsu Nishimura of the X League’s Fujitsu Frontiers made it to the Super Regional Combine.

NFL Japan will announce those who passed the Tokyo stage on Tuesday.

At the Super Regional Combine, many NFL scouts are expected to assemble and players will be able to showcase themselves and possibly be invited to a team’s training camp.

“I thought the players paid attention to the details,” said Gowdy, who played for the Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers as a defensive back, of the Japanese players’ traits. “They take coaching well. They have a lot of passion and energy.”

Gowdy said that his eyes were particularly caught by the kickers, including a surprise participant and former goalkeeper of Jubilo Iwata of the J. League, Hiromasa Yamamoto (he now plays for industrial league side S.C. Sagamihara).

“I thought that the kickers were impressive,” Gowdy said. “We had several guys that showed their leg strength and accuracy.”

That said, Gowdy thinks if there is a chance for a Japanese athlete to crack the NFL roster, it would start with that position.

“I think as a kicker you don’t have as much transition from the aspect of learning the game,” he said. “You don’t worry about the schemes, you don’t worry about the training that most of the other athletes have to go through.”

Adding to Gowdy’s comments, Dixon said that the kicker position, especially for NCAA teams, has traditionally been filled with foreign students, especially from European countries and Australia, which may be an advantage for Japanese players as well.

“It’s probably the easiest to adapt (for a player from outside the United States),” said Dixon, who referred to the running back and wide receiver positions as also relatively easier because they require natural athletic ability more than anything.

Although they never said there would be no chance for a Japanese player to enter the NFL, they cautioned that making a 53-man NFL roster is extremely hard to do — harder than people outside the U.S. might imagine.

“I think the rest of the world doesn’t realize, in the United States there are millions and millions of kids playing American football,” said Dixon, who is now in charge of player development in the NFL. “But there are only 53 to get on each team in the NFL.

“Where I live in Texas, football is . . . God. It’s everything. A high school may have 300, 400 kids on the team, and out of 300, 400 kids maybe three will get to play at college. And the rest of them are done.

“I mean, it’s not much different than here (to make the league from Japan). It’s a very competitive, specialized sport, and only a few small percentage get to play at that level. The rest of the world doesn’t realize it’s hard to play there for Americans, too.”