LOS ANGELES – Tatsuaki Shojima is another polite, mild-mannered young man, just like many other Japanese guys.
But there’s one thing that sets him apart from the rest of his countrymen: Shojima is going to play football for the UCLA Bruins.
The 22-year-old offensive lineman enrolled at the world-famous American university when he was recruited by its football team last summer after he played for a couple of years at Santa Monica College. Shojima, who is nicknamed “Gyo” (pronounced Gio), didn’t get a scholarship, but is a preferred walk-on and is assured a spot on the team.
“When I was told I made it, I was ecstatic,” Shojima, a junior player, told The Japan Times late last month in Los Angeles.
“We have an exciting quarterback (Josh Rosen), and we also have big offensive linemen, top-level defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs. So we really have a solid team.”
Shojima, who redshirted last season — meaning he could practice with the team but was not eligible to play — is expected to play in the annual Spring Showcase intrasquad game at Drake Stadium on April 23.
Last year, running back James Takada Gray, who was born to a Japanese mother and an American father, joined the University of Utah Utes football team but has not played yet. There is no official record, but Shojima or Gray will probably become the first Japanese to play in an NCAA Division I contest when either player appears in a game, which could happen as early as the 2016 season.
Shojima said that he also received offers from other collegiate teams, such as Houston, Alabama Birmingham and New Mexico. Oregon also showed interest. But choosing to go to a renowned school whose football program plays in the Pac-12 Conference — one of the major conferences in American college sports — was almost a no-brainer for Shojima, who moved to South California from Japan when he was 9 years old.
“For high school players living in Los Angeles, it’s their dream to play for UCLA, and that wasn’t an exception for me,” said Shoijma, who stands at 190 cm and weighs 140 kg, and primarily plays at center.
Shojima didn’t necessarily make the decision solely based on football reasons, however. He said that the school’s high academic level also factored into it.
“At UCLA, you have a chance to have its worldwide top-level education, and I thought it’d be so beneficial for me to earn a degree here for my future,” said Shojima, who’s majoring in geography and environmental studies. “So I chose UCLA so I’d have more options for my future career.”
Shojima started playing football when he was 14 at Redondo Union High School, and played for a year for Tokyo’s Nishi High School as a senior. During his tenure in Japan, he competed in the 2012 IFAF Under-19 World Championship, in which Japan finished third.
Shojima said that his one-year experience of playing in Japan, where the game doesn’t have such a major presence, had actually helped to develop his football skills.
“Sticking to the basics, their concentration and paying attention to details . . . those are things the Japanese have an edge over, and it’s helped how I play now,” Shojima said. “So it’s absolutely helping me out that I played in Japan for a year.”
Adrian Klemm, UCLA’s associate head/offensive line coach, said that Shojima was really productive at Santa Monica and the Bruins were fortunate to land him. Klemm added that Shojima understood that he was going to play a back-up role initially, but now the player “is going to compete for a spot.”
“I love all the things he brings to the table,” said Klemm, a former offensive lineman for the NFL’s New England Patriots. “He’s tough, he’s really smart, easy but leads the group when he’s in there, playing center position.”
Jim Mora, UCLA’s head coach, said that the team calls him “Show Time,” deriving from Shojima’s family name, and added that he likes the player’s enthusiasm and energy.
“He’s got a great attitude,” said Mora, a former head coach for the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks who has guided the Bruins to four straight winning seasons since he took over the helm in 2012. “He’s always eager and always wants to step in doing his best. It’s fun to see him doing well. He’s a good kid.”
Shojima is excited about taking the field at the legendary Rose Bowl, the team’s home stadium, and playing in front of crowds which could exceed 90,000.
But Shojima is staying low-key about his upcoming UCLA career. He understands his status and still has room to move up the depth chart while managing his academic studies to be a genuine student-athlete.
Some casual fans might assume that Shojima has a chance to become the first Japanese player in the NFL. But Shojima is intent to take a one-day-at-a-time approach, focusing on the two years he has at UCLA.
“You’ve got to have good balance between your time for practice and training, and study,” said Shojima, who referred to the New York Giants as his favorite team. “And your sleeping time is important as it takes care of your body. Unless you do it, I don’t think you can really be a top-level player, so I’ve tried to not neglect any of that.”
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