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UCLA’s Gyo Shojima striving to realize NFL dream

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

All eyes were on quarterback Josh Rosen, a potential top-three pick in this month’s NFL Draft, during UCLA’s pro day on a mild, sunny day in Los Angeles last month.

Gyo Shojima might have been the most unlikely person there, but that was of no concern to the Japanese player. Regardless of what others might have thought, his just-do-what-I-have-to-do mentality never wavered.

The Tokyo-born player was one of many who showed up to showcase their potential and skills to NFL coaches, scouts and officials.

“I had a lot of fun,” Shojima told The Japan Times after the March 15 event. “I think I was able to showcase what I can do. I was preparing for six to seven weeks for this. So I’m happy I was able to show what I can do.”

Shojima added: “Overall, it was a great day and I know what I have to do in terms of improvement. So I’m going to keep working for it and the work never ends.”

The 24-year-old, who played as a backup center and on special teams the last two seasons for the Bruins, is a serious, humble man who chooses his words carefully. When he arrived at UCLA in the fall of 2015, after playing two years at Santa Monica College, he said he wanted to concentrate on the Pacific-12 Conference team, not saying too much about his post-college career.

But now, with his stint on the team having ended and his graduation coming in June, Shojima hopes to keep putting on a helmet and pads — this time on the NFL gridiron.

Shojima said he has “always had aspirations to go to the next level” after his collegiate career, although he carefully thought it over and considered “a different course in life.” (He’s majoring in geography and environmental studies and has been on the honors list in the last six quarters with a 3.577 GPA. So he would certainly have other job options outside of football).

But in the end, he decided to tackle what he describes as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“So I didn’t want to waste it and I took a shot,” said Shojima, who moved to Redondo Beach, in the Los Angeles area, when he was 9, because of his father’s business.

Shojima believes he gave a good performance at the pro day. But when it comes to the possibility of making a 53-man NFL roster, he again chose his words carefully.

“I don’t think it is for me to decide,” Shojima said. “All I can do is just work on what I can work on and prepare myself to be the best player that I can be. And if all things click and if all the pieces come together, I will continue to be optimistic.

“What I concern myself with is what I can do for myself. And I can’t do anything about being on a 53-man roster or who’s going to remain on the roster, things like that. So I’m just focused on what I can do, which is prepare for what’s to come.”

Shojima looks set to get invited to a rookie mini camp and then a preseason training camp as an undrafted rookie free agent, which some of the great NFL centers in the league of late and in the past, have done. The Japanese mentioned one of his favorite players is Shaun O’Hara, who helped the New York Giants win Super Bowl XLII as their starting center, having entered the league with the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted rookie in 2000.

The 190-cm, 130-kg Shojima insists it’s important to “get my name out there,” which includes to showing film of himself to teams.

According to a source, Shojima was asked to work out for an NFL club days after the pro day.

Jerry Neuheisel, who now serves as an offensive graduate assistant for the Bruins under new head coach Chip Kelly, recalled the time when the two played on the scout team in the 2015 season, in which the Japanese redshirted. Neuheisel said Shojima would “give unbelievable effort” and is “more athletic than people give him credit for.”

“I think he’s got a chance of at least making a team, at least a rookie minicamp and see what happens from then on,” said Neuheisel, who played one year for the Obic Seagulls of Japan’s X League in 2016 before working as an graduate assistant for the Texas A&M University football team last year. “He can find a way to be productive at a camp, they’ll find a way to keep him.”

By coming to UCLA, Shojima achieved something big for Japanese football. Though there is not a clear way to figure it out, Shojima is probably the first player of full Japanese heritage to play for an NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision program. And now he is attempting to make more history by becoming an NFL player.

But Shojima does not dwell on his own background too much, and thinks it has nothing to do with him striving to fulfil his dream of reaching the game’s peak.

“My mentality is, I’m just a football player, not a Japanese football player, or a foreign football player,” said Shojima, who has practiced Japanese martial art Shorinji Kempo and holds a black belt. “My mentality hasn’t changed. I always consider myself as just one of the football players that play, that love the sport, and want to be good at it.

“So even though the stage has changed or the level has changed, my mentality hasn’t changed per se. And I just consider myself as another football lover that wants to play at the next level and make my dream come true.”

Neuheisel, son of former UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel, said for many of the players trying out for the NFL, and not just Shojima, they have to “get a little bit lucky,” because many of them could get cut even though they are “supremely talented.”

But he added that if Shojima ends up cracking a NFL roster, it would have “the same kind of impact with the first Japanese baseball player who made it to MLB would have.”

Shojima is not a man who brags or talks big. But he said this with certainty: he believes he would not have had a chance to try out for the NFL if he had not come to UCLA.

“This would not have been possible in any way if I hadn’t come to UCLA from my junior college,” said Shojima, who played for Japan at the 2012 Under-19 World Cup. “We had Josh Rosen working out today, so almost every single team in the NFL was here to watch him. I’ve got to thank him for that. All the connections the UCLA program has with football coaches, that’s unchallenged.

“I was able to train for six to seven weeks at one of the greatest football facilities in the nation. So everything we have to consider that got me into this situation right now, the opportunity that I was able to have, I couldn’t have done this without me coming to UCLA.”