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Machino pursues historic path to reach NFL

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Tomoya Machino is not the first Japanese player to set the lofty goal of becoming an NFL player. There have been others in the past who had been labeled as “the player closest to the NFL,” and tried to reach the game’s premier circuit.

What separates Machino from his predecessors, however, is his exceptional physique. Machino, an offensive tackle, stands 197 cm and weighs about 134 kg.

The 22-year-old performed at the XFL Showcase, a combine event for the resurrected NFL rival that will begin play next year, in St. Louis in July. He has also been invited to the two-day NFL International Combine in Cologne, Germany, that begins Saturday.

In a recent phone interview with The Japan Times, Machino said he was surprised by the pure physicality of the American participants at the XFL Summer Showcase. But the Ogaki, Gifu Prefecture, native added that he felt he could compete on par with them with his speed and technique.

“I thought I wasn’t behind others in terms of speed and (technique). In fact, I thought I could turn (my speed) into my strength,” Machino said.

Machino, who played for four years for the nationally renowned Kyoto University football team and is now serving as a coach with the Gangsters as a fifth-year student, did not originally plan to remain in the game after graduating. But he changed his mind after meeting Chris Naeole, a former NFL offensive lineman, at a university-hosted football clinic late last year.

“Chris said to me that I could play over there (in America),” Machino recalled from his conversation with Naeole, who told him about the XFL Showcase and NFL International Combine. “I’m doing what I’m doing and believing that.”

Through the NFL International Combine, which was established to give players outside North America an opportunity to develop the skills needed to earn a chance to play at the highest level, participants can earn spots in the NFL International Player Pathway program.

The International Combine began in Australia last year. Qualified players will get to train at the IMG Academy in Florida for three months, after which they will be eligible for an international player practice exemption and can sign a contract to join an NFL team’s practice squad.

Players who make a practice squad through the International Player Pathway program will not be eligible to be activated during the season.

Machino has been placed in the pool for the XFL Draft, which began on Tuesday and was set to end on Wednesday. But he remains conflicted over whether he should focus his efforts on the XFL or on becoming the first Japanese player to reach the NFL.

“Nobody has ever gotten there,” Machino said of the NFL.

“I think there’s value in shooting to become the first Japanese (to make the NFL).”

For Machino, reaching the NFL is an extremely tough challenge. Although he felt his speed matched up well against other participants at the XFL combine, the level of play in the NFL is even higher.

At the same time, international players, especially in Asia, have arguably not been afforded as many opportunities to reach the NFL as they once received. In the past, several Japanese competed in the now-defunct NFL Europa and other international combines.

Linebacker Masafumi Kawaguchi and wide receiver Noriaki Kinoshita, who both played in NFL Europa, were among the Japanese players who came closest to reaching the NFL.

The Atlanta Falcons invited Kinoshita to their preseason training camp in 2007, and he stayed with the team as an international practice squad player the following season.

Machino, who admires Dallas Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith, hopes to capitalize on this rare chance through the NFL International Player Pathway program.

“You never know when you’ll get an opportunity like this,” said Machino, who played baseball as a first baseman through high school. “This could be the final chance, so I’d like to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Shinzo Yamada, a former linebacker/defensive back for the XFL’s Memphis Maniax (during the league’s first run in 2001) who has met Machino, is excited about the player’s quest to reach the NFL.

“I’d say he doesn’t have to worry about representing the country or anything like that, but just to give everything he has,” said Yamada, the former head coach of the X League’s IBM Big Blue and current associate athletic director for the University of Tsukuba.

“At the end of the day, football is football, whether it’s the NFL or it’s the X League or whatever.”

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