Becoming a pilot is a dream for many boys. Little Taku Lee wasn’t the exception — that is, until he discovered another dream.
Instead of only aiming to fly airplanes, he developed another passion: the desire to play in the NFL.
Actually, Lee, a Keio University product and Obic Seagulls running back, took the first step to make his first dream come true when he joined Japan Airlines as a pilot candidate in April of 2017. Seventeen months later, however, Lee found himself taking a different path: a quest to become a professional football player, at least for now.
“It was after graduating from Keio when I really started to consider playing in the NFL,” said the 25-year-old in a recent interview with The Japan Times. A fourth-generation South Korean living in Japan, Lee became a Japanese citizen in 2014.
“I have always been having the hope to play in the U.S., and it became greater while I worked at JAL,” he admitted.
In 2007, Lee started playing football when he entered Nanzan Boy’s Junior & Senior High School in Nagoya. He had a chance to experience a homestay in Ashland, Oregon, when he was a high school student and watched people there cheer up for the University of Oregon.
That experience made him want to play for a U.S. college, but it didn’t happen.
“I had to give it up because I was not eligible,” said Lee, who was invited to the NFL’s regional combine in Seattle in 2017, a few weeks before his college graduation. “That was the first time that I strongly wished to play in the NFL. By the time I quit JAL, playing in the NFL became my ultimate dream.”
His family, of course, was against his quitting, not only because becoming a pilot was Lee’s longtime dream but also because the occupation promises a stable income for the future.
“At JAL, I had a rookie colleague who, at 30, was trying to become a pilot. Another co-worker quit another company and joined JAL because he did not want to give up his childhood dream of becoming a pilot,” Lee recalled.
“Watching them, I determined my dream of becoming a pilot can wait. But attempting to play for the NFL is something I have to do now. It was tough to persuade my family, especially my dad, but they’re supporting me now.”
Lee established himself as an elite running back by his senior season with the Keio Unicorns, winning rushing titles in the Kantoh Collegiate League in the 2015 and 2016 seasons with 971 and 975 yards, respectively. As a senior, he was called up to the Japan national team for the 2015 IFAF World Championship in the United States. He was the lone college player on the squad at that time.
While working at JAL, Lee plays for the Seagulls and was named the X League Rookie of the Year in 2017. He still belongs to the Narashino, Chiba Prefecture-based team, but his main focus has been professional football since last spring when he took part in the NFL’s The Spring League where many former elite U.S. college players participate to try to get invitations to NFL camps.
Practicing and playing with NFL prospects gives Lee the confidence that he can play at the highest level of football, he says.
“I simply felt I can play. I have speed, quickness and good body balance, which enables me to run after a tackle” commented the 181-cm, 90-kg Lee, who lists Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey as his role model. “But I still need toughness enough to play 16 regular-season games over 17 weeks in the NFL.
“I played two games in the short term at the TSL last year and got tackled. I felt more damage and fatigue (than I felt playing in Japan). You get tough hits and your body gets worn out, even at the TSL. But in the NFL, you get much harder hits in the long term,” Lee said.
“You must be more durable and strong if you want to play running back to carry the (biggest) burden in the game for 17 weeks.”
Lee did not get the call for NFL training camps last summer and eventually failed to be drafted by teams in the new XFL a few months later.
Japan’s X League reached a partnership agreement with the Canadian Football League last fall, and that opened another possibility for Lee to compete in a professional league.
A partnership between the X League and CFL includes players exchanges, which means the CFL provides opportunities for Japanese players to join the league through a global draft where the nine CFL teams select players from outside North America.
Lee passed the CFL tryout held for Japanese players on Feb. 1 in Tokyo. He’s been invited to the CFL Global Combine (March 26-28 in Toronto) along with Akio Yamagishi (Fujitsu Frontiers linebacker), Ryota Takaya (Frontiers defensive lineman), Yoshihito Ohmi (IBM BigBlue wide receiver), Tomoya Machino (Kyoto University offensive lineman) and Takeru Yamasaki (Elecom Kobe Finies kicker/punter).
“In the CFL, the running back has the significant role in pass protection and pass catch as well as running. To make the CFL, I will need to show I can block and catch,” said Lee, who is training in Los Angeles to get in shape for the Global Combine.
“I can take advantage of the wider CFL field to find the open space and run into it, which is one of my strengths.”
This spring, Lee is focusing on getting chosen in the CFL Global Draft (April 16) and making a CFL team’s roster for training camp in May.
But that doesn’t mean that he’s given up his dream of making the NFL.
“I set a three-year window to make the NFL when I quit JAL and this is the second year,” Lee said. “Ideally, I hope I play well in the CFL this season and get the call from the NFL. My focus is now on the CFL, but after that or next year, I will try to join the NFL camps.
“I will take any chances, whether it is the NFL camps, The Spring League or anything, to make my dream come true.”