Jimmy Laughrea, the new quarterback for the Obic Seagulls, opted to remain in Japan instead of returning to his hometown of Rocklin, California, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He had a good reason for the decision: His girlfriend, who is Japanese, gave birth to their daughter in Japan in February.
"In the previous years, I had stayed at home until mid-March," Laughrea told The Japan Times at Vita Base, a gym in Narashino, Chiba Prefecture, affiliated with the Seagulls. "But this year, we came back in January, obviously because we had to come back a month before giving birth to our baby.
"It's a really unique situation now with the COVID-19 thing where everybody's at home. But other than not being with my family, this has been a pretty amazing time being able to spend so much time with my daughter and my girlfriend.
"Right now, I don't get to go home, which is unfortunate. But other than that, this is pretty much the point."
About a month after his daughter, Jordyn, was born, both Japan and the United States imposed travel restrictions because of the virus. That's prevented Laughrea and his girlfriend, Rika, from visiting California with their daughter.
"We were all frustrated because we were supposed to be back with the baby. But (his family members in California) understand it's obviously the coronavirus situation and it is a lot stricter in California," Laughrea said. "My parents weren't even allowed to go to see their neighbors. My brother lives in Southern California, my parents live in Northern California, and they haven't seen each other at all during this whole time as well.’’
The family has had to stay connected through phone calls and video chats.
"At least the time schedule or the time difference is a little challenging. So we were calling and we're waking up in the morning. My parents are getting ready for bed. So it's a little different,’’ Laughrea said. "But they get to see her a lot and they aren't doing much in the States. I'm just glad that they get to see the baby and interact with her through FaceTime. Hopefully they can come out here, but we will see what happens the rest of the year.’’
Laughrea signed with the Seagulls in February after two seasons with the Nojima Sagamihara Rise, where he completed 178 of 337 passes for 2,511 yards and 18 touchdowns, while throwing 11 interceptions, in 12 games over two years.
The University of California, Davis product already knows what playing in Japan is like, but hasn't had much time to introduce himself to his new teammates. The team suspended practices, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, just two weeks after he signed.
The pandemic also caused the X League to cancel the spring season, which teams use to prepare for the main season in the fall. The start of the fall season has been delayed about two months to October, though a start date has yet to be announced.
"We had a couple team meetings. I'd introduce myself to the team. And then the state of emergency came in and we weren't allowed to do anything. So it kind of went from getting started to nothing,’’ said Laughrea, who has been working out alone with equipment in his new house in Narashino, the hometown of the Seagulls.
Before coming to Japan, Laughrea starred at Rocklin High School and entered Boise State in 2011, though he didn't play in his two years there. In 2013, he transferred to UC Davis and finished his college career with the Aggies, who compete in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision. Laughrea then played professionally in Switzerland and later in the Arena Football League in the U.S., an experience he didn't enjoy.
"Arena football was very different and I didn't really enjoy it. It was a good experience, but it wasn't the same atmosphere as the regular American football style,’’ Laughrea said.
It was around that time that Laughrea was introduced to American football in Japan by Holden Huff, his former teammate in high school and at Boise State. Huff has been a tight end with the Seagulls since 2018.
"I had never heard of football in Japan and when Holden told me about it, I didn't believe him,’’ Laughrea said. "Holden loves the culture. He loves everything about Japan. He explained to me how amazing of an opportunity it was going to be.
"The players are not treated the best and the level of play in Switzerland was horrible,’’ Laughrea continued. "But here, I can't complain. It's amazing. I'm very thankful to be to be here.’’
Laughrea ended up signing with the Rise in 2018, but had always hoped to play with Huff. That will finally happen this season.
"We've been best friends since high school. And I mean, playing with your best friend is always (a) good opportunity," Laughrea said.
Even though he's teaming up with his best friend, it's not happening under an ideal scenario. There is uncertainty about how things will play out with less time to prepare for a shortened regular season. There is also the possibility some games will be played behind closed doors.
"Our timeline right now is very unique because we have such a long period of (not playing football), which makes me a little nervous for injuries,’’ Laughrea said. "But as far as preparation, I'm really excited because it gives us so much extra time to work out those little things on the field that maybe we wouldn't have time for, especially since we only practice Saturdays and Sundays. The extra two months is gonna be a huge help for us.
"I'm just trying to picture the atmosphere (of playing with no fans). Football is such … like you can feel the crowd, feel the big plays. It’s like at practice because there is no noise.’’ Laughrea said. "I’m just so interested to see pregame warmup when there's no fans. I just can't imagine the nerves before the game being the same. I could never imagine playing in front of nobody.’’