Waseda University was trailing Ritsumeikan University 28-27 with 3 seconds remaining in the 2015 Koshien Bowl, the collegiate football national championship game.
The ball was placed on Ritsumeikan’s 35 on fourth down, meaning a 52-yard field goal would give Waseda its first national title and set the new record for the longest field goal in the 70-year Koshien Bowl history.
Waseda’s senior kicker Toshiki Sato felt relaxed as usual. He was smiling when getting onto the field at the most clutch moment of the season. Kanto's No. 1 kicker was confident he would come back to the sideline as the champion.
A few seconds later, however, Sato found himself falling down to his knees after the kick was blocked and sailed wide left. His college football career was over.
But it is this memory of the missed field goal that drives the IBM BigBlue kicker to want to make it to the NFL.
"Had I made the field goal, I would have been satisfied with my football career and be working as a businessman now," Sato told The Japan Times at ZOZO Park Honda Football Area in Chiba late last month. "I would never say the missed kick was a good experience or anything. But some day if I make it to the NFL, I want to show people that I have built on that experience. I have been making an all-out effort so that I can turn it into something positive."
In June 2016, three months after he started working at a real estate company, Sato met former NFL kicker Michael Husted in a kicking competition held in Tokyo. Husted liked Sato, who made a 55-yard field goal to win the contest, and encouraged him to try for the NFL.
"I was like 'No way,' at first. But Michael asked me to come to his San Diego home and train under him,’’ Sato said. "That is when I really started considering the NFL."
Sato quit his job and started training under Husted’s guidance while staying in Japan and playing in the X League with BigBlue.
Sato said he established himself as a long-ball kicker while playing at Waseda, but struggled in his rookie year with BigBlue, going only 1 for 6 in 40-plus-yard field goal attempts.
"It took some time to regain the mentality and confidence of my college days. But the turning point came on in the Japan X Bowl (X League championship game) in my second season," said Sato, who made three field goals including a 50 yarder in a 23-63 loss to the Fujitsu Frontiers in the 2017 championship game.
In the last two seasons, Sato made 25 of 30 overall and 13 of 16 in 40-plus-yard attempts. He also became the third kicker in Japan to make a 58-yard field goal last season.
"I was able to play with confidence and improved my techniques the past two seasons. My goal last year was making all the field goals and setting the Japan record for field goals. I missed one but tied the record," the 26-year-old Yokohama native said. "Now I can say 'I’m a Japan record holder,' and the 58-yarder gave me more confidence in long-distance attempts. That helped me in the tryouts.’’
Sato has participated in tryouts in the United States since 2017. He also joined The Spring League, a scouting event for pro football leagues, last year. After the tryout in Arizona in March where his kickoff average was the best among 32 participants, Sato hired veteran agent D.S. Ping to negotiate with NFL teams, for which no Japanese player has made an opening-day roster.
"I had the best performance in the March tryout. My next step is being able to deliver that level of performance under any situation," Sato said. "One of the most important factors that you need to be an NFL player is the mindset. You get nervous in the game. It’s important how you deal with it, how you accept it and how you have fun with it."
Sato insists if Japanese players make the NFL, kickers would have more advantage than skill position players because the physical ability gap is smaller.
"Compared to receivers or backs, kickers have less of a disadvantage compared to Americans in physical ability or muscles," Sato said. "Even if you have a strong enough leg to kick the ball 80 yards, you don’t kick an 80-yard field goal in the game. The longest field goal in the NFL is a 64-yarder. It’s not the distance but how you make the kick under pressure. I think I’m a clutch kicker. If it is a battle of mentality, there is no reason you can’t win.’’
Now he’s waiting to be called up for the NFL camp that is scheduled to start later this month, even though concern over the COVID-19 pandemic still lingers. There was a report last month that at least two NFL teams are interested in him, but Sato is open to any offer. Making the NFL would not only make his dreams come true but also have a positive impact both on the NFL and Japan.
"If I become the first Japanese NFL player, it will have an economic impact on the NFL," said Sato, whose favorite kicker in the league is the Baltimore Ravens' Justin Tucker. "Japanese people in the U.S. will watch me play. More people in Japan will watch NFL games. I think I can contribute to the globalization of the NFL."