Kawasaki – For former UCLA offensive lineman Tatsuaki Shojima, things may not have worked out as he would have liked.
But he is happy where he is, playing the game he cherishes in his native Japan.
The ultimate goal for Shojima, a Tokyo native who moved to Redondo Beach, California, when he was 9, was to play in the NFL. In order to achieve that over the last two and a half years, he has participated in Pro Day at his alma mater UCLA, competed in The Spring League — a development league — and appeared in an XFL showcase.
In the end his efforts did not pay off. But the 27-year-old, nicknamed “Gyo” (pronounced as “Gio”), holds his head high and is grateful to still be able to put on his helmet and pads, playing for the X League powerhouse Obic Seagulls.
“I feel good to be back on the field,” Shojima said after a lopsided 60-0 win over the Tokyo Gas Creators in his X League debut on Sunday at Fujitsu Stadium Kawasaki. “I haven’t been on the field with an organized team almost two years.”
By playing in the Pac-12, Shojima has become a trailblazer in Japanese football circles. He is believed to be the first player of full Japanese descent to compete for an NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision school.
His optimism throughout his journey led to an offer from the Seagulls, one of Japan’s most-accomplished teams with an all-time high of eight league titles.
“In late 2019, I was able to get in touch with one of the coaches at the Obic Seagulls, and they were having an interest in having an extra (offensive) lineman on the team,” said Shojima, who spent one season playing for a Japanese high school in Tokyo and represented Japan at the 2012 under-19 world championships.
Shojima humbly said that he needed to beat out teammates for a starting spot, which he did in the Tokyo Gas contest, despite limited amounts of practices due to the coronavirus. The pandemic forced the cancellation of the Pearl Bowl and Green Bowl spring tournaments, in addition to shortening the fall campaign.
“(The starting spot) wasn’t a given thing for me. I had to win this job, win my spot on the roster,” Shojima said. “And fortunately, I was able to do well and I got to be on the starting offense as a center and earned respect from other coaches and players. I think at this point I’m still climbing uphill, but the fight has just begun as a player for the Seagulls. So I’m optimistic, I’m looking forward to the future games.”
The Seagulls have one more game left to play in the regular season, against the Panasonic Impulse on Nov. 21, with a ticket to the Japan X Bowl on the line. The league’s title game will be held at Tokyo Dome on Dec. 15.
The winner of the Japan X Bowl will then play one last game at the Big Egg against the Koshien Bowl collegiate champions in the Rice Bowl national championship on Jan. 3.
Kevin Jackson, a former star defensive end for Obic who serves as the club’s international general manager, spends less time on the field these days. But from what he’s heard from the players and coaches, Shojima has been “a tremendous asset to the team.”
“Given his background, growing up in Southern California, he is able to communicate with our other foreign players in a unique way that none of our other Japanese players are able to duplicate,” Jackson said. “He makes things a lot easier for our quarterback (American Jimmy Laughrea), as they are both able to communicate in English.
“Gyo then is able to let all of the Japanese guys know exactly what Jimmy and all of the other guys are trying to get across. Every time I go to practice or see the guys, Gyo is always with Jimmy. Forging that relationship, getting to know one another and building that bond on and off the field, that is crucial for success.”
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