Chuck Mills, one of the fathers of American football in Japan, died Monday morning in Hawaii at the age of 92.
According to his supporters, Mills was hospitalized last weekend in Honolulu, where he lived, due to pneumonia and organ failure.
Mills was one of the key figures that worked to establish a relationship between American football officials in Japan and the United States.
In 1971, he brought the Utah State University football team to Japan as its head coach to compete against Japanese collegiate all-star teams at Tokyo’s National Stadium and Hyogo Prefecture’s Koshien Stadium.
That series marked the first time a U.S. college team had played in the nation. Mills later returned to Japan as head coach of Wake Forest University in 1974.
Since 1974, the award given to Japan’s top college player of the year has been known as the Chuck Mills Trophy. Mills has remained in touch with Japanese football officials since his first visit, and mentored Japanese coaches at his teams in the U.S.
Mills, a Chicago native, was an administrative assistant for Hank Stram’s Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I. In 2018, Mills was inducted into the Japanese American Football Hall of Fame.
Utah State’s 1971 visit took place after Mills wrote to the White House seeking help from then-President Richard Nixon, who eventually green-lit the trip.
“Nixon wrote a letter to the NCAA, saying that (then-National Security Advisor Henry) Kissinger had just opened up relations with China, and he thought that sports was something that would help relations and that it was in America’s best interest for its young people to interact with young people in Japan,” Mills told the Japan Times when he visited the 2015 Koshien Bowl.
“So if it wasn’t for Nixon, we wouldn’t have gone. That’s a key part of the whole story.”
Japan reciprocated the “pigskin diplomacy” in 1986, when the Kwansei Gakuin University Fighters team flew across the Pacific to play Mills’ Southern Oregon University (then known as Southern Oregon State College).
Akira Furukawa, a former vice chairman of the Western Conference of the American Football Association Japan who also played a major role in the Utah State visit, said in 2015 that Japanese football would have looked different without the historical appearance by the Aggies.
“(The development of Japanese football) would’ve been delayed by 20 years had they not come,” Furukawa said. “In that sense, Mill-san’s arrival in Japan was an epoch-making event.”
Tomizo Isumi, who played in the Koshien game against Utah State and later coached under Mills at Wake Forest, was stunned by the sudden news of Mills’ passing.
“I thought he had been doing just fine, but of course I was worried when we heard he was hospitalized,” Isumi said.
Isumi stayed with Mills as a graduate assistant coach at Wake Forest for two years and two months from 1974. He recalled the Koshien game and his time in North Carolina as eye-opening experiences, saying that what Japanese coaches learned coaching under Mills has contributed to Japan’s progress in the sport over the years.
Isumi, a former linebacker, was surprised at the time to learn that Mills’ Wake Forest had position coaches — a concept that had not yet reached Japan, where full-time coaches who attended practice every day were rarities.
A Kwansei Gakuin graduate who later acted as head coach for the Fighters, Isumi said that without Mills the development of Japanese football would have been even slower than Furukawa had suggested.
“Twenty years? To me, I feel like it could’ve been delayed more,” said Isumi, who now serves as chief director of the Kansai Collegiate American Football Association.
“That’s because we made the Utah State event as our textbook and started to try to catch up with the U.S. as much as we could, and that’s continued all the way until today.”
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