Many young football players dream of one day playing in the National Football League.
But more often than not, their dreams eventually start to fade after they realize just how difficult it is to break through — even for elite Division I players in the NCAA.
That is especially the case for those playing in Japan. While there have been Japanese players who have participated in NFL summer training camps or practice squads — and several who have played at Division I schools in recent years — not a single Japanese-born player has made the cut for an NFL team’s 53-man roster.
Running back Taku Lee may be the man to change that. His desire to compete on the world’s biggest stage has only grown as he’s continued to play, steadily turning his dream into an objective.
Lee is currently in Florida working out in the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program as one of 11 non-North American players selected by the league. The initiative started in 2017 as part of the league’s global strategy.
The IPPP has allowed the league to identify talent from abroad. German fullback Jakob Johnson was the first player from the program to be make the step up and played in a regular-season game for the New England Patriots in 2019.
Australian Jordan Mailata, a former rugby league player, was selected in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles and made his first start as a tackle in the 2020 season. Nigerian-born Efe Obada, who was trafficked along with his sister from the Netherlands to Britain when they were little, has played over 1,000 snaps as a defensive end for the Carolina Panthers.
Lee is the only Asian participant and skill position player (a player that ordinarily handles the ball on offense) among this year’s class.
“The NFL is an unprecedented place for a Japanese player to reach and I know how tough it is to make it,” the Aichi Prefecture-native told The Japan Times before he departed for the Sunshine State late last month. “But I’d like to do my best to develop into a player that deserves to be in the NFL through this program.”
The NFL was a big reason behind why Lee began playing the game. When he visited the football team of his Nanzan Boy’s Junior High School to see what the program was like, he and other observers were shown what Lee believes to have been highlights of the 2006 NFL season.
Lee, who just turned 26 years old last week, was quickly captivated by the game.
“It was pretty cool and I fell in love with it at first sight,” Lee recalled of his first contact with the NFL through a television screen.
Lee came back to the team the next day, this time to play flag football. He happened to play as running back, a position he has played to this day, and earned a compliment from one of the coaches.
“I think he was just flattering us to recruit players to the team,” Lee said. “But he told me that I have guts and would be a good player if I played the game.”
That was the start of Lee’s successful football career. And the longer he played, the more addicted he became. He had played other sports before but they were mostly individual contests such as kendo, swimming and tennis. In football, Lee found the draw of what is often regarded as the ultimate team sport.
“When I first started playing football at junior high, I thought I could help my team win by doing well,” Lee said. “But I eventually realized that a single player doesn’t win games for his team and I had to be aware that I needed to involve everybody to be a part of the team. And that is how I grew my teamwork mentality.”
Lee eventually developed into an elite player. The Keio University alum was the only collegiate player to represent Japan at the 2015 IFAF World Championship and led the Obic Seagulls, his club in the domestic top-tier X League, to the title as the 2020 season MVP.
Now Lee is trying to knock on the NFL’s door and end its reign as the only major North American sports league that has never seen a Japanese player.
The fact that other Japanese players have tried and failed has not deterred Lee, who even deferred his 2017 hiring by Japan Airlines as a pilot candidate in order to chase his gridiron dreams.
“To be honest, at the time there wasn’t a realistic path (to the NFL) for me,” Lee said. “But I knew this IPPP kicked off in 2017 and thought they’d have their eyes on a Japanese player like me through the program and it wouldn’t be an impracticable dream to achieve. And it drove me to this challenge.”
Lee is not a total stranger to showcasing his skills on U.S. soil, having first participated in a homestay in Ashland, Oregon, during his second year of high school in 2011. After playing in the 2019 Spring League, Lee was also chosen as one of six Japanese players to participate in last March’s CFL Global Combine, which wound up being called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lee, who aims to emulate Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, is confident that his acceleration speed and ability to parry tackles are some of the things he can do as well as any other player.
He stressed that he would plan to impress the IPPP’s coaches and staffers with his whatever-it-takes mindset, not just his rushing ability.
“Considering my size, I know I will have to work on my route-running and catching skills more,” said Lee, who stands at 182 centimeters and weighs in at 90 kilograms. “And I need to find a way to appeal (on special teams) as well. So no matter what I do, I will have to act proactively — whether it’s kick returns, punt returns, tackling or whatever.”
A few weeks into the program, Lee’s efforts are already paying off.
On Tuesday, Scott Pioli, a former NFL Executive of the Year for the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, mentioned Lee as one of IPPP’s players to watch during an appearance on the NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football” program.
“(Lee) is a physical specimen,” Pioli said. “Watching him work out, he does everything a hundred miles an hour. But he’s an interesting prospect because he has both speed and quickness. The other thing he can do is he catches the ball really, really well out of the backfield.”
Meanwhile, Lee has been fortunate to get advice from his Obic teammates with international experience. One of them is wide receiver Noriaki Kinoshita, who was on the international practice squad of the Atlanta Falcons in 2008.
Lee received valuable tips from the veteran, who had been considered the Japanese player with the best shot at making an NFL roster, during a phone conversation. He said that Kinoshita insisted on the need to be mentally tough and more than ready before every practice.
“He told me that you have to take it for granted that you work harder than others and you give everything you have every single day,” Lee said of Kinoshita’s advice. “Another thing he said was that you have to pay attention to every instruction from coaches as if they are directed to yourself, even if they are for other players. So the coaches will recognize you understand everything and are worth using.”
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