When he went to check his measurements on the Canadian Football League website, Les Maruo saw a 40-yard dash time of 4.77 seconds — a number the linebacker was completely unfamiliar with.
“It was weird because on my virtual combine, I got 4.62,” Maruo told The Japan Times in an online interview from San Antonio, Texas, where he has been training, earlier this month. “I don’t really know how they did the timing. I’m not really sure why it was 4.77.”
Despite the strange time, Maruo was selected fourth overall by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers — the highest of any of the six Japanese players taken — in April’s Canadian Football League global draft.
Among that group, he may be the most unique in terms of his background as a biracial athlete born to a Japanese mother and Scottish father, along with his experience playing football in both the United States and Japan.
Maruo was born in Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, and grew up in Shizuoka Prefecture before moving to Wichita, Kansas, when he was 9. After playing at Hutchinson Community College, he transferred to the University of Texas, San Antonio (UTSA), where he starred as a starting linebacker on a full scholarship.
At Hutchinson, Maruo played with eventual NFL star Alvin Kamara, who subsequently transferred to the University of Tennessee. Maruo said he was inspired by the future New Orleans Saints running back.
“Whenever I watched him on TV, he was scoring touchdowns and doing these things. That’s when I was like, ‘Man, I want to get a Division I scholarship,’” the 25-year-old said. “So he really motivated me to be a better player.”
Maruo, however, was not able to emulate Kamara and enter the NFL, or even the CFL, right out of college — a devastating setback that turned him off the sport entirely.
“Whenever I watched on TV, I would turn it off because I was so disappointed that I didn’t get to play in the pros,” Maruo said. But in the end, the allure of the sport he fell in love with in junior high was too strong to ignore.
After discovering Japan’s X League on Instagram, Maruo reached out to wide receiver Robert Johnson, who would eventually become his teammate, and — after taking time to think over his options — returned to Japan in 2019.
“It was a great experience, just because I got to be closer to family that I hadn't seen in probably 14 years, my grandparents, my cousins, my cousins’ kids that I’d never met before,” Maruo said. “It gave me goosebumps.”
After playing two seasons with the Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers in X1 Area, the X League's second division, Maruo got an opportunity to try out for the CFL.
The CFL candidates were originally scheduled to go to Toronto for the CFL Global Combine in late March but were unable to do so due to constraints caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. So Maruo had to do it everything virtually, filming his own performances with nobody around him but a few assistants.
He said that it felt “different” from the pro day he participated in at UTSA in 2019, where NFL and CFL scouts were present and his teammates cheered the players on. Fortunately for him, he had a better showing at the virtual combine — including in the 40-yard dash, which was clocked at 4.63 seconds according to a video on his YouTube channel.
“I don’t know if that’s maturity," the 183-centimeter Maruo said. "I don’t know if it’s because two years later my body has grown, or it’s just because I was more comfortable. Just calm, not nervous.”
But Maruo doesn’t have room to relax after being selected in the CFL draft. Per a new regulation that is part of the league’s international expansion strategy, each team is required to give two non-North American players spots on the active roster.
Maruo understands that he needs to do anything he is asked by the coaches and that he will need to show his do-what-it-takes attitude anywhere, including on special teams.
“Kickoff, punt, punt block, kickoff return … everything,” Maruo said of his readiness to play on special teams. “I’m going to do all those little things and try to be a good player on special teams. If I can earn the right, then maybe I can get in the rotation as a linebacker.
“I’ve done that all my life. Ever since I was in high school, even though (I was) the starting linebacker I played all phases of special teams.”
Maruo and his older brother rarely saw foreigners or other biracial children while growing up in Shizuoka. Having lost his father at a young age, Maruo said he felt “a little lost at times” and “couldn’t really relate to people.” He was motivated by his mother to channel his energy into football.
“I wanted to do better for my mom, I wanted to get a scholarship so my mom wouldn't have to help me because she did a lot for me and my brother growing up,” said Maruo, who played baseball and did wrestling as well as football. “So I didn’t want her to give me even $1 to go to school. I found that football gave me the opportunity to get a full-ride scholarship. That was really part of the reason why I chose football in college.”
Maruo was familiar with English thanks to his father and had an advantage over his Japanese classmates in that area, but he still struggled after moving stateside.
“I was very, very shy, and then maybe because I wasn’t confident enough to speak,” Maruo said. “I didn’t want to mess up any words and stuff like that. So sometimes, when I’d say things wrong, the students would kind of laugh at me because of the way I said it.
“And I hated that, I really truly hated that. So I’d go home and just practice, practice, practice.”
Once he was on the field, Maruo faced stereotypes against Asians in the sport.
“You don’t see many Asians playing football,” said Maruo, who represented Japan in an exhibition against the Spring League select team in Frisco, Texas, in March 2020 (Japan lost 36-16).
“So whenever I was one of the Asian players going to a football tryout or practicing with the team, the coaches and the players were going to doubt me. They’d be like, ‘Asians can’t play football.’”
That just drove Maruo to push himself and will serve as fuel in his quest to become a CFL player.
“It’s not very normal for a Japanese player or even an Asian player to be playing in the CFL because no Japanese player has ever played in the CFL,” said Maruo, who looks up to former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and former Philadelphia Eagles Brian Dawkins. “That just tells you that when a Japanese player walks in, they just kind of automatically think, ‘Can he actually play? Is he overrated? Is he actually good? Is he just here because he’s a global player?’
“I don’t want to go there as a global player. I really want to go there as a regular CFL player.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.