ST. PETERSBURG — The faux-hawk that adorns the head of Takuya Yamada symbolizes the positive qualities the 38-year-old defender has brought to the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The receding hairline and thinning locks are a reminder of 16 years of professional experience for the former Japanese national team player, mostly with his hometown club Tokyo Verdy in the J-League Division 1, Japan's top league.
When Yamada returns to Tokyo for two months in the offseason, admirers still stop him to ask for a picture or an autograph.
On top, Yamada's coal-black hair comes together playfully into a point, a triangle-shaped "do" that exudes a youthfulness and energy that has allowed him to play every minute of every game this season — at an age when most players have long succumbed to nature and retired.
In his third year with Tampa Bay, Yamada, the lone holdover from the team's inaugural season in 2010, has turned in an MVP-caliber performance, one that has helped the Rowdies reach the brink of the NASL final.
"It is an example for everyone that someone of his age can play to the level that he's playing," Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said. "As far as I'm concerned, age is nothing but a number. He trains every day of the week. He doesn't have any time off for injuries or strains. … He's in peak condition, and his performance since I've been here has been exemplary."
Yamada, called Yama by his teammates and coaches, has played in 83 of 88 matches over three seasons here. His only absence in 2010 came as a result of a one-match suspension due to an accumulation of yellow cards. Last season, he appeared in 25 of 29 games, missing time early with visa issues and more midway through the season with an abductor issue, according to Hill.
In 2012, Yamada has yet to come off the field for the Rowdies, underscoring his remarkable fitness level and Hill's recognition of the player's importance. Yamada was the only NASL field player (non-goalkeeper) to play every minute this season.
"I know for these field players, the guys that are 28, 29, that are getting in the cold bath and are getting stretched out and are sore every day, to see him at 38 being consistent, coming out here and doing his thing and he's one of the fittest guys on the team, it's got to be something that they look at and use as kind of inspiration," Rowdies keeper Jeff Attinella said.
On Tuesday, Yamada, along with teammates Attinella and midfielder Luke Mulholland, was named to the NASL's Best XI, an all-star squad selected by coaches. Yamada is also one of 10 players on the ballot for the Golden Ball award as league MVP (so is Attinella).
Yamada's contract is up at the end of the season. Hill has said that as long as he is coach, Yamada will always have a place on the team. Yamada shows no signs of slowing, but how long can a 38-year-old play at a high level in a league dominated by upstart 20-somethings?
"I don't know, one year at a time," Yamada answers, smiling. "If I feel I can play, I will play."
Three years ago, Yamada ventured abroad after 13 seasons in Japan, the allure of experiencing a new culture overriding the familiarity of home. He has carved a niche in Tampa Bay.
He takes English classes and studies the language online whenever he can. He said he had an offer from a Japanese team this season to return home and play. He can see himself retiring here and continuing to live in America while pursuing a career in coaching. Hill says he'll be a natural coach because "he's fair and will have empathy for people."
But, at Yamada's current work rate, coaching is still well off in the distance.
"Put it this way," Hill said. "I don't want to be disingenuous or disrespectful to the other defenders in this league … but there's no one I would have in front of Yama in that central defending position."