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On the gridiron, a world away, American players get one more shot at glory

YOKOHAMA, JAPAN — Players in helmets and shoulder pads rush the field and huddle around their captains. Cheerleaders with wide smiles and tear-off pants dance to Fall Out Boy. "Let's go Silver Star!" one shouts into a microphone with a pink bow.

For a moment, it feels like a fall football weekend just about anywhere in America.

The reality is 90 percent of Yokohoma Stadium's bright orange seats are empty. The fans who are here to see the Asahi Beer Silver Star and Panasonic Impulse teams play are eating ramen noodles and steamed dumplings. Without a locker room, players store their luggage on the sidelines.

Japan's deep affinity for U.S. culture — music, fashion, baseball — hasn't translated to America's most popular sport. Japan's amateur X League is 45 years running, but the sport remains a novelty. Fans come for the cheerleaders, and players aren't directly paid.

But where some might see a lost cause, some Americans see opportunity. A new generation of U.S. football players are being imported to Japan to try to resurrect their careers and build up football overseas.

"These are our penny stock days," said Tim Goins, an assistant coach for Panasonic and the team's director of international football operations for the 2015 season. "The days that when people buy in, they don't actually realize that years later what their buying into now will become something really, really big."

A world away

The terms of the game are largely the same. Eighteen teams compete in three divisions for the league championship, called the X Bowl. The season keeps going after that; the X League champion goes on to face the champion of the university league in the Rice Bowl. Imagine the University of Alabama against the New England Patriots.

Football players in Japan are not paid, at least not for playing football. Most players have day jobs that have nothing to do with football. Real work comes first; football is on the side.

The majority of teams are clubs sponsored by companies, such as Silver Star and Asahi Breweries Ltd. Two teams are owned by corporations. Electronics maker Panasonic controls Impulse and employs players throughout its divisions.

Each team is allowed four international players. Which is to say, four American players.

Goins, a 30-year-old American and former University of Nevada-Las Vegas offensive lineman, is Panasonic's recruiter. "Either you play football or you sit at the desk," he tells out-of-luck NFL prospects.

Panasonic's American players are set up with good-paying company jobs in "corporate social responsibility." Their work day is a mix of training, representing Panasonic at community functions and explaining football to elementary students.

Goins' pitch appealed to Benjamin Dupree, 24, a former running back at the Citadel military college who was working as a substitute teacher in his Pennsylvania hometown. A back injury cost Dupree his NFL Pro Day.

Dupree tried to Google "Japan X League" but couldn't find pages in English. Still, he committed to an April visit and made the permanent move in June.

"I didn't want my career to be over," Dupree said. "I had to get back on the field somehow, and this was my opportunity."

Shake it off

The field, in this case, is just different. Yokohama Stadium is an open-air arena south of Tokyo, home to the Yokohama DeNA Baystars, a member of Japan's top-tier baseball league. At Baystars games, like other professional baseball games, tens of thousands of passionate fans sing a memorized team song and release balloons into the sky after the seventh-inning stretch in prayer for a win.

The Silver Star and Impulse line up right about where someone would slide into third base after the opening kick.

At halftime, with the Impulse leading 28-14, two dozen men rush to the front row wielding professional cameras and long lenses. They don't care about the game. They never cared about the game. All their jostling is for the best view of the cheerleaders' halftime performance set to Taylor Swift's Shake it Off.

The few fans who show up are not so much diehard fans as much as parents, girlfriends, buddies, or work acquaintances of players. The ones who started following football in high school or college revere the game as it was played by American greats, such as John Elway and Dan Marino.

Not far from the cheerleaders sits Noriaki Murata, whose 2-year-old daughter Yuka is hitting him in the head with a noisemaker passed out to fans. Murata came to see his boss' son play for Impulse, but he ended up sitting on the Silver Star side. It's his first American football game, and it reminds him a lot of rugby.

"I really like man sports," Murata said.

Naoto Sasaoka, 50, is also watching his first game with his son, Keiichi, 6. He lives in Kawasaki, home to Silver Star, and doesn't watch much professional U.S. football because games usually come on around midnight at the earliest. Keiichi is picking at ramen and not paying too much attention to the game.

"He prefers cheerleaders," Sasaoka said.

Maro Iriki and Katsumi Akiyama keep their seats during the halftime break. They're "old boys" who played for Silver Star years ago. "We had the title three times when I was playing," Akiyama said, a star wide receiver from 1980 to 1997. "We couldn't even imagine having American players."

Other teams in recent years embraced outsiders from the United States to raise their level of play. Asahi Beer Silver Star, one of the X League's original teams, held to tradition of playing with Japanese players, some more than 40 years old.

To the old boys, it's about time Silver Star adopted the trend of U.S. players. They have already noticed significant changes since the arrival of two American offensive weapons, including long-haired University of San Diego quarterback Mason Mills.

"After Mason came, everything's different," Akiyama said.

Work and play

Mills and his go-to target, Princeton University wide receiver Roman Wilson, knew there was hesitation before their arrival. But Mills and Wilson were attractive recruits, interested in Japan for professional and cultural reasons. Wilson had played in the X League's second-tier division before moving up to Silver Star in 2015.

Mills, who is one-quarter Japanese, studied accounting and finance and works in recruiting for Robert Haff, a global HR consulting firm based in Southern California. Wilson, from Tulsa, Okla., linked up with a Princeton grad who had played in the league and works in securities in central Tokyo.

During the day, there isn't much time for football. They work like other Japanese salarymen from about 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

At twice-weekly practice — and Wednesday is optional if there's a work-related reason — Mills acts as the offensive coordinator, calling plays from his pro-style offense imported from college. The players are talented but need help with mechanics and position-coaching.

Mills and Wilson don't know much Japanese, but they know enough to communicate with their teammates. Hayaku, for hurry up, tomare for stop.

The Silver Star coaches are dedicated. But like the players, no one does football full time.

Unlike the Americans who play for Panasonic, Wilson and Mills don't have a lot of time to lift weights, or really, to act like professional football players. They've lost weight since their college days. People ask Mills if he's the team kicker and Wilson if he's there to teach English.

Neither player is counting on the X League experience as his ticket to the NFL anyway, but that doesn't mean they don't take it seriously. Mills doesn't smoke or drink, instead keeping to his small apartment by the Kawasaki practice field after work to watch film before practices and weekend games.

"If you're going to put in all of your free time doing this, I'd rather win," Mills said.

It wasn't a day for the Silver Star, or Mills. He finished with three interceptions and two touchdowns. (It's okay, though. The X League named him Rookie of the Year.)

The Impulse's Dupree dominated, rushing 18 times for 140 yards and three touchdowns.

Final score: 38-14, Impulse. It was the team's sixth victory in a perfect season that culminated in winning the X League and Rice Bowl championships.

When the game was over, the teams didn't shake hands. A player grabbed a mic and thanked the crowd for coming.

Then, turning to the fans, the players bowed.

Times photographer Eve Edelheit and translator Junko Takahashi contributed. This report was made possible with the support of a program facilitated by the International Center for Journalists and funded by the United States-Japan Foundation.

On the gridiron, a world away, American players get one more shot at glory 03/25/16 [Last modified: Friday, March 25, 2016 1:37pm]
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