On the campus of IMG Academy, the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) World Team Development camp continues. One notable presence among the camp's participants is the remarkable number of Japanese players - 16 to be exact - that made the long journey from the Land of the Rising Sun to vie for a spot on the World Team, which will play against the USA Football Under-19 Team in the International Bowl, held in Austin, Texas, Feb. 5.
"The level of football in Japan is not quite what it is in the United States, but we have a very long history in the game, and the knowledge and the passion is there," said World Team special teams coach Shinzo Yamada. "The reason these players are here is to learn about American football in America."
Japan definitely has a long history with American football. The game was introduced to Japan in 1934 when Paul Rusch, a teacher and missionary from Kentucky, brought Tokyo college students and resident Englishmen together to play the first game in the country's history. The game continues to thrive in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan, and is gaining popularity in other parts of the country year-by-year. Today, with the support of organizations like the Japan American Football Association and the International Federation of American Football, the game continues to grow.
Yamada is a testament to the game's growth in Japan in his own right. He began playing football in his youth while living in the United States, and eventually made it as far as any Japanese player ever has, playing professionally in the short-lived XFL for the Memphis Maniacs; Arena League Football; and being a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp roster prior to the 2003 season. As a member of the Buccaneers training camp roster that year, Yamada was able to play in front of his countrymen in the NFL's American Bowl, matching the defending Super Bowl champions against the New York Jets in an exhibition in Tokyo.
Based on his experience, Yamada believes that it is only a matter of time before the first Japanese player makes an active NFL roster, but several challenges have to be met before it can happen.
"[Japan] just needs the experience - overcoming communication and strength barriers. While we do that, the American players are getting better and better. The gap is there, but programs like IMG Academy are a perfect opportunity for our players. If you come here, you can learn the sport and learn English, so a facility like this will help bridge the gap much faster," Yamada added.
Perhaps one of the Japanese players attending this week's camp could be the one to bring Japanese football to the next level. They were were hand-picked for the camp based on their performance on the field playing field and their performance in the Under-19 World Tournament held last summer. However, the real benefit of the World Team Development Camp is to see players from other parts of the world to find new ways to improve their game.
“I feel like the players from other countries are hungrier and more powerful, so I have a chance to play against some of the world's best," commented offensive lineman Kenzo Shimano. “It’s been great to be able to learn about different styles of football and how they play in other countries.”
For some of the players, such as linebacker Kevin Coghlan, they are anxious to share what they have learned home to share with others. Coghlan, whose father is British, was taught the game by his cousin, and now he wants to pass on his knowledge to others.
"Coming here, this is great experience to learn more about the game. When I go back, I can't wait to teach other linebackers what I learned,” said Coghlan. “Although, my ultimate goal at the moment is to be number one in Japan, and help grow the game at home.”
The IFAF World Team Development Camp continued today with increased intensity. The players started the day with their first practice and a brisk speed and movement session with IMG Academy strength and conditioning coaches. After lunch, they took the field again in full pads to go through individual drills and scrimmages. The World Team Development Camp will resume tomorrow morning.
More photos from Day 2 of practice: