After the Draft: College Football Stars Find a New Home in Japan
Colby Cameron was once recognized as the top quarterback in NCAA Division I football, winning the Sammy Baugh Trophy following his senior season at Louisiana Tech. Gino Gordon, a standout running back at Harvard, won the Asa S. Bushnell Cup – given to the Ivy League’s most outstanding player – in 2010.
These days, the signal caller and the scatback are still racking up honors, albeit in Japan’s X League. As teammates on the Fujitsu Frontiers, Cameron earned Rookie of the Year honors and Gordon was named MVP of X Bowl XXVIII, scoring four touchdowns to lead the Frontiers to their first-ever league championship.
The game itself hasn’t changed, but Cameron and Gordon’s status certainly has: Unlike Peyton Manning or LeSean McCoy, they’re both considered employees of global giant Fujitsu – officially, they work in “human resources” and serve as coaches on the team. It’s a scenario neither man ever envisioned, especially when each was preparing to take the next step at the NFL Draft.
“It’s a big culture shock,” Cameron laughs. “Sports are kind of universal though, and football here is very Americanized – the names are the still the same. Like if you’re running a Cover 2, they still say ‘Cover 2’ here, so it translates pretty easy. And at the same time, you have to have a common ground on how you communicate details.”
The X League was founded in 1971 as the Japan American Football League, with various corporations – Mitsubishi, IBM, Asahi – sponsoring and staffing the teams. For the most part, the rules in the league mirror those in the U.S., with a few exceptions: The quarters are shorter (12 minutes, as opposed to the NFL’s 15) and only four Americans are allowed on each team – and only two of them may be on the field at the same time.
The regular season is broken down into a series of stages, with the eventual winners meeting in the Japan X Bowl. But in a twist that would certainly satisfy some fans here in the states, the league champion then advances to the Rice Bowl, where they compete against the nation’s top collegiate team. Last year, Fujitsu beat the Kwansei Gakuin University Fighters to establish football superiority.
And, since you’re wondering: Yes, these guys can play. Most of them, anyway.
“People wouldn’t think of Japan as a football country – you’d think of baseball probably. I didn’t know much going in, but competition-wise it’s a lot higher than I expected,” Cameron says. “You have America, then you have Canada on top as football countries, but I would say Japan could be the next best – you hear so much about Europe, but the competition here is strong and getting stronger each year.”