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.”
“There are a lot more kids [in Japan] who are starting to play flag football at a younger age; their skill level is constantly improving,” Gordon adds. “That’s the biggest change we’ve seen. The level of play has gone up and I would say that obviously, no country is on par with America, but they’re definitely making some strides and it’s really pretty fascinating to see.”
But how did both men end up in Japan? Cameron got a taste of the NFL after college, having been signed by the Carolina Panthers in 2013 as an undrafted free agent. But unlike his brother, Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron, he didn’t stick, and was waived by the team a few months later. He soon found himself suiting up for the Frontiers, and Cameron says it’s been a decision that worked out well for him – though his career in the X League has come at the expense of his NFL dreams.
“I’m pretty realistic with myself, knowing that every year that goes by, it gets more difficult,” he says. “I’m trying to be the best teacher I can be out here; I’m focused on Japan football. I’m not making calls to Canada every week trying to get picked up.”
Gordon’s path to the X League was quite different. He was born in Japan, and though his family moved to San Diego when he was young, he says there was always a desire to return to the country. Football turned out to be the guiding force. And that’s a good thing, especially since his post-collegiate route strayed pretty far from the NFL path.
“Actually, before I left for Japan I was a fifth-grade teacher for a short time,” he says. “People talk about how learning a different language is difficult, try teaching 30 fifth graders.”
In his role as the running backs coach on the Frontiers, Gordon is getting to continue in the role of educating others.
“I really enjoy the challenge of it. This situation for me is great: I get to play and I get to teach,” he says. “I’m not sure where it’s going to take me, but I’m sure these skills that I’m developing are going to lead me into a future career.”
The arrival of Gordon and Cameron has been beneficial for Frontiers head coach Satoshi Fujita, who speaks highly of the contributions both players have made on the team – as well as the impact they could have on the X League.
“They changed our standards, not only in the play itself, but also the approach to football,” Fujita writes in an email, adding, “They will keep changing our league by their high level of play.”
And now that they’ve made a name for themselves in Japan, Cameron and Gordon both say they might stick around for a while. Thanks to their required roles as coaches for the Frontiers, they might even have found a profession once their playing days are done – and though their football journey has taken them far from home, it’s also opened their eyes to a world of new possibilities.
“I think coaching is something that fits my personality, but it’s a tough world. It’s competitive getting into it in the States,” Cameron says. “That’s the good thing about Japan – they understand that I’m learning football here and I’m broadening my game. And I think they appreciate that.”