By Dustin Perry, U.S. Army Garrison Japan Public AffairsMarch 15, 2019
CAMP ZAMA, Japan (March 14, 2019) -- At the first of only two practice sessions his team gets before the Tomodachi Bowl, a football game between American high school and Japanese first-year college players, Team USA Coach Tim Pujol does not start with passing drills or by running plays.
"The very first thing I do is tell the players the story of exactly how this game came to be so they understand they're a part of something important that goes beyond competition," said Pujol. "We remind them why we play."
Team USA handily beat Team Rising Sun 23-3 in the eighth annual matchup, thanks largely in part to the five turnovers their opponents gave up March 10 at Naval Air Facility Atsugi's Reid Stadium, but both sides shook hands afterward, assuredly aware of the friendship and bilateral solidarity the game represents.
Beginning in 2010, the best players from Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific high schools in Japan, Korea and Guam had been selected to represent the United States in an exhibition game against Japanese under-19 players in what was then named the Camellia Bowl. The Kantoh Collegiate American Football Association had organized the game as a way to promote American football in Japan.
The second annual Camellia Bowl was scheduled to be played March 12, 2011. The day prior, Pujol and his team met for what was supposed to be their first practice session. That changed at 2:46 p.m.
"We were getting ready to take the field, and that's when the earthquake hit," said Pujol.
That was of course what came to be known as the Great East Japan Earthquake, a magnitude 9.0 quake that struck 70 kilometers east of the Tohoku Peninsula and triggered a follow-on tsunami that devastated a huge stretch of Japan's eastern coastline. The twin disasters resulted in nearly 16,000 deaths, more than 6,000 injuries, and more than 2,500 missing persons.
In the aftermath of the disaster, U.S. Forces Japan organized a multinational rescue and relief effort known as Operation Tomodachi, the Japanese word for "friend." The following year, the Camellia Bowl was renamed the Tomodachi Bowl to honor the great relationship the United States and Japan have with each other, Pujol said. The game has been played each year since then on the weekend closest to the anniversary of the earthquake.
"This is an opportunity for our players to make some new friends; to interface with their host nation in a different kind of way," said Pujol. "Also, it's quite an honor for them to be selected to represent their school at this event. All of those things make [this game] special."
A crowd of more than 2,000 people filled the bleachers at Reid Stadium, eager for the start of the game, which was replete with all the pomp and pageantry of a college- or professional-level bowl. Naval Air Facility Atsugi Commander Capt. Lloyd Mack and former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso presided over the pregame ceremonies, which included a Navy color guard and the 7th Fleet Band performing the U.S. and Japanese national anthems. Aso made the coin toss, and Team USA kicked off.
On their first possession, Team Rising Sun picked up some early yardage, moving the ball all the way to the 11-yard line. Team USA was able to hold them, however, and their opponents were forced to settle for a field goal. This ended up being the only points either team would put on the board until near the end of the first half.
Team USA scored twice in the last 2 minutes and 30 seconds of the second quarter, both times as a result of turnovers by the Team Rising Sun offense. The first was an interception by Sh'voda Gregory Jr. of Humphreys High School at Camp Humphreys, Korea. This led to a touchdown run by running back Eric McCarter of Kadena High School on Okinawa.
Team Rising Sun again lost the ball on their next possession, this time with an interception Hadyn Guiste of Kinnick High School at U.S. Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Japan, grabbed and ran for yardage. McCarter later scored again, this time with a 9-yard run to finish the half.
The Team Rising Sun defense held their opponents on a few key first-down conversion attempts and actually slightly outpaced Team USA on return yards, but they continued to struggle with opportunities on offense. Pushed back to his own team's end zone, quarterback Kohei Ogawa of Daito Bunka University could not get rid of the ball in time before getting sacked, leading to a safety and two more points for Team USA.
Nicholas Canada, a quarterback from Zama American Middle High School at Camp Zama, Japan, lauded his teammates' intuitive playing on both sides of the field.
"I think once we got that first interception and then got the touchdown, that's when things started to mesh," said Canada. "And our defense really stepped up with five turnovers. They made us able to score most of our points."
Two more of those turnovers came during the third quarter--another interception from Gregory Jr., and one from Kinnick wide receiver Kaine Roberts. Pujol said he knew his defense was capable of pressuring Team Rising Sun into turning the ball over, but what impressed him was the offense's ability to translate those opportunities into points.
"In a 2 minute and 15-second span, we took the ball away three times and scored twice," said Pujol. "Going into halftime, that gave us so much momentum and confidence."
Already ahead by a practically insurmountable margin late in the fourth quarter, Team USA had no need to do anything spectacular, but Humphreys running back David Key went ahead and obliged them anyway.
Team Rising Sun had possession and were well within scoring position. Quarterback Yuta Sasaki threw a beautiful pass, but Key snatched it from the sky at the 9-yard line and barreled his way down the field, avoiding a few defenders and relying on his team to block the rest, finding his way into the end zone for a 91-yard scoring run.
While Pujol said he was not surprised by the stellar performance from his team, he admitted there are challenges to coaching players from different schools who may come to the field with different styles and rhythms unique to their respective teams. What makes them successful, he said, is their ability to make the most out of their limited practice time and come together as a unit.
"These kids, because they come in here with a great football IQ, they pick it up so fast; it's truly amazing," said Pujol. "The huge game plan that we [initially] have, we cobble it down to two or three things that we do really well and then we just emphasize and focus on those."
Even after time expired and the scoreboard read "23-3," it was difficult to tell who were the winners, because the American and Japanese players were celebrating, laughing and snapping selfies with each other.
"These outstanding young individuals are both athletes and scholars," Mack said in his pregame remarks, "and as they represent their school in a friendly game on the football field, we hope that this … is a stepping stone to greater cooperation and friendship between our two countries in the years to come."