Dominic Santanelli bounded up the podium to receive the traveling trophy from organizers of the just-completed Tomodachi Bowl on March 13. A microphone was thrust at him, and the soft-spoken Kadena High School senior smiled and summed up the purpose of the game and the feelings of players on both sides in just a few words. “It’s an honor representing the United States and going up against your best athletes. It’s the best,” he said.
The afternoon sun angled down in the west as players from both sides partook of a postgame food and beverage spread at the southwest end of Amino Vital Field in Tokyo’s western suburbs.
Team USA, comprised of 32 DODEA Pacific high school students from Japan and Korea, had just completed its fourth victory in five Tomodachi Bowls, a 26-6 win over Team Rising Sun, a group of 55 high school seniors and college freshmen from schools around Tokyo.
But while competition reigned for a good 2½ hours on a chilly, partly cloudy Sunday, camaraderie reigned off the field afterward, as players milled together regardless of affiliation, posing for group photographs and taking selfies on their smart phones.
“It’s a great opportunity,” said Team Rising Sun coach David Stant, 53, of Hawaii, now in his fourth season coaching Keio University after 20 years of coaching the Recruit Seagulls of Japan’s X-League. The partnership among the Japanese players and their chance to get to know and bond with their American counterparts gets to the root of the purposes of the Tomodachi Bowl itself. “To go up against Americans, it may be the first and last time for them to play somebody from America, to see where they rank” against those from the country that invented the game,” Stant said.
“It’s all about the people,” said Fred Bales, longtime coach of Okinawa’s Kubasaki High School who served as assistant offensive coordinator for Team USA. “For school, team, community, you’re representing a nation, the USA across your shirt. It’s a big honor.”
The Tomodachi Bowl has its roots in an event called the Global Challenge Bowl, played in March 2008 and 2009 at Kawasaki Stadium. It featured Japanese U-19 collegiate players against high school-aged players from 10 states. Japan won both games.
But that arrangement was discontinued and in late 2009, Ko Hirasawa of the Kanto Football Coaches Association approached Yokota High School coach Tim Pujol about putting together a team of American high schoolers from U.S. bases in Tokyo. That bred the 2010 Camellia Bowl, named for the official flower of Kawasaki City. Team USA won that game over a conglomerate of Japanese high school teams from Kanagawa Prefecture.
That arrangement would have continued on March 12, 2011, but the game was canceled following the Great Tohoku Earthquake and the resulting tsunami the day before. Officials on both sides wanted the game to continue, but to change the game’s name to the Tomodachi Bowl, commemorating the partnership between the U.S. and Japanese militaries during Operation Tomodachi, to help put the Tohoku region back on its feet.
Thus, the Tomodachi Bowl series began. Team USA won the first three by lopsided margins. The Japanese then changed their format for selecting players, inviting 175 first- and second-year college players to a combine, out of which 55 were kept for the Team Rising Sun roster. The game was played at Amino Vital on March 8, 2015 – and an exact opposite outcome occurred, with Team Rising Sun winning 100-22.
Again, the Japanese changed their selection format, inviting college freshmen and high school seniors affiliated with Tokyo-area university programs to the combine.
They had practices over five weekends, compared to just three practices in an 18-hour span for the Americans, who were culled from 10 DODEA Pacific schools plus the American School in Japan. “I dare say, they (Team Rising Sun) will be a little more polished,” Pujol said.
Pageantry and pomp punctuated the moments before the game, as well as a bounty of food purveyed by vendors at the southwest end of the field, featuring such fare as Touchdown Curry and Tomodachi Bread. Games between youth teams of various age groups began at 10 a.m. and lasted until an hour before kickoff.
Teams warmed up, colors were presented, and the national anthems were sung. A moment of silence was observed for those lost, injured, and missing due to the Tohoku Quake. The pregame coin toss was made.
What ensued was the closest outcome in Tomodachi Bowl history. Although the Americans won 26-6, it was “the most evenly matched game we’ve had,” said coach Dan Joley of Nile C. Kinnick High School. “I think they got the formula right.”
After the game, trophies were presented to the outstanding offensive and defensive players and the most impressive players on each team. But it was the postgame spread and the chance to mix and match with opposing players that occupied much of the after-game festivities.
“Food! They’ve got food, y’all!” said senior Jaylin Barmer of Humphreys High School in the Republic of Korea.
“I’ll be the first one there,” replied senior Jacob Martin of Zama American High School in Japan.
Stant smiled as he gazed at the post-game camaraderie. “It’s a great deal for players on both teams to play each other,” he said. “They made some bonds. They made friends.”
Video from TOMODACHI Bowl game on March 13, 2016 (Jnet TV YouTube Channel)