Harry Cheng was not going to pass up this chance. He had lived at Yokosuka Naval Base all his life, played four seasons for Nile C. Kinnick High School’s football team, then in January had his life uprooted as his family transferred to Bahrain, over 5,000 miles west of Japan.
Cheng jumped at the chance to play in the 7th Tomodachi Bowl on March 11 at Tokyo’s Amino Vital Stadium – and to reunite with 14 of his teammates, making the 10-hour journey from the Middle East to Japan for one last gridiron go-round.
“I just wanted to play football one more time with all my friends, teammates and coaches,” said Cheng, now a senior at Bahrain High School.
Even though Cheng and his Team USA teammates didn’t fare as well as they’d hoped – Team Rising Sun, comprised mainly of Japanese first-year college players, routed the American high schoolers 42-8 – it was worth it in Cheng’s eyes.
“I’ve been at Yokosuka my whole life. It’s a part of me,” he said. “We didn’t get the win, but it was worth being with my teammates again.”
“It’s that relationship that the team members have,” Kinnick and Team USA head coach Dan Joley said. “They love and trust each other. Harry wanted one more go-round with his buddies. The game was kind of a side note. He wanted to be with his friends.”
In many respects, the game, held every second Sunday of March, tends to be a side note when the best American football players from 12 Pacific-area high schools and Japan’s best first-year collegiate players get together for the Tomodachi Bowl.
If there’s a prevailing theme to the event besides the activity on the field, it’s one of remembrance. It’s hard to forget where you were and what you were doing if you were anywhere near Tokyo at 2:46 p.m. Friday, March 11, 2011. Many were watching the ground wobble beneath their feet as the temblor hit and later seeing the horrific images on TV of the tsunami striking northeast Japan.
Of the some 2,000-plus in attendance on a chilly Sunday afternoon, many also remembered the way the American military stepped up to come to the aid of those suffering in northeast Japan – Operation Tomodachi, the origin of the Tomodachi Bowl’s name.
The Tomodachi Bowl is a chance to share each other’s cultures, with Japanese and Americans hitting helmets and pads across the line in a game invented in the United States and adopted by Japan, and to share brotherhood and camaraderie over food, drink, and a postgame awards ceremony.
“It’s an educational and cultural bonanza for our young men and something they will never forget,” said Fred Bales, the coach of Okinawa’s Kubasaki High School Dragons. “It will inform their thinking for the rest of their lives in a great many important ways. As I saw in a March 11 video once, ‘Nations have allies, but people have friends.’ That’s what this weekend was about. An exceedingly valuable piece of the educational puzzle.”
“It’s a good chance for the players from the different countries to recognize there’s a friendship there,” said Taka Mori, Nihon University coach and head coach of Team Rising Sun. “It’s a good opportunity for these young kids.”
It was a day-long celebration of football, starting in the morning with a series of flag games involving Japanese and American youth players. All the while, milling around the field’s perimeter, the Japanese college and American high school players prepared for the main event. Spectators took in the flag games and sampled some goodies on the mall near the southwest entrance of the field, including “Touchdown Curry,” a delicacy that’s become the staple of the day.
Prior to the main event, both teams lined up for a moment of silence in honor of those who passed and those still suffering in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake. The mayor of Chofu City, Yoshiki Nagatomo, did the ceremonial coin toss prior to kickoff.
It was a rather one-sided contest; Team Rising Sun came away victorious 42-8. This represented the continued turnaround from the first four times the teams met dating back to the 2010 Camellia Bowl. Team USA won the first four meetings by a combined 236-51; now Team Rising Sun has won three of the last four, including the last two, and has outscored the Americans 175-70 in that span.
American players earned their share of hardware after the game, with Humphreys’ Erich Gries being named Best Defensive Lineman, Kubasaki’s Koby Karl Best Defensive Back, and American School in Japan’s Jack Ambrosino the game’s Most Impressive Player.
Most agreed with the selection of the game’s Most Valuable Player, receiver Yusei Jin of Hosei University.
After the awards, players on both teams gathered for a large group photo, then formed smaller bunches for iPhone selfies.
“Awesome,” Joley said. “The camaraderie on both sides was immeasurable. There’s no better way to share each other’s cultures than at a football game.”