Former ELF quarterback Aaron Ellis leads Japan’s Dentsu Caterpillars to brink of X League promotion

In the world of international American football, Europe and Japan stand as the two opposing pillars. Both have rich histories but vastly different cultures, rarely crossing with one another. The debate over which offers a higher level of competition remains one of the sport’s most divisive talking points.

Quarterback Aaron Ellis can now count himself among the fortunate few who have straddled both poles of football’s global poles. The University of Saint Francis product had been living the life of a European journeyman since 2019, suiting up for six different teams in five countries, but opted to go a little further afield this fall, joining the Dentsu Caterpillars.

“I heard great things about the level of play in Japan and I was looking for a chance to prove myself,” Ellis said of his decision to leave Europe. “Plus, I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese culture as a history teacher.”

The move has been a wildly successful one, both for the quarterback and his new team. With a 28-20 victory over the AsOne Black Eagles this past weekend, the Caterpillars have claimed the X1 Area championship with a 6-1-0 record and now sit poised for promotion to Japan’s top league, the X1 Super, for the first time.

Ellis, meanwhile, has flourished as a player. He has paced the rest of the X1 Area with 1,528 passing yards and 17 touchdowns in seven games. While the game came easily to him, adjusting to life in Japan did have its challenges.

“Culturally, it was definitely a big adjustment,” the quarterback admitted. “It was really hard my first month here, as Tokyo can make you feel isolated as a foreigner. But my team did an amazing job helping me and I’m thankful I have an offensive coordinator and a few offensive guys that speak great English.”

Prior to his arrival in Japan, Ellis put together an eclectic football resume. He began his career in Denmark with the Frederikssund Oaks, playing five games before the team was forced to withdraw from the league due to a player shortage. He spent the cancelled 2020 season with the Ostrava Steelers of the Czech League, before returning to Denmark for a brief stint with the Sollerod Gold Diggers.

Frederikssund Oaks QB Aaron Ellis Photo: Mikkel Bo Rasmussen/1st Down Photo

It was at that stage that Ellis received his big break, being called upon as a mid-season quarterback replacement for the ELF’s Stuttgart Surge. It was a challenging season for the organization, but the 27-year-old acquitted himself well, throwing for 1,173 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions despite being sacked 33 times in seven games.

From there, Ellis joined a star-studded Bucharest Rebels team that rolled to a Romanian championship, before jumping to the Telfs Patriots of Austria to lead the number one passing offense in that country.

His breadth of international experience leaves Ellis uniquely qualified to judge the merits of second division Japanese football compared to the rest of the world. Most importantly, he is one of the few who can offer insight on how it stacks up against the ELF, which hopes to lay claim to the title of the top league outside North America so long held by the X-League.

“I personally love football out here in Japan,” Ellis said, noting that the two leagues offer different styles of play because of Japan’s well-established college system.

“In the ELF, you’ll find the more individually talented and athletically gifted players, but in Japan, you’ll find a much more disciplined version of football with players that have a very high football IQ. The Japanese work ethic is something you won’t experience in most countries. It’s been fun playing against some great, disciplined defenses.”

Photo: Veronika Lercher

The quarterback considers his time in Japan to be among the most rewarding of his career, tied with his experience playing for the Telfs Patriots. He has signed a contract to return to Austria to be with that team for their upcoming season but would seriously consider coming back to Tokyo in the future.

In the meantime, his focus remains on winning the Caterpillars’ upcoming promotion game. A victory would be just the latest in a string of recent successes for Ellis-led teams and he is happy to see more teams taking notice of what he can do — regardless of the league or country.

“I believe I bring a level of leadership, competitive edge, football IQ and a commitment to the growth of the team that can greatly benefit an organization and help take them over the hump,” he said.

For Dentsu, that hump will take place on December 10 when they take on the All Mitsubishi Lions for the coveted berth in the X1 Super.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.