Michael Birdsong took his time chasing the pro football dream, but could never really find his fit. In college he bounced around, starting at James Madison before a coaching change wrote him out of the system, prevented by injury from taking over at Marshall, and finally finishing his career at Tennessee Tech. He did the NFL mini-camp circuit and spent 2018 training camp with the CFL’s B.C. Lions, a pro football player on the fringes with his options dwindling. Birdsong’s dream as he knew it was fading fast, but opportunity comes when you least expect it.
“It was pretty crazy. I was signed with the B.C. Lions when I was first approached in 2018. I said I wasn’t interested because at the time, I didn’t even know Japan played football. I was focused on Europe, if anything,” Birdsong says of the first time he heard of the Fujitsu Frontiers. “When I got cut from B.C. in May or June, they fortunately contacted me again and I was lucky I got to fly out. One of the coaches, Greg Gregory, was actually from Richmond, Virginia so that made me feel a little bit more comfortable.”
Once he touched down in Tokyo, 6,841 miles from his home in Richmond, Birdsong knew he finally found the fit that he’d been searching for.
“As soon as I got out here, I saw the talent level and the seriousness with which they take football,” he recalls. “My mindset completely changed. I was like ‘yeah, this is where I want to be’.”
The rest was history. Joining the reigning champion Frontiers, Birdsong immediately established himself as one of the X-League’s best signal callers. Now in his third season in Tokyo, the Virginian has already claimed two championships and he’s looking for more.
“It’s been a blessing. I wasn’t sure about the situation here but I knew Colby Cameron, my predecessor here, had won a few championships so I knew it was at least a decent team. Then when I got here and I saw how the organization was run from the top of it through to all the coaches and the GMs and then all the way down to the players and the captains on the team. There was no misstep from American college football,” Birdsong says. “I mean meetings are meetings, strength training is strength training. The way the Frontiers organization runs from the top to the bottom, it really shows why they have been successful for many years prior to myself coming here. They really just do it the right way.”
While the hub of international football in Europe often receives the majority of attention, Japan is in many ways its best kept secret. While the language and cultural barriers scare away some Americans, the X-League may be the highest quality football outside North America, able to pull talent from a wildly successful college system. In Birdsong’s view, the Japanese talent is frequently NCAA caliber.
“The one thing for any international place trying to adapt to American football, is there’s a lack of depth at positions. As far as the starters on basically every team though, you’ve got good guys. These kids could play in America in my personal opinion,” he says. “The moment I got out here and I went to practice, I saw my receivers getting in there and running routes. I saw the size of the o-linemen and I was instantly like ‘oh this isn’t backyard football over here’. This is legitimate, these guys take this serious. They train, they do everything right in terms of making a quality product on the field.”
As time has gone on, Birdsong has been wowed by the quality of the young players.
“It’s only getting better. I mean, you get guys coming out of college now looking legitimate. We have a tackle now [Tomoya Machino] and he looks like an NFL tackle, he looks that legitimate,” he marvels. “I’m just like wow, this kid’s 22 years old and Japanese—they aren’t supposed to make them like that.”
The quality of talent in Japan isn’t simply restricted to the field however. Towards the end of the 2019 season, Birdsong tore his Achilles tendon. It was initially a scary blow for the quarterback, one that could potentially put his career in jeopardy, put the medical care provided by Fujitsu was some of the best in the world.
“When I went home to do physical therapy in the States, I had the doctor who did my knee in high school say ‘this is some of the best work I’ve ever seen’. The scar on my Achilles is two inches long and in the States you get scars that are 6-8 inches long. Their program to get guys back—the pace of it was perfect for what I needed. Even my psychical therapist in the States said it was the exact pace I needed,” Birdsong explains. “I was running in four months or less, might have been three. At six months, I was basically good to go and that was from a completely ruptured Achilles. Credit goes first to my doctor Sanata-san, and then the physical training team that Fujitsu had, as well as mine back in the States.”
Rehab wasn’t the final challenge awaiting Birdsong for the 2020 season. COVID-19 put the Japanese season in danger and once him and his wife were able to finally get to Japan, the disease ripped through his family. Birdsong had to watch helplessly from thousands of miles away as his grandfather was taken into the ICU and his father struggled to recover. Luckily, both survived but it was a stark reminder of the costs of playing high level football.
“That’s just part of the job. You’ve got to make your sacrifices,” Birdsong says. “If you want to play, you’ve got to deal with those things.”
Now, he’s focused on bringing a third championship to the Frontiers, potentially the team’s fifth straight. For a dominant team, complacency is the enemy and Birdsong knows the result is not guaranteed.
“This is a new season, it’s a new game, new circumstances. Their teams are different, our team’s different. You just got to keep pushing through and it can be tough. There are times where it’s hard to stay laser focused, even if you know you should,” he admits. “We know that if we don’t show up, those teams are going to beat us, so we better show up. You’ve just got to push through that mental challenge and try to be better than you were yesterday.”
Win or lose, playing in Japan has been a life-changing experience for Birdsong and his wife, something he won’t be finished with any time soon. He’s fallen in love with the culture, food and way of life in a way he never could have imagined. Thinking back to where he started, Birdsong advises any player whose pushed their dream to the limit in North America to strongly consider Japan, though he has a word of warning.
“Don’t think you’re just coming over here and you’ll be the big dog and dominate the league because that’s not exactly what will happen. The competition over here is legit. It’s a good time. If you come,be ready to adjust culturally. You’ve got to fit in, you can’t come over here and be disrespectful,” Birdsong says. “If you come to Japan, fall in line, follow their cultural values and show some respect, you’ll have a great time. They’ll really welcome you here. The culture, the people, everybody. It’s been some of the best years we’ve had.”