Germany’s Berlin Adler may not be having a banner season, but there is at least one player on the team who is not hanging his head and waiting for the season to end.
After all, no one has traveled as far as Japanese wide receiver Yuki Ikei both in terms of distance and culture, on his own dime, to play football in Europe this season.
He has endured the language barrier (he spoke very little English and no German when he arrived), an injury, a mid-season wedding in Japan (it had been scheduled as per custom), a totally different culture and is still dying to get on the field every day.
And his are teammates watching him, some even adopting his habits.
One year ago the 26-year-old Ikei was playing football for the Obic Seagulls, the top team in the X League, Japan’s premier league. He then made a decision that he wanted to try something totally different. He wanted to play in Europe, or more specificially, in Germany.
Adler head coach Erik Schramm was more than a little surprised to find himself with a Japanese receiver in March. Ikei had sent him a Facebook message and two days later he suddenly arrived on Schramm’s doorstep, so to speak.
“Yuki had contacted someone on the Dusseldorf Panther who directed him to us,” said Schramm. “We had to make him understand that we could not afford to pay him, but we did manage to find him accommodation quickly.”
Although the club has struggled to survive this season, as has been the case with other teams in Europe, Yuki has been a welcome addition. His work ethic alone has had an impact.
“We have to keep him from working out 7 days a week, 24 hours a day almost. He wanted to hit the gym even after suffering with a serious ‘charley horse’.”
There is a language barrier, but fortunately for Ikei and the Adler, one of his German teammates – Joseph Cochanski – speaks Japanese, which has been a huge bonus for the coaches.
“We had to resort to using body contortions to explain plays and schemes to him. It did look pretty comical at times. But he really knows his football and picked up on things quickly.”
Yuki’s latest football journey actually began after his team, the Obic Seagulls, had faced and defeated two German teams – the Dusseldorf Panther and Dresden Monarchs – in the previous two years in exhibition games, and it gave him a yearning to see for himself how much different playing in Germany would be.
He had started playing football in Japan in high school 11 years ago and then continued through university before joining the Seagulls who are one of the top teams in Japan:
“We won the championship two of the three years I played with them and went to the semifinals the other year,” said Ikei.
The 5’8″, 175-lb Ikei has seen plenty of playing time for the Adler although the team is plentiful at the receiver spot. He even scored his very first touchdown against the Dusseldorf Panther a couple of weeks ago.
Life has been good, although there are some cultural hurdles, or oddities, that Ikei has noticed.
“People sure stop working on Fridays early, and everything is closed down on Sundays,” he said.
As to his taste in food, he has been brought up on a Japanese diet of fish but definitely likes the change in Germany:
“I love sushi but I have to admit that I really like being able to eat meat so often here.”
Jag Bal is Berlin’s defensive coordinator and was Ikei’s roommate for a couple of months. He also had to coach against him every practice. He has been impressed by his dedication and humility.
In fact, he goes so far as to say that Ikei has instilled the team with what Bal calls the “Yuki Factor”.
“He comes to work every day and in his own quiet way whether perfecting his footwork, working on his routes or lifting weights he has had an impact on many of the players. They see the dedication minus the loud talk and have begun to emulate him.”
Although he does not have as many catches as his fellow receivers on the team, Bal says that is not due to his quality of play but more due to the fact that he is double covered in most games.
“Word has gotten out and other teams are wary of him. They get physical with him and not only do they double cover him but they will adjust coverages to him and put their best defender on him. They have to because he is that good.”
In fact, that physical play is what Ikei says is the big difference between football in Japan and Germany.
“In Japan the game is faster, players play quicker. But here it is much more physical. We rely much more on tactics too in Japan but in Germany players focus on doing the simple things better.”
Ikei is not intimidated by the physicality of the game in Germany though. In fact, he relishes it:
“I love the the challenge playing man-on-man against a defensive back and beating him. I dream about it.”
Yuki is a big fan of football in the United States admitting that his favorite college team is the Oregon Ducks (he loves their offense) and his NFL favorite is the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He and the Seagulls were in Alabama for a couple of weeks in 2014 and had a chance to take in a few semi-pro games. He was impressed with the speed of the game and would like to try it himself maybe next year.
To others this may be a pipe dream. But in the case of Yuki Ikei it is more than that. He has proven that he will go to almost any lengths to realize his American football dreams.
Thank you to Japanese interpreter Dan Asenlund for his invaluable assistance.