One of the most successful college football clubs in Japan meets one of the oldest football programs in the sport’s mother country when Kwansei Gakuin University takes on Princeton University in the Legacy Bowl on Saturday.
The exhibition game at Kincho Stadium in Osaka celebrates the 125th anniversary year for Kwansei Gakuin, whose football team, the Fighters, has won a record of 27 national college titles, including the last four in a row.
Princeton was established in 1746 and its football game against Rutgers on Nov. 6, 1869, is regarded by many as the first American football game ever played.
Former Princeton Tigers standout receiver Roman Wilson is one of the alumni who are proud of the tradition of the Ivy League school.
“Playing football in Princeton, it feels special. You’re playing in the oldest program in the nation. That’s where football originated,” said Wilson, who played for the Tigers from 2010-13. “You feel some special connection, not only with your teammates but with all the university alumni. That’s why you see alumni who graduated 30 years ago come back and be like your friends for years. It is really one of the coolest things of the connections of the alumni.”
The connection really worked well for Wilson to continue his football career in Japan. Wilson made 86 catches for 919 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013 as a senior en route to being named to the First-Team All-Ivy League and The Sports Network FCS Third-Team All-American squad. His performances also helped the Tigers share the Ivy League title with Harvard.
What’s more, Wilson’s 86 receptions that season rank second on Princeton’s all-time list, and his rate of 8.6 catches per game was the fourth-best average on the NCAA Division I level.
“Our coach was changing when I came in (as a freshman in 2010). So my entire class had that coaching staff all the way through,” said Wilson, explaining the recent success of the Tigers. “I think I established myself as a go-to receiver by the time I became senior. From the very beginning of the season, (quarterbacks) threw to me often.”
But that was not enough to get him into the NFL.
“I had a few local Pro Days for some of the professional teams like the New York Jets and Giants,” Wilson said. “I was hoping to get the call to come to the camp, but I didn’t get the call.”
That is when Wilson decided to come to Japan to play football. Mike Lerch, another Princeton alumnus who runs Evolution Capital Management in Tokyo (and once owned the bj-league’s Tokyo Apache) and knows Wilson through the Tigers football program, allowed Wilson to work at his office and play football.
Unfortunately, it was too late to try for the top division teams of the X-League, so Wilson joined the Osaka-based Sidewinders of the X-League second division, because Lerch played for the Sidewinders in the 1994-95 seasons.
Wilson had 10 catches for 253 yards and three touchdowns in four games, helping the Sidewinders finish second in the West division.
“Japanese people are a little smaller in most of the positions. I don’t think that takes away any of the level of play,” Wilson said. “In the U.S., colleges are always going to be a step behind the NFL. High schools are always going to be a step behind colleges. I think Japanese football is maybe a step behind football of America.
“Offensively, no-huddle, spread offense is very prevalent,” he continued “It’s just now getting started in Japan. I think it’s just a step behind. I’m not taking anything away from Japanese football. Now you’re just starting to get really good American coaches here in Japan, so they bring some offenses. It’s just a trickle-down.”
One of the disadvantages football players in Japan face are the facilities, Wilson pointed out.
“Coming from the college program, you have access to the gym 24/7,” he said. “You go to the gym whenever you want, and you go to the field whenever you want. But Tokyo is very limited for space. Gym membership is going to be very expensive and there are not many gyms around. If you are in America, there are going to be gyms almost everywhere. And you can find the gym that has the exact equipment you want. But in Japan, it’s a little more difficult. I think the biggest thing is the field access. There are not so many football fields in Tokyo.”
Kwansei Gakuin, however, has better football facilities. The school has a football practice field on campus, which is rare in this country. The Fighters also have experienced football coaches, which is also something not all colleges can afford.
The physical aspect is what the Fighters will have to overcome against the Tigers on Saturday. That is something that Fighters head coach Hideaki Toriuchi learned from the last meeting with the Tigers in another exhibition game to celebrate Kwansei Gakuin’s 111th anniversary in 2001. The Tigers won 27-25 with a last-minute field goal.
“Our defense couldn’t stop them when they ran against us 14 years ago,” Toriuchi said during Monday’s press conference. “We need all the defensive players to move around in pursuit to stop them.”
“They are better physically, but I believe we can counter with our better fundamentals and execution of the assignments,” team captain and offensive lineman Ryo Hashimoto said. “This is an anniversary game, but we go out there to win it.”
Unlike the Tigers, who brought a new team for the 2015 season to Japan, the Fighters are allowed to get help from seniors, who played the last game of the 2014 season in a 33-24 loss to the X League champion Fujitsu Frontiers in the Rice Bowl on Jan 3. That class includes former starters in quarterback Kei Saito, running back Satoshi Sagino and linebacker Kohei Ono, though they are not expected to play a lot because they have been out of football for more than two months.
The quarterback battle is something to watch for the Tigers. Seniors Quinn Epperly and Connor Michelsen, who started for the Tigers last season, are both gone. Chad Kanoff, Kedric Bostic and Jon Lovett are competing for the starting position.
“I expect it to be a tough game,” said Wilson, who is assigned to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the game. “It is interesting and dynamic because most of the players in America do not even know there is the championship in Japan in football. They don’t know what to expect. It’s going to be a very good game.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. local time, 12 a.m. EST (Friday night/Saturday morning).
Tickets are now available at major ticket outlets.