UCLA center Gyo Shojima is the first player of full Japanese heritage to play FBS football. He won't be the last.
Gyo Shojima sees the parallels now, but almost a decade ago, he had no idea that martial arts would directly impact his life as a college football player. Who could have seen it coming anyway?
At the time, Shojima lived in Tokyo, his hometown, where baseball and soccer were most kids' sport of choice. Shojima decided to take up Shorinji Kempo, a Japanese martial art specializing in self-defense, where emphasis is placed on protection of yourself, and others. Perhaps most important to the equation: Shojima knew next to nothing about America football, and didn't care much about it.
But now, at 23, he knows quite a bit about American football. And all those lessons about protecting others come in handy as a walk-on, backup offensive lineman for the UCLA Bruins, who open Pac-12 play this weekend when they host No. 6 Stanford.
Two weeks ago, in UCLA's win over UNLV, Shojima got his first FBS snaps late in the 42–21 victory. He is believed to be the first player born in Japan who is of full Japanese heritage to play in an FBS game. James Takada Gray, a running back who walked on at Utah, is of Japanese American heritage, as is Maryland offensive lineman Maurice Shelton. (Gray has yet to suit up for a game.) So for now, Shojima carries the Japanese flag, at least theoretically, by himself.
But he doesn't think it'll be that way forever.
"Football is becoming more popular in Japan," he says. "Even though we might not be able to compete with America right now [in terms of talent] I'm surprised, in a good way, by how seriously they're taking it over there."
Shojima—whose first name is pronounced "Gio"—got his start as a freshman in high school. The Shojima family moved to Redondo Beach, Calif., when Gyo was 9 because his father, Tatsuhiro, wanted to start an overseas consulting company. Gyo didn't know much about football, except that his father had played at a university in Japan, and that there was at least middling interest in his hometown because of Japan's semipro league. (Tatsuhiro Shojima continues to travel between the states and Tokyo for work and as such, was unavailable to speak for this story. But he said via text message that he is "honored" to have a son who plays for UCLA.)
Gyo assimilated easily to America, once he adjusted to the reality that living in the United States does not necessarily mean living in a mansion. "I've always been a fan of Hollywood movies, so as a little boy my first image in my head of America is that it was going to be big houses, big lawns, big swimming pools."
What he found might have been better. Shojima says he loves America because "you're never alone, and it's such a mix of many other cultures." Like many, he fell hard for the American "Friday Night Lights" experience.
"My favorite part about high school in America is that everyone has bought into school spirit," Shojima says. "On Fridays, everyone is dressed in school colors and excited to go to the stadium that night for the game. It's a party everywhere."
While he's quick to add that he has a deep respect for the academic side of the America education system—he says proudly that most of his classmates from Redondo Union High got into some of the countries top colleges—Shojima acknowledges that back home, priorities are a little different. In Tokyo, school sports take a back seat to serious preparation for academic life after graduation, with an intense focus on getting into good universities. At 18, Shojima experienced both.
Halfway through his senior year at Redondo Union, with football season over and no football scholarship offers waiting in his mailbox, Shojima transferred back to high school in Tokyo, moving in with his maternal grandparents. He says now he "wanted to experience the Japanese school life" before he ran out of time.
Like most high school seniors, his schedule featured as little homework as possible. The American school year runs from September to June, but Japan goes from April to March, which meant that Shojima graduated almost three months before his American classmates. But in a twist, Shojima actually played five seasons of high school football; four in America and one in Japan, which allowed him extra time to learn the game and perfect his skillset. He played on the 2012 Japanese International Federation of American Football (IFAF) U-19 World Championship Team in hopes of drumming up college interest, but when nothing came of it, decided to return to the states.
Back in California he enrolled as a full-time student at Santa Monica College, joining the football team one season later, in 2013. Instantly, he brought a new feel to the locker room. Gifford Lindheim, his college coach, remembers Shojima saying "yes, sir" and "no, sir" and frequently bowing his head in understanding. "He's very prideful, but refuses to ever complain. He has a true warrior mentality."
Still relatively new to football—especially compared to his America counterparts—Shojima showed quickly that he was "absolutely a student of the game," says Lindheim. "He did not have one bad habit. He wound up being a center who made calls on the line, because he is very smart and knew exactly what we were doing."
Adrian Klemm, the UCLA offensive line coach, sees the same qualities now that the 6' 3", 310-pound junior is on the Westwood campus.
"He plays (backup) center for us for the same reason: He knows everything that's going on, and can direct people where they need to be. He's so intelligent and the more challenged he is, the better he gets."
Lindheim says Shojima played well enough at Santa Monica to garner interest from a handful of Power Five schools but midway through his sophomore year, Shojima broke his leg and was forced to the sideline for the remainder of the season. Intrigued by UCLA's sterling academic reputation, he reached out to Klemm and said he'd be interested in walking on. When a local high school coach vouched for Shojima after he ran into Klemm on the recruiting trail, Klemm offered Shojima a preferred walk-on spot. He spent 2015 as a redshirt.
Now, Shojima fields tutoring requests from teammates—they ask for help in Japanese, which he speaks exclusively when home with his parents in Redondo Beach—while perfecting his football technique. Friends occasionally remind Shojima that there's never been a player of full Japanese heritage in the NFL, but he laughs when asked about that. His entire focus, he says, is to get on the field more for the Bruins. He'd love for his grandparents in Tokyo to have a reason to fly across the Pacific and watch him in the Rose Bowl. Lindheim, his college coach, is convinced it'll happen.
"Gyo is very determined. He's steadfast," Lindheim says. "He has a goal that he's going to get on the field and contribute. If they told him he wasn't good enough, it wouldn't really matter to him. He's just going to prove that he can."
Know a good walk-on story in college football? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com.