On a picture-perfect football Saturday at venerable Harvard Stadium, the video cameras were out in abundance. Pennants flapped in the cool breeze off the Charles River. Alumni in crested blazers, wielding their sophisticated electronic equipment, exchanged business cards and warbled fight songs. The teams bowed to each other before the ceremonial kickoff and then played their hearts out for dear old Keio and Waseda.
Now wait a sushi-pickin' minute. Video cameras? Players bowing? A ceremonial kickoff? Keio and Waseda? What in the name of Walter Camp was going on here?
Only the best game Harvard and Yale never played. Even weirder: Harvard coach Joe Restic was dressed in Yale blue as he nervously paced one sideline. Across the field, Restic's longtime nemesis, Carmen Cozza of Yale, exhorted the excited underdogs while decked out in Harvard crimson.
As in origami, the symmetry couldn't have been more perfect. Keio and Waseda, both in Tokyo, are two of Japan's oldest private universities. They're often compared with Harvard and Yale, for their sports rivalry as well as for the collective ego of their graduates.
September 8, 1991
What better schools to stage the first Japanese college football game in the U.S.? And what better coaches than Restic and Cozza, who will face each other for the 21st time this season?
The deal was struck last December, when Cozza coached a group of Ivy League players in a game against Japanese college all-stars in Yokohama. Representatives of Keio and Waseda tossed out the idea of a summer exhibition game in New England; they would find a sponsor. Cozza conferred with Restic, with whom he's actually quite friendly, and the two agreed not only to stage the game at Harvard but also to coach the teams during their stay in America.
So that's how the Waseda Big Bears happened to spend a week training with Cozza at Yale in June, while Restic worked with Keio's Unicorns at Harvard. Both coaches enlisted the help of assistants and players from their respective varsity teams. Keio's and Waseda's coaches, all volunteers, were also on hand. For the game—or should we say, The Game?—Cozza and Restic donned their respective Japanese school's colors. "Never thought I'd be wearing crimson," said Cozza with a sigh. Restic practically looked like a Yale man in blue.
And what a game it was. After a Japanese politician squibbed a kick to conclude the pregame festivities, Keio quickly rolled to a 14-0 lead. But early in the second quarter, Unicorn quarterback Kenichiro Onishi went to the sidelines with a partial separation of his left shoulder. Waseda got a lift from Onishi's absence, scoring 19 unanswered points on three touchdowns. The Big Bears flubbed an extra-point attempt and a two-point conversion, but no one really lost face. Waseda, which trailed 30-8-1 in its series with Keio and lost 38-17 to the Unicorns in the final week of last season, seemed on the verge of a major upset.
But with less than two minutes remaining, Keio recovered a fumble at the Waseda 36. Restic turned to Onishi, who had not reappeared in the game. A 19-year-old sophomore, Onishi proceeded to lead his teammates on a drive that would have impressed the New York Giants. Ignoring the pain in his left shoulder, the righthanded Onishi completed passes on two consecutive fourth downs. The latter was a 22-yard touchdown toss with 38 seconds remaining that put Keio back in front, 21-19. The TD touched off a raucous celebration, and a number of players on both sides burst into tears.
"I have to get a touchdown," a grinning Onishi said in staccato, breathless English, after Waseda's last-second 50-yard field goal attempt fell short and the teams took their bows and finished singing their fight songs. "My shoulder doesn't ache right now, because I won. When I get back to Japan, ow!"
All in all, it was a heroic day at the stadium, which had been dedicated in 1903 TO THE JOY OF MANLY CONTEST, as the inscription reads above the entrance to the south end zone. "It was a typical Harvard-Yale game," said Restic with a hint of a smile. Reminded that he'll now have a chance to beat Cozza twice in the same year, the smile became more than a hint. "That would be a first," said Restic. "Of course, the next one is the one we want."
Keio adopted a few plays from Harvard's multiflex offense, but other than a couple of reverses, neither team did anything fancy. Keio's attack was more diverse than Waseda's; the Unicorns passed 31 times to the Big Bears' 11. "I saw some things the Japanese coaches copied from Notre Dame and UCLA," said Restic. "The coaches attend clinics run by Americans, and I know they're learning fast."
Both Restic and Cozza said they were pleasantly surprised by the quality of play. "Many people wondered if they would be able to play at all well," Restic said. "They played very well." Added Cozza, "They're bright. They retained everything we told them. Tell them once and they've got it, even if they don't always execute it."
Still, the talent gulf is wide. Restic thinks that perhaps two players who participated in the Keio-Waseda game could play in the Ivy League. As a point of comparison, in December, Cozza's Ivy stars beat their Japanese hosts 47-10.
Amefuto is gaining more of a toehold in Japan, where it's played by 210 college teams, 113 high schools and 79 company-sponsored teams, most using modified NCAA rules. Although the players are much smaller than their American counterparts—the Keio squad, for example, averages 5'9½", 167 pounds—they make up for their lack of size with an enthusiasm not often witnessed on this side of the Pacific. From the time they hurtled onto the field screaming "Banzai!" and other rallying cries, the Keio and Waseda players displayed a depth of emotion that belies the stereotype of the cool, reserved Japanese. The quarterbacks don't bark out "Hut!" They yell "Yaaaaaaaah!" at the top of their lungs.
It's quite a contrast to baseball in Japan, which is approached with great dignity. "Japanese baseball is literally Japanese baseball," says Dr. Tsutomu Takeuchi, president of Keio's athletic association. "We have changed the style of the game. But this is still American football, even in Japan."
Introduced by American missionaries in the 1930s, football was banned in Japan during World War II. After the war, U.S. troops organized games for themselves, and the locals picked up the ball and ran with it. (Passing came later.) Spurred along by the introduction of televised U.S. college and pro games during the 1970s, football is Japan's fastest-growing sport, trailing only baseball, rugby, sumo wrestling and soccer in popularity. The Rice Bowl, in Tokyo, which pits the best collegiate team against the top company squad, attracts more than 40,000 fans.
According to Satohiro Akimoto, a Harvard graduate student and former Keio coach, football's inherent exuberance, its pageantry, its all-American rawness and, yes, its violence all contribute to its increasing appeal to the Japanese. "It's kind of strange the way baseball has been acculturated in Japan," says Akimoto, who helped organize the Keio-Waseda game. "It becomes a way of life; there's more of a spiritual side to it than in football. To play baseball is very glorified in Japan. Football is different. Since it's relatively new to Japan, it is much more open to American ways."
During the week of practice, the Harvard and Yale coaches quickly recognized the Japanese players' work ethic and willingness to learn, although they worried that the visitors were too polite. English-speaking players on both teams served as interpreters, but the words "be more aggressive" soon needed no translation.
"I don't know if you'd call it politeness, but the aggressiveness level is different," says Akimoto. "American players are much more aggressive. They interpret the rules a little differently. I've never seen a fight on the field in Japan. Sometimes you have to tell them, 'You have to hit hard. If you don't hit hard, you're not a football player.' "
Indeed, blitzing linebackers tended to surround the quarterback, waiting for him to fall down. On the other hand, both teams actually jumped offside, and the game even had a few late hits and other personal fouls. "They really love the game," said Restic. "The only thing they lack is size."
They certainly don't lack heart. Asked why he returned to the game despite the pain in his injured shoulder, Onishi responded, "I want to show you good Japanese football."
Mission accomplished. But there's more. "This game was for coach Restic and my father," said Onishi. "When we left Japan, it was Father's Day, and I didn't send him anything. This is my gift. Unbelievable. Amazing."