Discovering Japanese American Football During Quarantine
During the height of quarantine, my YouTube recommendations introduced me to a football league I never knew existed: The X-League. Not to be confused with the recently-rebranded X-League in the United States (formerly known as the Lingerie Football League), this X-League is an American football league based in Japan. The video was the full broadcast of the X-League’s equivalent of the Super Bowl: The 2019 “Japan X-Bowl” which is played in Tokyo Dome to a crowd of 30,000 fans. The broadcast was almost entirely in Japanese, except for the very enthusiastic “Touchdown!” yelled by the sportscasters. Despite the language barrier, I actually found the game to be quite watchable simply based on my familiarity with the game of football.
Before I go any further, allow me to dive into the history of how American football arrived in Japan: It all started in 1934 when an American Christian missionary by the name of Paul Rusch introduced the game through his creation of the Intercollegiate Football League, the first college-level American football in Japan. Having been deported from Japan at the outbreak of World War II, Rusch would return in 1945 after hostilities ended to continue his work establishing the game at football on the primary school level. He is often referred to as “The Father Of American Football in Japan”. The X-League was founded in 1971 as the Japan American Football League before changing to its current name in 1997. The league consists mostly of company-owned teams like the “IBM Big Blue” or the “Panasonic Impulse”, the latter of which happened to be playing in the Japan X-Bowl game that I was watching.
Among the players who caught my eye was the sight of an American at the position of quarterback. As it turns out, the X-League allows for four foreign players to be added to the roster, but only two can be on the field at any given time. The quarterback’s name was Anthony Lawrence. He had played college football at the University of San Diego before trying out for the NFL. Draft Day came and Lawrence was unfortunately not selected. He tried to join the Canadian Football League, a popular option for many undrafted players, but an offer never materialized. That’s when he got an offer from the Panasonic Impulse for the position of quarterback. After considering his other options, the 6’ 1” 195 lbs. quarterback from California decided to take the offer and ended up moving 6,000 miles from San Diego to Osaka, Japan.
Despite not knowing the language, it was that same familiarity with the game of football that allowed him to settle into his role. As he told The USD Vista: “Being out here, you realize all of the differences in cultures, but you also realize the similarities. There’s guys on the team that like to mess around, there’s guys that work super hard. Being in the locker room feels like being in any other locker room I’ve ever been in. You mess around with the guys, you have fun being on the field, you’re still laughing at practice, you’re having fun, enjoying it…”
Although he never achieved NFL stardom, Lawrence became a star in his own right, leading his team to victory in five of the last seven games in the 2019 regular season and eventually to the championship game at Tokyo Dome where he would face off against the Fujitsu Frontiers in the Japan X Bowl in front of 30,000 fans. “One of the best football environments I've ever played in in my career." Lawrence said. (Spoiler Alert: His team lost) Despite the loss, Lawrence had every intention of returning to Japan for another season. So earlier this year, he packed his bags and hopped on a plane to be there for his team’s spring training. Back in Japan however, officials with the league ended up cancelling the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately for Lawrence, he didn’t find out until his plane landed in Japan.
Lawrence’s story is a prime example of an athlete willing to do whatever it takes to prove himself, even if it means moving to an entirely different country to pursue that dream and you can’t help but fall in love with that and root for him every step of the way. Here at Better Display Cases, we believe that everyone should be able to display their story. When Lawrence finally decides to finally hang up the helmet for good, he’ll have quite the story to tell. We certainly hope he will consider one of our many football helmet display cases to help tell that story. 😉