Notre Dame Japan Bowl 2009

http://www.und.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/072509aaa.html

 

Thanks to Jay and Pat and the rest of the guys at BGS for letting me share my experience at the game. BGS and the rest of the ND and non-ND blogs (Rakes, HLS, Dr. Saturday, EDSBS, and Smart Football are daily reads of mine) help keep those of us overseas up to date on ND and college football in general, and we owe them a hearty thanks. You can bet your readership in Afghanistan will go up by one starting next month.

First, a little bit about me and my situation. I’m an ND grad, Class of ’98, and my wife Amy is ’00. I’m in the US Army, and we’ve been stationed in Japan for the last 5½ years. Before that I was in Korea twice, so I’ve spent many seasons getting up at 3 AM to watch the Irish on AFN or listen to them on internet radio. For the past 2 years, I’ve been assigned as a liaison officer with the Japanese military, working on a Japanese base in Kumamoto (Southern Japan) as the only US military person there. Amy and I joked that the two of us were the entire “Notre Dame Club of Kumamoto”. As much as we love Japan (Amy and I both majored in Japanese at ND and spent a year at Nanzan University here in Japan), it’s time for me to take a short hiatus and travel elsewhere: in 4 weeks I’ll be in sunny Afghanistan, doing my best to stay safe and help out capturing bad guys as best I can. My wife, our 3 year old son, and 1 month old daughter will be staying here in Japan at Camp Zama, a US Army base near Tokyo, and hopefully I’ll return to Japan after a year and spend some more time in our adopted country.

                Even before we knew my exact destination, we knew we’d be moving in July of 2009, whether it was to Afghanistan, Iraq, or the US. So when we saw the announcement that a team of ND “Legends” was coming to Tokyo to play the Japanese National Team, we were excited that Notre Dame would be coming to Japan, but sad because we thought we’d be missing out. After 5½ years following ND on AFN, internet radio, and lately on www.channelsurfing.net, it was comic injustice that we’d miss our chance to see REAL LIVE NOTRE DAME FOOTBALL. And then, to make a long story somewhat shorter, life happened: my wife got pregnant with a due date in July, the Army decided I needed to go to Afghanistan in March, Generals with common sense intervened on my behalf, and my report date was reset for August. My wife gave birth to our lovely little daughter Aya at the end of June, and since I was able to stay through the beginning of August, it all worked out for us to go to the game. This was kind of my “last hurrah” of fun in the midst of moving houses and getting ready to deploy.

                Okay, enough background—let’s get to the stuff you all care about. Amy and I decided to buy the “VIP” ticket package since a. it’s not like I’m going to spend the money in Afghanistan, b. it’s not like we’ll get too many more opportunities to see ND play in Japan, and c. the package looked pretty cool. Mike Golic and Joe Montana were supposed to make the trip and would be seated in the VIP section with us, game jerseys and helmets were included in the package, the seats were supposed to be pretty good, and we got entrance to a post-game VIP party. Can’t miss deal, right? Of course, about 2 weeks before the game it was announced that both Montana and Golic were going to cancel out. To the organizer’s credit, they gave us the opportunity of a full refund (I wonder how many people took it?), but we decided to press on. I can hear Mike Golic on internet radio anytime I want (isn’t technology great?) so really, no big loss.

                So we come to the weekend of the game;  my family is at Camp Zama, the headquarters base for US Army-Japan. It’s about 90 minutes from Tokyo, if traffic cooperates. I fly in from our old home of Kumamoto late on Thursday night. Camp Zama had announced that some of the players and coaches would be making an appearance at the Camp Zama gym on Friday morning, so despite our 4 hours of sleep, my wife and I woke our son Brian up, got him dressed up in his Brady Quinn jersey and ND hat, and went to the gym to go get him some signatures and give him his first “real” taste of ND football. Unfortunately, when we got to the gym there was an employee there holding a sign that said “ND Football Player Visit Cancelled” as he turned people away. I found out later that the team was supposed to come in via helicopter, and the weather that morning was too rainy for them to fly safely. While we were disappointed, I certainly would want the team to err on the side of safety. Amy and I would just have to wait to see the team. Brian will get his turn soon enough, when we eventually get back stateside for a game.  As this would really be the only disappointing thing about the weekend, I really cannot complain at all.

                About lunchtime we packed up the car, the kids, and my mother-in-law (a saint of a woman who has been helping Amy with the kids, and who would watch them the entire weekend for us. You can nominate a non-Catholic for sainthood under the right circumstances, can’t you? Watching 2 crazy children and allowing her ND grad daughter and ND grad son-in-law to enjoy an ND game in Japan prior to being apart for a year…THAT is sainthood if I ever saw it) and departed for Tokyo. We stayed at a military lodging facility downtown, near where the ND Club of Japan reception would be that night. Amy and I left the kids with Mom, and grabbed a taxi for the New Sanno Hotel, a US Navy-run semi-luxury hotel in Tokyo that serves as kind of an R&R facility for Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines in the Pacific area. The ND Club of Japan has held gamewatches here for years; when we lived in Tokyo, we did much of the coordination each week as the active duty military members. The current club leadership, Jim Moynihan and Bill Moran, have connections with the hotel and are able to schedule it for gamewatches and other club events. During the cocktail hour prior to dinner it was nice to run into several ND club members we had not seen in our 2 years away from the Tokyo area, but as dinner time approached Amy and I tried to find a seat. We ended up sitting at a table on the side, and as the guests filled in, no one ended up sitting with us. At first we wondered if we had leprosy or something, but then quickly realized that the team would be coming in later, and would fill the empty spaces. And yes, they did—we were incredibly lucky and pleased to have Ryan Roberts (DE #95), his wife Christine, his parents, and Brian Mattes (OL #76XXX) and his fiancée Jessica sit with us at our table. Additionally, we had Mr. Mike Collins sit with us. Many of you may not recognize the name, but you’d surely recognize his voice. He came by and introduced himself: “Hi, I’m Mike Collins, the Voice of Notre Dame”. And yes…yes he was. Mike has been the announcer at Notre Dame Stadium for…well, forever, really. And as soon as he opened his mouth, you KNEW that, even if he didn’t say it. Mike was the emcee for the evening’s events. I kept expecting him to start telling us what musical selections the ND Band was about to play, or that the women’s lacrosse team was playing immediately after the reception at the adjacent field. For a pair of ND grads who’ve been away from the “gameday experience” for so long, to have the voice of the STADIUM sit next to you for dinner was truly an awesome experience.

                Through the course of the evening, they had various speakers come up to the stage and talk. The invocation was given by a priest who lives and works in Japan who graduated from ND in 1943. Bobby Valentine, former Major League Baseball manager and current manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines, spoke and told of his experiences being recruited by Ara Parseghian. Chuck Lennon spoke, as did Patrick Steenberge, former ND QB and president of Global Football. The Irish Ambassador to Japan, the Hon. Mr. Brendan Scannell, presented Coach Holtz with an Irish flag that had been flown over the Embassy in Tokyo. The team captains each spoke briefly, and were followed by, of course,

LOU!

                At the end of the evening, the entire team gathered on the stage to sing the Victory March. Amy and I managed to get a picture with Lou on his way out.  We went back to our hotel and got some rest for GAMEDAY!

 

                Saturday morning we took the kids and Mom-in-law out to lunch prior to heading to the Tokyo Dome for the game. We’d seen an NFL preseason game at the Dome a few years ago—Indianapolis vs. Atlanta, with Manning and Vick at QB’s, and I wondered how the crowd would compare. Would Japanese people, even football fans, care about a game against Notre Dame? Would the Japanese National Team be any good? Would they be TOO good, and kill our team of old-timers? The questions weighed on our minds, but the excitement of getting to see ND football overmatched anything else. Amy and I hopped the subway to the Tokyo Dome, and were pleasantly surprised when we got there. The crowd was fairly large for a sport that your average Japanese knows NOTHING about; many Japanese people were in Irish gear: the “Shirt”, Brady Quinn jerseys, and all manner of ND-logo’d apparel. Of course, many were simply football fans getting a taste of what American football was all about, so you saw Farve, McNabb, Brady, and all manner of NFL/other team jerseys as well. As we’d seen at the NFL preseason game, Japanese football fans are a passionate, knowledgeable bunch, precisely because the sport is so unknown in Japan—for them to learn, they have to teach themselves. They really don’t have the chance to be a casual fan, so for every fan who could barely tell the ND team from the Japanese team, there were fans who could diagram a Cover 2 and understood the spread variables the Japanese team ran. Interesting, to say the least. We made our way up to the VIP section, where we were presented with game programs and game jerseys from the ND team. Amy chose #3, a nod to Joe Montana and our hopes for Michael Floyd this year, and I chose #5, hoping I can pull Armando Allen through a 1000 yard season, and because my freshman year Ajani Sanders, an ND Safety who wore #5, lived on my floor in Morrissey. We found our balcony seats on the 50 yard line and settled in. 50 yard line sounds great, until you remember that the Tokyo Dome is a baseball stadium—the 50 yard line is the furthest point from the actual field. It was a decent view, but just far enough away to cause our camera to have some problems (apologies right now for the graininess in some of the pics).

                GAMETIME! First, the Japan National Team took the field, in their red jerseys and white helmets. The crowd and their cheerleaders were appropriately enthusiastic, but everyone was really waiting for those Golden Helmets to come streaming out. When the ND team was announced, and the Irish took the field, the smaller American section, filled with player families, expats, and military stationed here, erupted in cheers. Seeing the players stream on the field got me pumped and choked up all at once, I’ll admit. The team captains met at midfield for the coin toss, which Japan won; Japan elected to receive, and the game began. The Japanese took the kick, and got a decent runback to about the 30, I think. And promptly called timeout. Huh? Amy and I looked at her—was Bob Davie coaching the Japanese team? Would this be an indication of their level of play?

                The short answer is “no”. After coming out from the timeout, the Japanese put on a fairly impressive display of offense, driving the length of the field, only to be stopped on 4th down deep in Irish territory. The Japanese run a version of the spread, mixing precision passing with shotgun based option. Imagine a team an entire team of scatbacks, and you’ve got what their offense looked like. It was like playing a Navy team that could pass. The Irish D would hold them to minimal gains on 1st and 2nd down, only to give a Japanese WR or RB just enough space to wriggle through to the sticks on 3rd and long. I commented to Amy that it was like watching Urban Meyer’s Utah team—disciplined, precise, and frustrating. WR’s ran exactly 1 yard past the 1st down marker and the QB would hit them to move the chains. Misdirection option plays and shovel passes left their RB’s with open space in front of them. Meanwhile, our offense, a vintage Lou Holtz I-formation option game, had trouble doing much of anything. As the 1st quarter ended with Japan up 3-0, Amy and I looked at each other and thought “uh-oh…”

Of course, to Japan’s credit, there’s was an all-star team of both professional and college players, ranging in age from 20 to 34. For those not familiar with Japanese football, Japan has two leagues: a professional league made up of teams sponsored by corporations, and a college league where most of the major universities compete against each other. Each year the champions of the two leagues compete against each other in the “Rice Bowl”, Japan’s version of the Super Bowl. Could you imagine the Gators winning the NC, and their reward is to play against the Pittsburgh Steelers after the Super Bowl? Crazy, but there doesn’t seem to be too much of a gap between the college and pro levels here in Japan. I’ve seen a Japanese exhibition game featuring players from one prefecture (Japan’s version of a state) playing those from another prefecture, kind of like the Florida-Georgia high school all-star game, and the level of play was…well…they seemed to have fun. It was somewhere around lower high-school level. But the Japanese National team was the best of what they had, and their coaching staff wasn’t a bunch of slouches. They’ve obviously done a lot of work studying the US game, and the spread attack they employed allows their smaller but quick players to get the ball in space and make the most of what they have. I don’t know if any teams in the Japanese leagues play smash-mouth football, but with only 1 300lb’er on the whole team, Japan wasn’t going to grind it out against the Irish.

Notre Dame’s “Legends” team, on the other hand, ranged in age from 23 (Thomas Bemenderfer, the most recent graduate) to 52 year old Kris Haines and 51 year old Joe Restic. The average Irish player was around 30. Quarterback, Tony Rice, just turned 42. While it was obvious that the actual Notre Dame team of any year would destroy the Japanese team, the collection of volunteer players Coach Holtz assembled was a bunch of players from different eras, different systems, and I’m sure different levels of fitness. Sure, they had tryouts, and I’m sure they all worked really hard to get back to “playing shape”, but many of the team hadn’t hit anyone in a long time. The younger, fittest players were by definition not the best players from their time, as they aren’t on NFL rosters. I don’t say that to disparage them at all—they played their hearts out, but when Ambrose Wooden would start and play most of the game at quarterback, and Brandon Hoyte is the starting full back (yes, you read that correctly, Irish fans), it shows that you’re at the mercy of who is willing and able to volunteer  when you put together the roster. Rather than anything negative, I’m extremely impressed with and grateful to the players who volunteered their time and energy to coming over here and playing a game. None of them got paid, nor did the coaches. It’s truly remarkable that this many former players and coaches would give up not only a week in Japan, but all the time spent practicing leading up to it, in order to strap it on one last time for Our Lady. Truly inspiring.

Back to the game: the 2nd quarter saw the Irish get on track. As Ryan Roberts would tell me after the game, the defense figured out the Japanese attack by this point, and began to shut them down. Ron Israel picked off a pass, and Jay Vickers, #32, had an 77 yard run to inside the Japan 5 yard line. Tony Rice capped it off with a QB keeper into the endzone, and ND led 7-3. Staying on the ground other than the occasional dump pass, screen, or shovel, the Irish seemed to finally realize their huge size difference and started pushing the Japanese around the field. Scott Cengia tacked on a FG, and ND led 10-3 going into the half.

Amy and I decided to walk around the stadium during halftime, so we sort of missed the “Notre Dame Band” performance. A Japanese marching band in green polo shirts was subbing in for the ND band, and during the game they played the Victory March, When Irish Backs Go Marching By, and a few other stadium favorites. It was nice to hear, even if they didn’t always have the best timing.

The 3rd Quarter started before we got back to our seats, but ND came out of the break and again took it to the Japanese. The 5’11” starting QB, Tetsuo Yakata, was knocked out and their 5’6” backup came in. As Ryan Roberts again would tell me after the game, “You know you need some more height when I’m knocking down your passes” (Ryan would knock down one and get a hand on another). After a brilliant Geoff Price punt downed at the 1 yard line, the Irish D would record some points with a sack in the endzone by Matt Hasbrook. Notre Dame 12, Japan 3. Later in the quarter, Mike Goolsby would intercept a pass and run it back deep into Japanese territory. Jay Vickers, the MVP of the game, would cap off the scoring with a 3 yard TD run to put the Irish Legends up 19-3. Most of the 4th quarter was the Irish defense keeping Japan out of the endzone and the offense running out the clock. Ambrose Wooden played most of the 2nd half at quarterback, and also played corner, pulling an iron man. I believe Brandon Hoyte also played some linebacker, but was mostly a fullback through the game. I think Kris Haines, wearing #1, got into the game a few times, but the Irish only attempted a few passes, and completed VERY few, so I don’t think he had any receptions. To be honest, it was not pretty football at all. Our offense busted a few big plays, and if our RB’s got into the secondary, the Japanese DB’s were simply too small to take them down at times. Our defense played very well once they got a handle on what the Japanese team was doing (Brian Mattes told me Friday night that they had no tape on the Japanese team, and only a vague idea of what sort of team they were). Still, it was an eerily similar feeling to watching an ND-Navy game: ND was so much bigger and faster, but just like the Mids, the Japanese team’s precision and discipline would move them down the field. Fortunately our D would always step up and hold them—Japan missed 2 field goals in the game, and never seriously threatened the endzone. Without a real deep threat, I guess our D was able to just keep the Japanese team in front of them, and hold them when it mattered. I’m glad this “bend but don’t break” strategy worked better for Gary Darnell against Japan than it did when he was DC at Notre Dame.

When the game ended, the players congratulated the Japanese team at midfield, then came over to the “family” section and raised their helmets. Lou was interviewed by Japanese reporters and it was on the jumbotron. There was a presentation of Most Important Player (a WR for Japan) and MVP (Mark Vickers for the Irish), and the trophy for the game was awarded to ND. Amy and I had made our way down to the “student section”, met up with some fellow ND Club of Japan friends and Jessica and Christine from the night before, and enjoyed the last moments of the team on the field. It was a great and wonderful experience that I was sad had to end, but will be great memories for the rest of our lives.

As part of our VIP package, we had tickets to the After-Game party held in the ballroom of the Ritz Carlton hotel, where the team was staying. We went in, I in my #5 ND jersey, and mingled a bit, ate some fantastic food, and watched the game replay on the movie screen they had set up. It was the Japanese TV broadcast, which is probably what you in the US will see broadcast on Aug 10th. Japanese sports announcers are hilarious, especially when you understand them—they get so worked up over the smallest things. You think Brent Musberger emotes during a game? You ain’t seen nothing! After a while, members of both the Japanese team and the Notre Dame team made their way in. The Japanese coach, made some comments. When asked how he felt now that the game had been played and was over, he replied just like any coach would: “I’m disappointed, because we lost.” Lou also got up to speak, and apparently had no idea he was going to be asked to do so, but it was amusing. Amy and I got to catch up with Ryan and Christine and Brian and Jessica again, and got a photo and autograph for my dad from Tony Rice, and a photo with Mike Collins. As the party ended, we were walking out when two guys behind me asked where I’d gotten the game jersey. One of them mentioned “hey, nice number…” so I asked…”are you Ajani Sanders, by chance? We lived on the same floor in Morrissey”. He gave me a high-five and with that, a great day ended.

A few years ago there was a Coca-Cola commercial  that perfectly captured what it was like to be a football fan on the other side of the world. We get up at all hours of the night to travel to the one place we can watch our favorite teams, be it by satellite, slingbox, internet, or whatever. There’s a certain sense of camaraderie you feel, even for opposing rivals, simply because you all love the game so much. I cannot adequately express the admiration and appreciation I feel towards the ND players, coaches, and administration who worked so hard to bring this together and bring Notre Dame football to us here in Japan. Could any other university have conceived of and pulled this off? I doubt it…I really do. Notre Dame is truly a global family—many of our alumni club members here in Japan are Japanese ND law graduates. Notre Dame has alumni clubs in every region in the world, including Iraq. Gimme a month and there will be one in Afghanistan. We do not take our football, and our University, for granted—not that I feel fans and alums in the US do, but it does make me laugh when people complain about a late start time. Try getting up at 3 AM! In all seriousness, the Notre Dame players, coaches, and staff conducted themselves as true ambassadors during their time here, and We, the ND Alums and fans in Japan, give our hearty thanks.

 

GO IRISH!

LOVE THEE NOTRE DAME!!

 

Nate Ledbetter

Class of 1998

Major, US Army