When people around the world hear the term “football,” they usually think about the sport that involves midfielders and strikers, not the one that involves quarterbacks and wide receivers.
Japan, however, was the world’s best country for men’s tackle football outside of the United States this past year, and the Ivy League has taken notice. In partnership with the Japan’s National Football Association (NFA), players from all eight Ivy League institutions competed against Japanese football players from the country’s X-League in the first-ever Japan-U.S. Dream Bowl.
Seven seniors represented Princeton in the game, including defensive linemen Michael Azevedo and James Stagg, defensive backs Dawson De Iuliis and CJ Wall, linebacker Ike Hall, punter Will Powers, and offensive lineman Connor Scaglione.
On Saturday, Jan. 21 at 11 p.m. EST, the Dream Bowl began in Tokyo’s National Stadium, which was previously used for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games. This was the first football event between the Ivy League and Japan since the Ivy Epson Bowl in 1996.
For everyone involved, the Dream Bowl represented not only a game, but also progress for Japanese sports.
“It is important for us to invite an American team to Japan each year,” explained Riichiro Fukahori, commissioner of the NFA, in an interview with the Japan Times. “I think it is important to take this kind of challenge each year to see where your level is, or at least where you stand.”
The players who were invited viewed their selection as a huge privilege.
“It was an honor to be chosen to represent the Ivy League and the U.S. and certainly something that I will remember forever,” De Iulis told The Daily Princetonian.
Hall, a late addition to the team, shared similar sentiments.
“They let me know just a week before the trip, so I was ecstatic to get that news,” said Hall. “I felt honored and blessed to get this opportunity with the Ivy League to play football internationally.”
For the participating Ivy League players, the Dream Bowl also gave them a chance to explore Japan. In between practices, players explored the city of Kamakura and met U.S. officials at the United States Embassy.
“Visiting Japan can leave you speechless,” Hall added. “The people have such strong spirits, and their creativity is boundless. They’re amazingly gracious and kind to foreigners who can be rather clueless.”
Led by Columbia head coach Al Bagnoli, the representing Tigers were challenged by new coaches as well as entirely new teammates, but, according to De Iuliis, adapting was not difficult.
“I feel like we developed some lifelong friendships [with other Ivy league players],” said De Iuliis. “I also really enjoyed working with the Columbia coaching staff. It was tough to bring a team together with only four practices, but they did an outstanding job.”
The Dream Bowl itself was a close game, but the Ivy League prevailed over the X-League in a 24–20 victory.
Following a 30-yard field goal by the X-League’s Saeki Shintaro to open the scoring, Brown running back Allen Smith gave the Ivy League the 7–3 lead with a one-yard touchdown. The Ivy League would hold on to the lead thanks to a three-yard touchdown by Penn running back Isaiah Malcome, and a 26-yard field goal by Columbia kicker Alex Felkins.
However, the X-League proved to be a tough opponent, managing to take a lead late in the third quarter from a one-yard run by Trashaun Nixon and a successful two-point conversion.
“The Japanese team played with relentless vigor and intensity every play,” Hall said. “I was impressed with not only their heart, but their precision.”
With four minutes to spare in the fourth quarter, Penn quarterback Ryan Glover scored the winning touchdown, giving the Ivy squad the victory. Though the X-League lost, the future looks bright for Japanese football.
“The close score of our game says a lot about the progress that has been made over the years, especially in a country where football is far from the top sport like it is in the U.S.,” said De Iuliis. “I think football will continue to improve [in Japan] as time goes on.”
Brian Mhando is an associate editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.