Princeton football head coach Bob Surace likes to email his players—a lot. When you're dealing with roughly 100 18-to-22-year-olds, it's the most efficient way to reach them with important information.
Last summer, Surace sent out an email like he normally does. But on this specific occasion, he purposely buried the important stuff.
"So he emails us one time last year around fall camp," said junior cornerback Anthony Gaffney, an All-Ivy League Honorable Mention. "And then at the bottom, like it was nothing, he writes, 'Oh yeah, by the way, we're going to Japan over spring break.'"
His players thought it was a joke.
"Initially, I didn't think it was true," said Tigers defensive back Alex Ford. "To bring 89 guys across the Pacific? I didn't think that was going to happen."
A Historic Meeting
On March 21st, there was a real, live college football game being played between two opposing sides. Halfway around the world, while the United States slept, Princeton University defeated the Kwansei Gakuin University Fighters in the Legacy Bowl 36-7.
It was a spring game for Princeton, with 350 alumni, mostly located in Tokyo, and about 15 parents in attendance. The Tigers spent three of their 12 designated practices preparing for it. Ultimately, though, it was only part of a bigger picture.
What mattered was the adventure of experiencing another city in another country—Osaka, Japan, 13 time zones away, from March 14 to 22—another culture, different food and a different way of life. With few exceptions, one being Surace, this was the first time anyone in the program had been to Japan.
The history between the two universities actually dates back more than a century when missionaries from Princeton partially founded Kwansei Gakuin. As part of Kwansei Gakuin's 125th anniversary, Princeton was invited back to play the Fighters. The two sides had previously faced each other before in 2001 (a 27-25 Princeton win.) Surace had also made a trip to Japan in 1989 as part of an Ivy League-Japan All-Star game as an offensive lineman.
Once the trip was cleared with the Ivy League and NCAA last summer, Surace told his team—and then promptly dropped the conversation in the months leading up to takeoff.
"I told them in the summer that we were taking this trip, but I didn't talk about it during the season other than [telling them] they had to get their passports," said Surace. "I mentioned it briefly during our end-of-the-season meeting.
"And then a week before we left, I told them what we were going to do."
The team's plane took off from JFK Airport in New York for Tokyo at 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning. Players and coaches were advised not to sleep the night before and get some shuteye on the plane.
That wasn't always possible. Gaffney said he, along with other teammates, prepared for midterms on the flight. Ford, a 5'10" defensive back hampered with a tight hamstring, was packed into a window seat next to a pair of linemen. In coach.
That was for 13 hours en route to Tokyo.
The team had to change planes and fly another hour or so Southwest to Osaka. By the time the team landed and arrived at its hotel, the ANA Crowne Plaza in the Osaka borough of Kobe, it would have been creeping toward midnight in New Jersey.
This wasn't jet lag going from the East Coast of the U.S. to the West Coast. This was turning day into night and night into day. Gaffney said he began adjusting to the time difference a day or two into the trip but hasn't gotten back on schedule since returning to the U.S.
When asked if he ever adjusted to the time difference in Japan, Surace just laughed.
"I don't think I ever got acclimated," Ford added. "Some nights I would go to bed at 8 p.m., other nights at 11 p.m. But I would always be up at 4 a.m."
Sumo Wrestling: 'It's Like the Old Oklahoma Drill'
Where else in the world are you going to see former New York Yankees short stop Derek Jeter and model Hannah Davis? A sumo wrestling tournament in Osaka, of course.
In between practices on Monday, Wednesday and Friday (March 16, 18 and 20), Princeton toured various cities and sites. On Thursday, the 19th, Surace and his players went to the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium for a sumo wrestling tournament. Sitting a few rows—or, box seats—away was Jeter.
And that might not have been the most interesting thing they saw that night, either.
"The sumo wrestling, that was my favorite part," said Ford. "These guys, if they were trained to be offensive linemen, they'd be killing it.
"They were grizzly bears. Nimble, athletic grizzly bears."
If you're an aficionado of big-man touchdowns in college football, you'll love sumo wrestling in Japan. It's a sport of giants—300- and 400-pound men—who are far more athletically gifted than they look, using sheer strength to overpower their opponent. It's the ultimate one-on-one matchup, and there are at least a dozen matches every day for two weeks. Whoever has the best record after the round-robin schedule is complete wins.
As Surace explained, football and wrestling have commonalities that transcend sport and culture.
"It's almost like offense and defensive line play," he said. Indeed, sumo wrestling, like football, is a sport of short bursts of energy.
"They're in a stance, and then there's tremendous contact within about a two-yard space. I don't know if they'd last in a hurry-up, no-huddle offense, but for about three or four seconds, they were amazing athletes.
"It's like the old Oklahoma drill. One guy pushes the other outside the ring or to the ground."
There was also a day trip to the Awaji Earthquake memorial in Kobe and an hour-ride bus trip north to the town of Kyoto, where players shopped and entered a historic Zen temple.
There, players were greeted by a Zen Master and trained to achieve perfect concentration, as explained by running back DiAndre Atwater in Princeton's official blog:
The Zen Master graciously permitted our entire team to enter the temple, and once all 110 of us were seated barefoot on the Temple floor, he began the lesson. To get into the mode of perfect Zen concentration, we had to cross our legs (which some of us haven't been able to do in 10+ years) and relax our minds. We then had the option of letting the Zen Master strike us 4 times with his wooden paddle, to aid in our quest to perfect concentration. In hindsight, we probably shouldn't have let this man practice his wood chopping techniques on our upper vertebrae, but it was all part of the experience.
"The wooden stick is meant to help you find your focus," Gaffney said. "The Zen Master would hit you on the shoulders. It doesn't hurt, but it's a good pop."
Sukiyaki, Ramen and McDonald's
Tokyo has a small English-Japanese language barrier. Osaka, on the other hand, is more traditional. A team of 15 or so translators from Kwansei Gakuin helped guide Princeton everywhere they went.
"They were making sure we got where we needed to go," Surace said.
But Osaka is still Americanized enough for a McDonald's, according to Atwater:
The first few days of Princeton Football's journey to Japan have been exciting to say the least. Upon arrival to our hotel, many players were surprisingly eager to get out and explore the city. While the city of Kobe had a lot of culture to offer on the humid Sunday night, some of us preferred to take refuge under the familiar Golden Arches of a local McDonald's.
There was other "American" food for players as well, like pizza and french fries. That may have been a safe haven for some, but not Ford. "I love Japanese food," he said. Taking a trip to Japan is something he'd wanted to do his entire life. He wasn't about to spend his time eating McNuggets or a Big Mac.
When in Osaka, right?
"The ramen was insane," he said. "I can't eat Cup of Noodles again."
Players dined on everything, everywhere: sushi, ramen and tofu, which, as Ford explained, "was a purplish-gray block in a bowl of murky water. I pushed that to the side." Hibachi restaurants were a popular choice, but Ford's favorite was Sukiyaki, a type of stew in which thinly sliced beef (or other meats) and vegetables are cooked in a Japanese hot pot filled with broth.
The way it's set up, you basically get to cook your own meal.
Each position group from Kwansei Gakuin took its respective Princeton counterparts out on the town. Quarterbacks went with quarterbacks, linemen went with linemen and so on. Following the sumo tournament, the defensive backs from Princeton went out with the defensive backs from Kwansei Gakuin to a restaurant off of the Sannomiya Subway Station in Kobe.
"It's a very lively area, there's a lot going on. The restaurant we went to, you sat on cushions on the ground," Ford said. "It was a great bonding experience, especially since the coaches weren't around."
You wouldn't think about it initially, but the difference in food between the United States and Japan is a big deal for football players. Their diets during the year are closely monitored, but in Osaka, portions are smaller and food is less filling. A snack room had to be set up so players could fill in that extra gap in their stomachs day and night.
"I know I lost at least a few pounds," Ford said.
Competition Is the Same in Every Language
Lest we forget, there was a football game to be played. That's what Princeton was technically over there to do. The Tigers' goal was to beat Japan's version of the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Located in Nishinomiya, part of the greater Osaka area about an hour's plan ride southwest of Tokyo, Kwansei Gakuin has developed one of Japan's best college football programs. In December, the Fighters secured their fourth consecutive collegiate football championship when they defeated Tokyo’s Nihon University Phoenix 55-10.
American football is growing in Japan. Kwansei Gakuin's championship game against Nihon University was played in front of a crowd of 32,000, per Hiroshi Ikezawa the Japan Times. The country has a national team plus a variety of leagues. In January, Kwansei Gakuin played the X-League champion and semi-pro team Fujitsu Frontiers in the Rice Bowl, losing 33-24.
The Legacy Bowl was never that close.
"We were a lot bigger, more physical than them," Gaffney said. "But they're top of the line over there. They're very disciplined."
And, so, there was respect. When the players of Kwansei Gakuin and Princeton came together during the week, they talked about everything: music, movies, girls and, yes, football. "You know, typical stuff," Gaffney said.
At least one player from Kwansei Gakuin spoke enough English to translate. At the end of the day, though, these are college boys with similar interests. And they're all football players.
"No matter the language barrier, the offensive linemen were with the offensive linemen. The quarterbacks were with the quarterbacks," Surace said. "They had a blast together."
Competition binds athletes because it's the same across every language and culture. These are players who have sweat together, hurt together, won together and lost together. They'd look across the table and instantly know that person went through the same experiences themselves.
"They had arm wrestling contests," Surace said. "And then afterward they would be laughing and hugging each other."
"Even after the game, after they lost, there was a great community," Ford added.
In a way, Princeton players were celebrities and were treated as such. "Obviously, we stood out," Gaffney said. "People were looking at us, taking pictures."
Ultimately, Princeton felt it was more starstruck by Japan than the other way around. By all accounts, the people were welcoming, the country was clean and the culture was eye-opening.
"I wanted to put our guys in an experience where they didn't know what was going to happen. Opening your eyes and seeing there's this other world out there, how beautiful it is," Surace explained. "Not one guy complained."
Surace has been to Japan twice, as a player and a coach. Hundreds of Princeton alums have made their home over there. His hope, he says, is that his players were inspired so that one day they'll be courageous enough to expand their own horizons beyond the borders of the U.S.
Ben Kercheval is a Lead Writer for college football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless cited otherwise.