—— Can you tell us about your life as a professional football player?
Currently, there are 81 women’s football teams in the US, and three separate leagues. I belong to the Women’s Professional Football League (WPFL) and am a member of the So Cal Scorpions, San Diego’s franchise. I joined the Scorpions this year after leaving another team the Long Beach Aftershock. This is my sixth season playing in the women’s football league. I was selected to the all-star team each of those years and have also played in the playoffs. Currently, I am the only Japanese player in our league.
The WPFL rules and games are basically the same as the NFL: a game consists of four quarters, each of which lasts fifteen minutes. There are eleven players, on offense and defense players, and the field is 100yardslong. One of the differences between the WPFL and the NFL is that we use a slightly smaller ball than the NFL. Another difference is the roster size. NFL teams have 60 players, while WPFL teams have only 40.
I am a lineman. Basically, what I do is to block the opponent in front of me. I don’t get to run with the ball. I play on both the offensive and defensive lines. This position may appear rather unexciting, but actually it requires physical strength and it is a key position for winning games. It is especially important for the running game. The offensive line is responsible for breaking through the opponent’s defensive line, making a path for the running backs. When we are passing, the linemen help protect the quarterback from the opponent’s rush and allow the quarterback to pass the ball. The offensive line plays an important role in leading the team to victory. I often play against players who may weigh close to 300 pounds, more than twice of my weight. To block such a player, I need to slide my body along her chest and stabilize my lower back, then flip her over.
The Scorpions practice three times a week, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, at the Kroc Center near San Diego State University. The regular season starts in late July and ends in the middle of October. During these fourteen weeks, our team has ten games. (For information about the game dates for this season, see Ms. Suzuki’s profile.)
—— Can you tell us about how you are paid in the WPFL?
We are paid per game. We are not paid for participating in camp. Basically the pay is the same for everyone and it’s not very much. I’d say it’s like the lowest pay in minor league baseball. Although we are professional athletes, most of us have other jobs. Some of my teammates make a living as military personnel, a postal workers, lawyers, police officers, sales people, etc., while others are stay-at-home moms. The team sometimes refers me to a sponsor, but that doesn’t give me any financial stability. So I write articles for Japanese publishers and newspapers to receive extra income. Because I’m in the US on a visa for a professional athlete, I am not allowed to work in any other field. Moreover, football associations in Japan keep an eye on me because I am the first Japanese player in women’s professional football, so it’s out of the question for me to work illegally. (Laughter)
—— When did you start playing football?
When I was thirty. At that time, I worked as an instructor for the Nomura Securities employees’ sports club, teaching swimming, aerobics, and weight training. Before that, I worked for another sports club. When I started working for Nomura, I got to know what typical young female employees’ daily lives were like. After work, they were taking various lessons: flower arrangement, English conversation, aerobics, and so on. That made me want to try something new too, to improve myself.
So, first, I learned how to wear kimono. I chose it because it was certainly a new skill to me that I hadn’t learned before. It was the same as taking swimming lessons that teach you how to swim, giving you a straightforward result. I also took golf lessons, but I didn’t continue because I didn’t like the instructor. He must have thought of me as a girl at a pub or something, always asking out. When I started learning karate, I was once invited to become a professional wrestler. (Laughter)
On one of those days, an acquaintance of mine, who was a member of the Lady Kong in Tokyo, one of only two women’s amateur football teams in Japan, invited me to play with them. I didn’t know anything about football, rules or position names, but I accepted the invitation. I started playing as if it were a lesson or something.
—— What was your attraction to football?
The Lady Kong’s coach said to me, “You don’t have to know the rules. Just attack the opponent in front of you!” So, I just did that in my first game, without thinking too much. But, our team didn’t win. Although I dominated my opponent, our other players were beaten in their match ups. That’s when I came to realize that football was a team sport as well as a series of individual matches. For example, if you don’t believe you can defeat your opponent because she is too big, you can double-team her. That creates the need for teamwork between you and your teammates. Another point is that although you block your opponents, if the ball carrier doesn’t run through the goal, your team can’t score a point. Football is a precise sport that requires strategy upon strategy. Although you’ve developed a perfect strategy, you may lose if your opponent has a better one. As I gained a better understanding of the rules, I grew more attracted to football, which has so many things to learn.
I got hooked on football. I wanted to participate in devising strategies and teaching younger generations as a coach. I also had confidence that my team would win if I were its leader. As a result, I served as position leader in 1996, my second year with the Lady Kong, and became our teams vice-captain in 1997. In 1998, I was promoted to captain, as an offensive guard and a defensive tackle. The next year, I also started serving as a coach and coordinator while still a player.
—— Can you tell us how and why you joined the professional league?
When the sponsor of the Lady Kong, an insurance company, withdrew its sponsorship, I ended up becoming the owner of the team. After I took over the team, we won all the games against the Osaka Wildcats. Still, I didn’t feel that was enough. Around that time, I heard the news that a new league for women’s professional football had started. I was impressed because football had exclusively been men’s territory. I wanted the Lady Kong to play games against American teams, so I checked out the league’s website, only finding information about the tryouts. I wanted to talk directly to someone from the league, so I went to Atlanta where the final stage of a tryout took place. But, for some reason, I ended up trying out myself and playing in a demonstration game.
After the game, I learned that I had passed the tryout when the owner of the Daytona Beach Barracudas suggested I join the team. Upon returning to Japan, I was interviewed by a reporter from the Jiji Press at Narita Airport. The next morning, on the front page of the newspaper, the headline read: “Hiroko Suzuki passes a tryout for an American football team.” The next thing I knew I was being bombarded by requests for TV and magazine interviews. I never really had the chance to say, “Actually, I haven’t decided to go to the US yet....” Even my employer supported the idea of my going to the US. So, I made up my mind, with the intention of playing in the all-star game, and came to the US in 2000.
—— What is the impact of football on American culture?
Football is a part of American life. For example, Gatorade was created in the 1960s out of the desire to “aid” the Gators, the University of Florida’s weak football team. This world’s first sports drink was invented by a urologist at the University. Also, training machines were first developed for football players so that they could work on their bodies during the off-season. Today, health clubs and training equipment play a role in promoting healthy lifestyles among people in general.
Another point is that football was actually created for live TV broadcasts. Every year, more than 40% of the TV viewers, or one out of two Americans watches the Super Bowl on TV, making it a national event. There are several breaks during a game, so it is easy to insert commercials into the broadcast. The rules have also been modified to suit TV. Football is an indispensable part of many parties, including the teams, the TV stations, the advertisers, and the viewers who sit at home and watch televised games while eating potato chips on Sunday afternoons. Moreover, special computer graphics techniques have been created for use in football broadcasts. These include techniques for simulating plays from different angles and projecting graphics on the field that do not overlap people or things. Today, such techniques are applied in various fields.
—— What are the differences between Japan and the US that you have noticed?
In the US, techniques for promoting sports are more sophisticated. When I was with the Arizona Caliente, a MLB player Randy Johnson gave us some of his autographed caps and uniforms to auction off to raise funds for our team. Also, before Christmas, we worked in the gift wrapping department at a Wal-Mart. Although our main goal was to raise money for a charity for less fortunate children, the activity also helped us advertise the team because of the local media coverage. Wal-Mart gave us a check as a sponsor in addition to making a donation to the charity. It was a form of their contribution to society, which also helped improve its corporate image. Meanwhile, the charity gave us a list of what they needed, like, “we need corn cans, but not tuna cans.” It was very practical. In Japan, even baseball teams face the risk of being disbanded these days. Still, the Japanese sports industry tends to rely only on corporate sponsors. To be successful in promoting a sport, finding a market is what matters most. I believe sports marketing will be more in demand in Japan in the future. It helps you learn how to popularize the sport and how to raise funds for it.
—— What’s your mission?
During the off-season, I teach flag football to Japanese elementary school children. It is an easy and safe sport adopting the rules of regular football. In a flag football game, you stop your opponent by removing the long, thin flag hanging from their waists, instead of tackling. The children do everything by themselves, including designing plays on the field. One example of a strategy is that players with outstanding athletic ability receive the first three passes. Then, the “commander” or the brains of the team tells a slower, less athletic player that a fourth pass will go to him because he has not been marked. That player might score a touchdown after having set up the play. It is very possible. Also, when an opponent is running fast, it’s more likely that a less athletic player will pull his flag, rather than an agile player who is able to chase him. In short, this proves that every player has a role in the game. I believe it is important to teach children before they grow up and start working that society functions when the right people do their jobs in the right places. I’d like to do my part in teaching children that concept through football. Such a role is the right job for me…. I’ve taught mainly at the elementary school that I graduated from. In the near future, I’d also like to visit other elementary schools all over Japan.
—— What are your future goals?
I still dream of making the Lady Kong in Japan, of which I am the owner, a member of an American professional league. There are quite a few Japanese women who would like to become professional players. Yet, they haven’t been successful. To help their dreams come true, I plan on founding a football school for women, but first I need to find a sponsor.
Another thing is that last year I enrolled at Yashima Gakuen University, which offers e-learning. There, I’ve been studying theories of how to contribute to society through sports. A recent change in the Japanese education code allows students to receive college degrees through Internet learning. This enables an athlete like me to take courses. To take an exam, I sit in front of my computer at a given time. Because of the time difference between Japan and the US, I may take an exam in the middle of the night. I’ll definitely get my degree so that I can popularize the “right person in the right place” approach to teaching in elementary schools, which has not been applied in Japanese physical education. I’d like to promote education which each child is realized as unique and original.
—— Any message for your fans who watch you play?
Among the sports with a Japanese presence, major league baseball is the most glamorous and there are many Japanese players. By contrast, football is not as popular in Japan and, I admit, people pay even less attention to women’s football. Yet, I keep persevering in one of America’s most popular sports as the only Japanese female player. You don’t have to know the all rules to enjoy it. Please come on out and watch our games with your American friends. When they see me play they’ll say, “Great! That Japanese player is pretty good.” I’m sure they will!