On a hot summer day in late August, Akihito Yamada finished up rugby practice with the Panasonic Wild Knights and headed straight to Yokohama Stadium, where he strapped on a football helmet and made his gridiron debut with Nojima Sagamihara Rise.
Yamada is the first Japanese athlete to juggle careers in both rugby and football. And he says his goal is to make the national team for both sports.
The 27-year-old Yamada is a wing for Panasonic in the Top League. Starting this spring, he also joined football team Nojima Sagamihara Rise in the East Division of the X League as a returner.
A day after his Aug. 31 X League debut in Yokohama, the versatile Yamada played a full 80 minutes of a rugby match for the Wild Knights. He ended up being the driving force behind the team’s victory that day, having made two tries.
“I had to do it, because I can’t use my double role as an excuse,” Yamada told reporters after the game with a big smile on his face.
To deal with the crashing physical contact in football, Yamada gained 5 kilograms to weigh in at 88 kg. But he’s capitalizing on the synergy from the two sports.
“Thanks to American football, I can now see the grounds three-dimensionally,” Yamada said. “I gained weight, but I feel three or four kilograms lighter when I’m not wearing shoulder pads.”
Yamada, who began rugby at age 5, took an interest in football through a gym he was training at while attending Keio University, and decided he wanted to “do something that no one else had done.” Panasonic agreed to let Yamada juggle both sports when he agreed to give priority to rugby when football and rugby games fell on the same day. Yamada is risking injuries, but he won’t let that get in the way.
“To get something, you have to give something up,” he said. “I’m happy to have two challenges.”
Yamada has less than six months of experience in football, but he says it was easy for him to adjust to the position of punt and kick returner, which specializes in zigzag running.
“You can tell from his day-to-day work ethic that he gives everything his best,” said Sagamihara Rise head coach Takayuki Sunaga. “I hope he becomes the stimulus that boosts us to become the best team in Japan.”
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