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TOP > What’s New > Feature: School’s link to Lixil allows English teaching LB Bryant to gain place in X-League history book

What’s New

Feature: School’s link to Lixil allows English teaching LB Bryant to gain place in X-League history book

’18.05.18

New Lixil linebacker Derrick Bryant moves into for a tackle against the Bulls during the second quarter of their game on April 21. (photo by MI Planning)

 

 

By Ken Marantz

 

When Derrick Bryant left the United States to take a job teaching English in Japan, he thought he had left his football career behind as well. Little did he know he would not only get a chance to resume playing, but also earn a place in Japanese football history.

 

By taking the field as a linebacker for the Lixil Deers for their opening game of the Pearl Bowl tournament last month, Bryant became the first-ever foreign player for a team that was established in 1989 and has two league and national championships to its credit.

 

“A pioneer? Put the pressure on me,” Bryant said with a laugh when asked about his historic role with the Deers, following a 53-0 rout of the Bulls Football Club on April 21. “I appreciate it. I’m grateful for the opportunity. It’s a blessing.”

 

Bryant had last strapped on the pads in 2016 for the University of Indianapolis, an NCAA Division II school where he was a two-time first-team selection in the Great Lakes Valley Conference and finished his four years with 313 tackles, including 28 for a loss with nine sacks.

 

An attempt to make the NFL did not pan out, and the South Holland, Ill., native landed the first full-time job of his life with Freecom, an English-language school chain. What he did not know at the time was the link that the company has with several Japanese sports teams, which includes Lixil as well as basketball’s Sendai 49ers and soccer’s Iwaki FC. He repeatedly expressed his gratitude for being given the chance.

 

“I actually tried for the NFL, but things didn’t go so well,” Bryant said. “I was like, ‘OK, football is over with. That chapter is closed. Go on to the next chapter.’ I came out here to teach, and they opened up an opportunity for me to come play. It’s a blessing, I’m thankful.”

 

Bryant’s reaction to hearing about Japanese football was fairly typical: “I didn’t [know about it] until they presented me with the opportunity. They said, ‘You can play football.’ I was like, ‘Japan has football? Really?’”

 

It has long been a testament to the high standards and discipline instilled by longtime former head coach Kiyoyuki Mori that Lixil managed to remain among the league’s top teams without using foreign imports, which have propelled the Fujitsu Frontiers, Obic Seagulls, Panasonic Impulse and IBM BigBlue into the upper echelons.

 

Current head coach Hajime Tominaga said the team never had a policy of not accepting foreigners. The main sticking point was a sort of chicken-and–egg situation, in which players had to first have a job in Japan before being able to join the team.

 

“It just happened that he came to Japan as an English teacher and was introduced to us,” Tominaga said. “Up to now, we have not been closed to the idea. But he is already working, so it was OK. That’s our team philosophy.”

 

After seeing film of Bryant and bringing him in for a tryout, Tominaga and the front office gave the green light.

 

In his first outing against the Bulls, Bryant saw limited action, but still managed to chalk up 2 1/2 tackles for a defense that held its overmatched opponent to just 52 total yards.

 

“It was just fun being out there,” Bryant said. “If I play one play, I would have been satisfied. Of course, first game, you’re going to make some mistakes. But we just go back to the drawing board and fix them and come back the next week and do what we have to do.”

 

The competition gets stiffer from here on, as the Deers face the rapidly improving All Mitsubishi Lions in the final group game on May 19 at Fujitsu Stadium Kawasaki. The winner will earn a place in the semifinals.

 

The Deers have won eight Pearl Bowl titles, with the most recent coming in 2013 while they were still under the sponsorship of Kashima. They made the final in 2016, but suffered a heartbreaking 21-20 loss to IBM.

 

One question that Tominaga and his staff will have to answer is where exactly they want to use Bryant. At UIndy, he played both middle linebacker and weakside linebacker, as well as some defensive line, and was listed as a safety for his NFL tryout.

 

At 1.80 meters, 90 kilograms, Bryant isn’t overly big, even by X-League standards. He is comparable in size to IBM middle linebacker Kevin Coghlan.

 

“What to do?” Tominaga replied when asked about it. “Honestly speaking, on where is it best to play him, we haven’t really decided yet. At the extreme, we think he can play any position, and will use him at the one that brings out the best in him.”

 

For his part, Bryant, who starred at the same Mount Carmel (Ill.) High School that produced NFL stars Donovan McNabb and Simeon Rice, is so grateful to be playing again, it is immaterial which part of the field he mans.

 

“Wherever I can get on the field, I’m happy, I’m satisfied,” he said. “I’ve been out of the game for about a year and a half. Once you’re out of the game, you realize how much you care about the game…Anywhere that the team needs me. If I have to be the best waterboy, I’ll do whatever it takes.”

 

While he teaches English off the field, Bryant has to deal with communication issues on it. But he said his teammates have been helpful in overcoming the language barrier.

 

“They help me out a lot,” he said. “I’m the only foreigner, so communication is difficult sometimes. But there are a few players who speak English, and I can’t thank them enough. They do a lot for me, help me out in different areas.”

 

Outside of his two jobs, Bryant is getting to experience both the plusses and minuses of living in a dynamic but crowded city like Tokyo.

 

“I notice that Japan is very busy, especially in the morning. You find yourself crammed on the trains,” he said. “Overall, Japan is a great country and I love it. The only problem is the food size. The food size is a little small, but I can deal with that.”

 

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